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EDITORIAL: Levy should rethink his style

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy addresses the Student

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy addresses the Student Congress for Justice, in Holbrook. (Nov. 6, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

The job this year for incumbent County Executive Steve Levy in Suffolk is not to put together a new government and create relationships. It's to repair some of the bridges he's burned in his first six years - and to juggle a precarious budget.

By now, Levy has a firm grasp of the levers of county government. As the new year begins and Levy casts an eager eye to Albany, he would be wise to think about ways of improving his approach to governing.

For starters, there's the matter of style. Levy believes that the voters want him to be a fighter, but he has waged so many battles so fiercely that he can no longer count on his fellow Democrats, who will still control the county legislature, for support.

The closing days of 2009 brought new evidence of that friction, on the issue of Levy's handling of the police department: saving money by removing county police from major highway patrol duties and replacing them with deputy sheriffs, and other reassignments. Legislators think he emphasizes frugality over public safety.

So now they propose a drastic move: changing the county charter so the police commissioner would have a five-year fixed term, and no longer serve at the pleasure of the county executive. Their goal is to make the commissioner less beholden to Levy and more answerable to lawmakers.

Levy says this would hurt his ability to control the budget. On the facts, he's right. It would revive the days when the commissioner had a fixed term and was too vulnerable to the whims of a legislative majority. He'd have 18 bosses - with Levy, 19.

But on the politics, he's wrong. His scorched-earth style has created too many enemies. This legislation seems very likely to pass. Levy will veto it. But can he temper his approach enough to find common ground on police and other thorny issues?

Levy routinely does a good job of making budget cuts early in the year to deal with revenue shortfalls. He'll probably have to do the same this year. But if he wants to run statewide, he'll also have to show that he can make friends as well as enemies, and that he has the breadth for a wider role.

This year, his overarching task is to figure out how to stay both feisty and frugal, but avoid alienating so many other officials that he can't deliver for the county. hN