The race for Suffolk County comptroller is a Goldilocks election.
One candidate runs too hot, the other runs too cool. Given the comptroller’s vital role as a fiscal monitor, and the nature of the administration being monitored, we prefer a candidate with a warmer internal temperature.
Incumbent John M. Kennedy Jr., 62, a Republican from Nesconset, is seeking his second term. His first four years have not been smooth. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.
He came into office after a long stint in the county legislature as a burr in the side of Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone. Kennedy can still be loud and blustery, and would be better served by toning that down, but there is no questioning his independence from the county executive.
Kennedy has fulfilled a key campaign pledge — to uncover waste, corruption and inefficiency by increasing audits of county government and nonprofit agencies getting county contracts. The comptroller also processes payroll and invoices and performs other administrative duties, but the watchdog role is pre-eminent. And there is plenty of ground to plow — Suffolk has a $3.1 billion budget and thousands of contracts.
Kennedy said his audits have recovered $8 million for the county. Probes of homeless shelter providers found that one overcharged the county by $1.3 million and the other owed $3.6 million. Audits of a youth group and a cultural association uncovered nearly $220,000 in overpayments. Another audit criticized Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services officials for poor management that led some dispatchers to work fewer hours than required and others to collect exorbitant overtime. An audit of concessionaire Beach Hut led to the conviction of the company and recovery of $1.1 million in unpaid taxes and fees, and a finding that county parks department oversight was lacking. Kennedy also beefed up the office, oversaw its consolidation with the treasurer’s office and started a critical computer modernization that must be completed.
Jay H. Schneiderman, 56, of Southampton, understands budgets. A former fellow legislator, his experience includes stints as town supervisor in East Hampton and, currently, Southampton. He seeks compromise and stresses his ability to work with others. While collegiality is generally a good thing in government, the comptroller should be more of a principled bulldog. Schneiderman does not evince an obvious passion for the job. He has changed his party registration through the years from Republican to Independence to Democrat, and cites that as evidence of his independence. But we worry about someone Bellone has endorsed serving in this critical oversight position.
Sniping between Kennedy and Bellone and his administration has not stopped. They have battled over Kennedy’s attempt to fill staff positions and his office budget. Now they’re in court over Kennedy asserting his right to audit a bid process as it is underway. The law seems to be on his side. More fireworks are likely now that Kennedy plans to audit the county’s agreement with a developer on a $1.1 billion project that includes a 17,500-seat arena at the Ronkonkoma Hub; the probe should proceed.
If he wins a second term, Kennedy must remember that there is no place for partisan warfare; he must remain above that fray. Nor can the comptroller job be used as a springboard to attack Bellone’s policy decisions. That’s not his job, nor should another term be a springboard for Kennedy’s own ambitions to run for county executive next year. The comptroller works for the people of Suffolk, not to advance the interests of any political party or leader.
Suffolk County needs a pit bull with bite, not bark. We believe Kennedy can fill that role.
Newsday endorses Kennedy. — The editorial board