In last year's campaign, Steve Bellone made economic development a top priority for Suffolk County. Now that he's county executive, he has been both Good Steve and Bad Steve on this issue. On the plus side, he has expanded economic development staff. But he has also gone wrong in trying to replace the executive director of the county's Industrial Development Agency with someone whose qualifications for the job are significantly less than the incumbent's.
Bellone needs to remember that the IDA is not his toy. Yes, his name now appears on its letterhead, and his new economic development director, Joanne Minieri, now sits on the board. But state law assigns the members a fiduciary responsibility, which means they can listen to elected officials, like Bellone, but must act prudently and "ultimately apply independent judgment in the best interests of the authority, its mission and the public."
Prudence isn't a bad standard for an agency that gets to hand out millions of dollars in tax breaks to private companies, to get them to create jobs or keep jobs here. Some distance from elected officials is also helpful. Electeds, after all, like to become re-electeds. To do that, they need campaign contributions. A public official with too heavy a hand on the reins of an IDA sends the message, deliberate or not, that those who make contributions get a leg up.
Bellone may not be motivated by contributions. But it's not comforting that he seems to want something like the situation he had as supervisor of Babylon, where his good friend, Robert Stricoff, runs the IDA. By the way, Stricoff also leads the town Democratic Party. But so far, the county IDA's board has wisely resisted Bellone.
The issue is the IDA's executive director, a key job for an agency with a board of seven unpaid volunteers. The incumbent since 1985 is Bruce Ferguson, 65, a curmudgeon with a way of saying exactly what he thinks at the moment he's thinking it. So he's not political. But he knows economic development, has the confidence of the business community, and has been involved in delivering 292 projects, worth about $4.2 billion.
Bellone's choice is Anthony Manetta, 32, a political consultant. He has an MBA from Dowling College. He worked on Harry Wilson's unsuccessful campaign for state comptroller in 2010, and he ran a transition team for Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. He also has the support of Frank MacKay, chairman of the Independence Party, which endorsed Bellone last year. So Manetta is not without merits, but his experience doesn't match Ferguson's in the world of industrial development. Still, Ferguson did resign under pressure, effective Aug. 31. The chairman, Jim Morgo, also resigned, but remains on the IDA until a successor arrives. The county legislature replaces him on the board, and the board chooses its chairman.
So far, the IDA board has not acted to approve Manetta. In fact, it is advertising for other candidates to succeed Ferguson. If the board finds someone more qualified than Manetta for executive director, Bellone will just have to live with it. The county executive's instinct to emphasize economic development is correct, but his handling of the IDA has been heavy-handed and tone deaf. We hope it's just a momentary detour on the road to creating jobs, rather than a bad omen.