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Union leader says supervisor threw department under plow

A small bobcat works to clear West 4th

A small bobcat works to clear West 4th Street in Ronkonkoma. The road was passable only to 4-wheel drive vehicles. (Feb. 11, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

The head of the union for Brookhaven Highway Department rank-and-file workers challenged Supervisor Edward P. Romaine's assertion that the group botched last week's blizzard cleanup.

Romaine said Thursday that the highway department is not under the town board's control. But Wally Greene, president of the town highway department union and a member of the Civil Service Employees Association, said Town Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico visited the department the day before the blizzard, took control of the unit, and led the entire storm recovery effort.

"They can say they weren't in charge, but they were in charge the whole time," Greene said. "Panico didn't have the experience to try and run the department."

Both Romaine and Panico denied that town officials were running the department. Romaine declined to comment further. Panico said he did not take control, but if he had not worked with highway officials "we would still be digging ourselves out."

Romaine was criticized for being on vacation in Jamaica during the blizzard, which stranded cars on snow-laden roads and kept people stuck in their homes. After he returned, he said at a news conference Thursday that he had been in touch while away and managed operations through his staff. "I don't drive a snowplow, and the highway department is not under my direct control or supervision," he said then.

He blamed the highway department for the slow cleanup and said town voters rejected efforts to make the highway superintendent an appointed position and create a new public works department that would include highway operations.

Greene said Romaine should not have left town on Feb. 6 as there were already warnings about an approaching storm. "He left and acted like it didn't mean anything," Greene said.

About 30 inches fell in some areas during the Feb. 8-9 storm.

Since the blizzard, acting highway department Superintendent Michael Murphy has resigned. Greene said highway officials told him Murphy missed the storm because of a root canal and a family emergency. "Highway workers believe Murphy was the scapegoat," Greene said. Murphy has not returned calls for comment.

Greene said 230 highway and at least 200 contract workers helped during the storm over seven straight days. "If you think it's that easy, walk in our shoes and drive a snowplow truck," he challenged Romaine.

"The upsetting part is we're the front line of the storm. We didn't drop the ball. The ball dropped on us in an unprecedented storm. You can't blame anyone; we can't control Mother Nature," Greene said.

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