David Mack is Nassau County's representative on the MTA board.

David Mack is Nassau County's representative on the MTA board. Credit: Patrick McCarthy

The story begins during a closed-door meeting in the office of Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Janno Lieber, early in the morning on June 29. In burst MTA board member David Mack, demanding to talk to Lieber.

Moments later, Lieber and Mack, who represents Nassau County, met outside Lieber's office. Tempers flared as Mack first demanded an MTA police placard for his car, then complained that Lieber chose someone other than Mack's pick for MTA police chief, then angrily critiqued Lieber for picking new Suffolk representative Sammy Chu to head the commuter railroads committee instead of Mack himself.

One witness described Mack as "unhinged." And when he didn't get anywhere with his three issues, Mack closed with a veiled threat and raised his middle finger at the MTA chief, according to the witness.

Later that morning, Mack and Lieber sat around the same large table for the MTA's monthly board meeting. Mack, who rarely speaks up in these sessions, even on controversial or local issues, was unusually talkative, at times pointedly, jabbing at Lieber and others.

The ugly interaction took an uglier political turn just a week later, when Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who had reappointed Mack, wrote a letter to Lieber incorrectly suggesting Mack had been removed from the railroads committee leadership position and asking Lieber to install Mack as co-chair.

Blakeman called Mack "a passionate, outspoken and sound presence." Well, sure, if being passionate about police placards, which essentially allow holders to ignore many parking restrictions, is what Blakeman had in mind.

Lieber responded with a letter of his own, reminding Blakeman that Mack already chairs the bridges and tunnels committee, that he hadn't been removed from any position, and that Mack's recent meeting comments were "out of place," since Mack had missed meetings on the very topic he was attempting to address.

This is much more than gossipy grand palace intrigue. The MTA board has become an increasingly important group of professionals whose actions deeply affect the Island's commuters. Their livestreamed meetings, which often include extensive public comment, are forums for meaningful discussions and decision-making. Nassau riders depend on Mack — one of two Long Island-based voting members, and a regular attendee but rare participant — to be their voice.

This recent saga also illustrates a long-running concern — the toxic influence of electoral politics on state authority boards. That's not a new issue for the MTA board, which last year included gubernatorial picks like Larry Schwartz and Linda Lacewell, officials seemingly there more to speak for their political benefactor (in their case, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo) than to contribute professional knowledge or expertise for the rider's good. Who appoints whom always will be part of the equation, but the board's makeup shifted significantly this year. Several state and local public officials chose appointees with actual professional skill sets, rather than those merely ready to be politically loyal.

Mack, however, is a creature of Nassau politics, emphasizing in a recent interview his "access to friends in government," which he thinks gives him an edge. And while he says he cares about Long Island Rail Road issues, like having its own president or changing Port Washington branch service, the recent confrontation shows that personal affronts and political relationships are more likely to energize him. 

Who does that best serve? The MTA? The LIRR? Nassau County riders? 

Or David Mack himself? 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.