North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, left, and town Building Commissioner...

North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, left, and town Building Commissioner John Niewender. Credit: Barry Sloan, Danielle Finkelstein

When North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jennifer DeSena first requested an audit of the town's building department a year-and-a-half ago, it marked one of the few times she stood alongside her Democratic counterparts on the town board — a rare moment of bipartisanship in a mostly unproductive and contentious first two years.

Now the audit, by Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips, is complete. And DeSena, a registered Democrat who ran as a Republican, has a friendly Republican majority on her town board in her second term.

Phillips' audit found operational inefficiencies, lack of communication, backlogs for permits and perhaps most significantly, “mismanagement at the highest level of Town Government.” This includes a town board that, she said, prevented the department from making necessary technological and cultural improvements. Phillips said North Hempstead's “bifurcated or dual government” added confusion regarding who was in charge. 

That's neither a surprise nor a new problem. The building department has been a pit of scandal, patronage, conflicts of interest and self-interest for a very long time. 

Now, DeSena and the current town board have an opportunity to do what no one in North Hempstead has been able to do: Reform the dysfunctional department. In 2007, a 16-month investigation led to the arrest and conviction of multiple town building department employees amid accusations of bribery, extortion and financial wrongdoing. 

While talk of reform followed then, clearly, little fundamentally has changed. Just last year, town Building Commissioner John Niewender was suspended without pay for a month after he was accused of misconduct when he retaliated against an employee who filed a complaint against him. Earlier in 2023, Niewender had refused to cooperate with the comptroller's audit unless he received a subpoena or Freedom of Information request. 

Niewender remains the town's building commissioner.

Phillips' recommendations focus on improving the department's software, standardizing the permit process, training staff and upgrading communication with constituents. Those are all good first steps — and DeSena would be wise to follow the advice.

Freeing the building department from its troubled history requires more than technical improvements such as new software and transparency.

As Phillips discussed, a cultural shift is needed. That means new leadership at the department, changes to the chain of command and how staff members are held accountable, and a spotlight on what's working and what's not. It means better communication with residents, a digital dashboard that shows the progress and final outcome of each permit application, and far more significant accountability and oversight. DeSena and her now-friendlier fellow town board members must implement a plan to drive reforms never achieved by past administrations.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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