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Editorial: Set up screening for elections agency jobs

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board of Elections in Yaphank, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

As a recent Newsday news story about Suffolk Board of Elections worker Michael Torres reminds us, there's patronage, and then there's patronage. Many people, whether they're politically active or not, find opportunities based on relationships. Where you went to school, whom you're related to, whom you're friends with, whom you worked with in the past: All of these can lead to opportunities.

The problem comes when relationships or political alliances lead to positions people don't deserve, and that shouldn't be offered.

Torres is a political appointee, but then pretty much everyone is at county boards of elections. Torres is also the Town of Islip's Conservative Party leader. He earns $105,800 a year for his Suffolk County job, and another $7,875 annually to serve on Islip's assessment review board, a post he was appointed to last year.

There's not too much out of the ordinary in all this, except that jobs at the board of elections have generally gone equally to Republicans and Democrats, who are supposed to administer voting and registration while keeping a hawklike watch on each other.

Torres is the highest-ranking employee at the Suffolk board ever to come from a third party, and his elevated position is a result of the influence of Edward M. Walsh Jr., his powerful Conservative Party mentor. Walsh, the party's county leader, has elevated into an art form the practice of exchanging his ballot line for jobs for his people.

Torres and Walsh have more in common than their Conservative Party ties: legal troubles. Torres pleaded guilty in 1997 to a misdemeanor charge of promoting gambling after originally being charged with a felony for bookmaking on sporting events. That offense kept Torres from being hired as a cook at the Suffolk County jail.

In 2002, he was convicted in Virginia of failing to have a valid driver's license. And in 2007, Torres was stopped on Montauk Highway in East Islip, registered a 0.13 on a blood-alcohol level test, admitted to having been drinking and taking the painkiller Vicodin, and pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol, an infraction. These offenses should have disqualified him from his Suffolk Board of Elections job.

Walsh is under federal investigation for allegedly falsifying time sheets while serving as a county corrections lieutenant. The accusations first surfaced after Walsh, during working hours, attended a hearing in support of Oheka Castle owner, political power player and recent shooting victim Gary Melius.

Unfortunately, state election law allows city and county election boards to be partisan workshops rather than departments with jobs open to all and filled through standard government hiring practices.

It's unlikely that the political nature of the selection process is going to change anytime soon. But in the wake of the revelations about Torres, even local political leaders agree there should be a formal vetting process for board of elections appointees.

Ideally, they'd be civil service jobs. But at the very least, there ought to be a rigorous process to weed out bad apples and confirm qualifications, before we end up with even more board of elections employees who can't qualify for jobs as jailhouse cooks.

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