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OpinionEditorial

The Island of double-dippers

Town of Hempstead town hall on Sept. 3,

Town of Hempstead town hall on Sept. 3, 2019 in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Welcome to Town of Hempstead government, where a week can begin with one conflict-of-interest scandal and end up with another. It's where the art of war as waged by the town board overtakes the need to make decisions that are best for residents.

And above all, it's a town where taxpayer-funded jobs and contracts continue to be bountiful for the politically well-connected.

After all, who can't do two or three jobs at a time?

Start with Dominick Longobardi, the mayor of Floral Park, who recently became Hempstead's acting comptroller, a job that, unlike his previous deputy comptroller position with the town, comes with fiscal decision-making authority and the power to sign off on budgets, contracts and other financial paperwork.

Under state and municipal law, he's allowed to be mayor of a village and comptroller of the town that includes the village. That's bad policy. There is a great risk of ethical conflicts in his attempt to do both jobs. What happens when there are dollars to allocate to community centers, parks or other needs? Will Floral Park get the spoils?

And there are larger issues, like the development of Belmont Park, which Supervisor Laura Gillen supports. Longobardi's village sued last week  to stop the development. The town has limited say on Belmont; nonetheless, it has an agreement with the developers, who plan to pay for the renovation of two town parks. As town comptroller, would Longobardi sign off on any financial transactions he might have jurisdiction over that could boost the Belmont project and town parks, or would he stymie those efforts? 

Longobardi told Newsday's editorial board that he'd do both his village job and his town job "to the best of my ability," and said he's not concerned about potential conflicts.

He should be concerned, and so should the Hempstead Town Board. But Republicans who control the board are trying to have it both ways. They say their loyal soldier, Longobardi, isn't conflicted, but the woman he replaced, well-qualified certified public accountant Averil Smith, was conflicted because she would continue to serve as town finance director under Gillen, the Democratic supervisor. 

The notion that Smith was conflicted but Longobardi is not is   absurd. Gillen and the town board should choose an alternative to serve as acting comptroller and quickly find a permanent replacement who has the qualifications and lacks conflicts of interest. In the meantime, Longobardi must recuse himself on town action that's relevant to Floral Park or the Belmont project.  

And let's not forget what got the town board in this pickle in the first place: Former Comptroller Kevin Conroy retired last month  after he came under fire for  extending a sweetheart contract to Dover Gourmet Corp. to operate Malibu Beach Park, a deal that is under state and federal investigation. Does the GOP-controlled board really want to go down this perilous road again?

Yet all of this, amazingly, is not the most egregious example of double-dipping and controversy in Hempstead this month alone. That distinction goes to Hempstead Deputy Building Commissioner John Novello, who was indicted earlier this month on grand larceny charges after he was accused of stealing nearly $60,000 from the Cedarhurst Republican Club. 

Until June, Novello, too, held two public jobs. Besides his full-time position with the town, which earned him about $135,000 annually, he also served as chief of staff to Republican Assemb. Melissa Miller in what was called a "temporary" job, earning him about $12,000 a year. On top of that, he had an architectural firm, which town officials said did business with Hempstead.

The questions are simple. How could Novello hold a full-time job with the town and a part-time job with the state at the same time? And how did he manage to do both on top of running his firm and running the local GOP club he is accused of stealing from?  It must be difficult to keep the roles, and any conflicts among them, straight.    

 And Novello's not the only one to balance town and state jobs simultaneously. Christopher Cianciulli, who works full time as the Hempstead Town Board's chief of staff, also serves as a "temporary" part-time special assistant to Assemb. Edward Ra, also a Republican, according to payroll records.   

The craziness  has to end. Gillen's call for a state monitor to oversee and investigate Hempstead's building department — stemming from the town's mishandling of the recovery from superstorm Sandy  — is only a baby step. New laws — perhaps on the state level, since the town  isn't likely to approve them — to bar full-time employees from working multiple government jobs should be considered. Strict recusal guidelines and mandatory disclosure of potential conflicts by public employees are needed.

Double-dipping and political job giveaways  aren't new. And although they aren't limited to this town or to the Republican Party, they always have been and continue to be particularly corrosive problems in Hempstead.

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