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Nassau County needs to end ‘pay to play’ culture

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, during a Nassau

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, during a Nassau County Police Department graduation ceremony at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. 61 police graduates were honored during the ceremony for completing 6 months of intense basic training at the Nassau County Police Academy.. Credit: Barry Sloan

It’s easy to get politicians to talk about curbing corruption and improving contract procedures when they’re pushed. But when push comes to shove, it’s very hard to get them to make real changes — particularly in Nassau County.

Last week, county attorney Carnell Foskey issued a memo to the Nassau legislature that said public campaign financing would be too costly for a county with a budget crisis. Nassau is certainly that. But no one at the county complex seems to have brought up empty coffers when legislators proposed to give themselves 75 percent raises, a move that will be up for a vote Christmas week, when practically no one is paying attention to governance. Nor were fiscal alarms sounded by the administration when the legislature increased the budget county politicians draw from to send highly political, self-congratulatory and occasionally outright dishonest fliers to taxpayers. It’s true that Nassau is drowning in debt, but the county is also festering with patronage, and it would be worth paying the fair price public campaign financing would cost to disperse the stench, particularly if the voters agreed.

This year was full of news about Nassau contracts awarded shadily. A shocking percentage were for amounts just under $25,000 that did not require legislative approval. Some appeared to be for unnecessary services. One was the $12 million AbTech Industries contract that led to last week’s corruption convictions of former State Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam.

It was scrutiny of that contract, which Dean Skelos pushed for while Adam was working for AbTech, that led County Executive Edward Mangano to form a panel headed by former Nasdaq chairman Frank Zarb, Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz and former KeySpan Energy chairman Robert Catell to study the county’s contracting process and recommend ways to improve it. The panel did its job, but now the most important suggestions are mostly being ignored, although Mangano largely supported them when they were released.

The panel recommended Nassau hire an independent auditor, which Mangano says he is doing, and require county contractors to disclose political contributions to elected officials, which Mangano has introduced a bill to do. These would be improvements, and they’re worth noting.

As for public financing of Nassau County elections, Mangano says he’s willing to see a referendum on the subject, but the Republican legislative majority is blocking that path. And neither Mangano nor the legislature’s presiding officer, Norma Gonsalves, is willing to back the $2,000 cap on county vendor campaign contributions that the panel recommended, one of the most effective ways to curb bad behavior.

Gonsalves and Mangano say election laws need to be strengthened via the State Legislature, and that would be grand. But that doesn’t excuse Nassau from cleaning up its own process. Other municipalities, including New York City, have curbed the potential for “pay to play” on their own. The way business is done in Nassau County needs to change. The people who benefit from the way business is done in Nassau County don’t seem to want that. If the people in charge can’t change the culture, we need to change the people in charge.