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Don't link campaign finance to contract reforms

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is shown in

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is shown in this undated photo. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It has become clear that Nassau County's contracting process is a cesspool. Recent investigations by Newsday and the Nassau County district attorney have turned up piles of county contracts for just under the $25,000 limit that triggers legislative approval, often to politically connected people and sometimes for unneeded work.

Newsday's stories followed the federal indictment of state Sen. Dean Skelos, who is accused of improperly getting the county to award a $12 million contract for sponges in storm sewers in return for a no-show job for his son. Besides the taint of favoritism, there is also the issue of bad management. The county has practically no system to track or organize contracts or make sure taxpayers actually got what they paid for.

Now, a panel appointed by County Executive Edward Mangano has come up with some good ideas on how to drain that nasty tank. In fact, these improvements are so clearly a matter of common sense that it's hard to read the recommendations and not be disturbed that the county didn't adopt them 50 years ago. But this doesn't mean that real change will be easy or quick.

The panel's suggestions, based on best practices, include ways to guard against a return of the pay-to-play culture. Among them:

Hiring a director of procurement who is isolated from the political process to oversee background checks, transparency, bid requests and contractor disclosures.

Hiring an internal auditor to ensure contracts are fulfilled.

Requiring widespread and timely public disclosure of the contracting process and bids.

Creating a system in which political contributions to local political parties or to candidates for county office are limited and transparent.

Mangano says he's on board with the recommendations of the panel, which was led by former Nasdaq chairman Frank Zarb, the original head of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. However -- and this is a big departure -- Mangano is considering attaching the idea of public financing of county elections, which was not in the recommendations of the committee, which also included Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz and former KeySpan Corp. chairman Robert Catell.

Mangano might introduce public campaign financing in a single bill with the vendor donation limits. That's a bad idea that would likely get donation limits defeated. And the fact that Mangano introduced this new way of financing campaigns as the money from county vendors disappears suggests just how crucial the link between government contracts and campaign contributions is to politicians.

Mangano can create the two new positions without legislative approval: He should do so immediately. He should also put the limit on vendor contributions to a vote by the legislature before November's elections. If he wants to introduce campaign financing, too, that's fine, but it shouldn't be directly linked to the much-needed anti-corruption reforms.