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Judi Bosworth appoints building department chief for North Hempstead

John Niewender, the new building commissioner for the

John Niewender, the new building commissioner for the Town of North Hempstead on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 in Manhasset. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Judi Bosworth, who promised a more "user-friendly" building department while campaigning last year for North Hempstead supervisor, has chosen a veteran town employee to run the once scandal-plagued department.

Bosworth has named acting Deputy Building Commissioner John Niewender, 55, to the top spot after a six-month search.

He succeeds interim Commissioner Michael Levine -- also the town's planning commissioner -- who took over after Kevin Cronin announced in March that he was stepping down in May. Cronin took office in 2008 after a corruption scandal.

The town's building department has been criticized in recent years for handling applications too slowly. A scandal in 2007 rocked the department, leading to five arrests. Ex-commissioner David Wasserman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail. Nassau County prosecutors said officials approved permits without the required inspections in exchange for favors.

Niewender -- who has worked in the department for nearly 11 years, beginning as a zoning inspector -- said he wants to address the perception that "this is the big, bad building department that everyone reads about."

Procedures that followed the scandal slowed the application process, and then-town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said in 2012 that his aim was for the department to become "strict as hell, but kinder and gentler."

Post-scandal, the department had become "probably the worst, if not really close to the worst, building department of any of the towns on Long Island," said Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute in Islandia, based on conversations with builders.

"They went from being very loose to very strict, and a building department cannot be either," Pally said. "North Hempstead went far beyond to the totally strict area, and as a result of that many homeowners and many builders got caught up in a labyrinth of delays, restrictions, rejections and everything else, and as a result of that many people no longer wanted to do business in North Hempstead."

Bosworth, a Democrat, said she has allocated funding to hire more staff to help customers review plans.

An internal hire could effect change more immediately "without having to spend time learning what the problems have been," Pally said.

Dina De Giorgio, a Republican councilwoman who opposed Bosworth in the 2013 supervisor election and also campaigned to reform the department, said she supports Bosworth's pick. "I still think we need to work on the process, and we need to move applications more quickly."

Bosworth said Niewender has "the leadership ability, understands the challenges," and "has the respect of the people in the department."

Pally acknowledged the search process was lengthy.

"No question, it was frustrating for everybody," Pally said. But "the hope is that the frustration will fade away as significant progress will be made quickly. We can only hope."

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