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Editorial: Professional jobs shouldn't be filled at ballot box

Kathy Walsh and Dan Losquardo, candidates for the

Kathy Walsh and Dan Losquardo, candidates for the the Town of Brookhaven Highway Department Superintendent. (Feb. 18, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Potholes and snowdrifts don't care what political party you belong to.

For that reason, the Newsday editorial board cannot endorse either of the candidates running for the office of superintendent of highways in the Town of Brookhaven. The board also can't endorse the fact that the position is going to be filled by an election, rather than an appointment.

What we can get behind is referendums -- in Brookhaven, in other towns and on the county level -- that would make positions that shouldn't be decided based on politics appointive. None of Nassau's towns elect highway superintendents. All of Suffolk's, except Babylon and Islip, do.

In many jobs, what we want is competence. Voting for a town clerk, a county treasurer, or a highway superintendent based on politics and party affiliation makes no more sense than choosing an airplane pilot based on those criteria. The current system creates nests of patronage and homes for unqualified political hacks that harm both our governmental structures and the residents who need their services.

Tuesday's vote in Brookhaven is a perfect example of why electing leaders for positions where expertise should be the only qualification is such a poor idea.

The stage was set by the Feb. 8 blizzard that knocked Brookhaven's Highway Department on its keister. As much as 33 inches fell, enough to challenge any highway department, but Brookhaven fared far worse than most. Why? The former elected highway superintendent was elected to a Suffolk County judgeship in November, not an option usually open to highway maintenance experts. The acting superintendent, selected because he was a town Republican committeeman, called in sick with a toothache for the four days snowy days he was most needed. He then resigned and returned to his job as a department foreman, which grossed him $120,000 last year. The town supervisor, who under the current system does not oversee the department but is catching tremendous flak anyway, was vacationing in sunnier climes when the storm struck.

Fast-forward to this election, though, and the politics get even thicker, unlike the road maintenance expertise.

Assemb. Daniel Losquadro (R-Shoreham) has the Republican line on Tuesday's ballot. His opponent, Councilwoman Kathy Walsh, was elected as a Republican. For this race, though, she changed her registration to the Independence Party (a move that won't take effect until November), failed to get that ballot line, and ended up on the Democratic line.

Losquadro cites his experience in government, as well as in the automotive, insurance and construction industries, as preparation for the job. The biggest issue in his candidacy, though, is voter outrage at his vote for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's gun-regulation laws, a matter irrelevant to his or anyone's ability to run a highway department.

Walsh argues that her time on the council, three years of which she served as town deputy supervisor, qualifies her for the job. But the biggest issue in her candidacy isn't familiarity with plowing, spreading salt or managing people. It's the fact that her husband, William Walsh, is an official with the union that represents the highway department's workers.

None of this has anything to do with a job that requires expertise in equipment purchasing, operation and maintenance, emergency management and personnel. The elected town supervisor should pick a person to oversee the department, and suffer the lash of voters if he or she picks an incompetent one.

We need to look at all jobs, at every level of local government, to determine if political philosophy plays any part in how they should be done. Where it doesn't, voters should pass referendums making them appointive positions -- and punish the elected leaders doing the appointing if their choices fail.