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Laura Gillen for Hempstead supervisor

Town of Hempstead Supervisor candidate Laura Gillen.

Town of Hempstead Supervisor candidate Laura Gillen. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Anthony Santino was given the keys to the kingdom. Unfortunately, in his first two years as Town of Hempstead supervisor, a job he coveted for decades, Santino slammed the door shut behind him.

After Kate Murray made the ill-fated decision to run for district attorney in 2015, the way was cleared for Santino, a longtime board member and a Republican Party official to take charge. And he did, like a dictator.

His open feuds with fellow GOP board members have exposed the seamier workings of town government. Santino does not consult with some board members and gives them little opportunity for input. He has used his gavel and control over the microphone at public meetings to shut down debate. Still, Santino, 56, of East Rockaway, has stabilized finances after his predecessor eliminated almost all of the reserves. He also has cut the town payroll by 7 percent and reduced overtime. The budget is in better shape, although the bond rating is still too low.

Santino is also taking a stab at long overdue ethics reform, but it hardly goes far enough. He won’t bar officers of political parties from holding town jobs, set limits on campaign donations or end the involvement of employees in selling tickets to fundraisers or making donations, expected tithes in a town that anchors Nassau County’s GOP machine. In the Hempstead IDA debacle over tax breaks for the Green Acres Mall, Santino called for the IDA board to resign and new members were appointed. However, Fred Parola, the IDA’s executive director, somehow escaped responsibility. Parola, a powerful party elder, heads the Wantagh GOP club.

Although Santino denies it, his proposal to limit board members to $125,000 in outside income is targeted to get rid of Erin King Sweeney and Bruce Blakeman, who are attorneys. Santino’s refusal to move forward on a Merrick park-to-playground proposal seems more like a childish way to retaliate against a Sweeney initiative.

Santino said, in hindsight, council member Anthony D’Esposito’s vote to approve a $2,500 raise for his mother, who works in the highway department, was “something that should have been dealt with.” There are five D’Espositos on the town payroll, including Stephen, Santino’s chief of staff and a GOP leader in Island Park.

Laura Gillen, an attorney specializing in commercial litigation, is one of the most knowledgeable and forceful challengers to Hempstead’s established regime. A Democrat, she criticizes Santino’s failure to make town government more transparent, his embrace of the patronage patriarchy and lack of a stronger ethics code.

Instead, Gillen, 46, of Rockville Centre, promises more oversight by putting an independent inspector general in place and websites where taxpayers can view vendor contracts, town payments and political contributions by vendors. Gillen said she will partner with Nassau County to jump-start development of the Hub. Noting that the Grand Avenue redevelopment plan in Baldwin is 17 years behind schedule, she pledges to make it a priority.

On her Facebook page, Gillen tells town workers their jobs will not be in jeopardy if she is elected. “Tony will never know how you vote!” is one of her recurring messages. It’s witty but troubling. Hempstead, with a population of 760,000 and an annual budget of $418 million, is one of the largest municipalities in the state. It can’t be run from a backroom. A century has passed since Hempstead established its supervisor post. Members of the same political party have held that position for 100 years. It’s time for something different.

Newsday endorses Gillen.