Politics

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County financial reform has leaped to the tops of the minds of members of both parties in county government.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced proposals aimed at strengthening Suffolk’s financial future at a press conference in Hauppauge Feb. 27. As part of the Securing Suffolk’s Financial Future Act, Bellone proposed amending the county Tax Act to allow the county to collect tax revenue that is owed in January, instead of waiting until June. Officials said the plan is the latest in the county’s efforts to streamline operations and be more efficient. 

Bellone said the goal of the plan is to help strengthen the county’s financial condition going forward. 

“It would ensure the county would get tax revenue that it is owed at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until June and [being] forced to borrow funds.”

— Steve Bellone

“When we look at planning ahead, looking beyond where we are today and thinking about where we’ll be five, 10, 15 years down the road — it’s important that we do that,” the county executive said. 

The plan would build upon previous undertakings by the county, which include bipartisan efforts to bring the county in line with the best finance practices set forth by financial experts from the Office of the New York State Comptroller and the Government Finance Officers Association, according to Bellone. 

In doing so, the county would press to amend the Tax Act, which would require state legislation. The county executive said the 100-year-old law is seriously outdated.

“It would ensure the county would get tax revenue that it is owed at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until June and [being] forced to borrow funds,” he said. “This is an issue that crosses party lines, this is not an issue that is partisan or [one] that should be partisan.”

The county executive called for the authorization of a four-year budget plan, which would allow the county to focus on long-term projects as well as updated debt management and fund balance policies. New computer software will be purchased to enhance transparency and
accountability.

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R), a known critic of Bellone, announced plans in February to run for county executive in November. His campaign has attacked Bellone on the current state of the county’s finances, placing a lot of the blame on his Democratic contender for a downgrade in Suffolk’s bond rating and for raising county fees. 

Kennedy said Bellone is just attempting to look fiscally responsible.

“Steve Bellone doesn’t know how to spend less,” Kennedy said. 

In a Jan. 31 TBR News Media article, Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating has dropped, Kennedy were “overstating” the impact. He said Moody’s, which gives the bond grades to municipalities, was only looking at the past and not the future. Kennedy has said he plans to consolidate county offices in order to reduce taxes.

Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), deputy presiding officer, said fiscal responsibility is the top priority when talking about taxpayer dollars. 

“These policies that we are laying out are common-sense ways to ensure that we are transparent with the public,” he said. 

The county executive also called for re-establishing an insurance reserve fund, originally created in 1980, which would assist in paying unexpected legal expenses. There was a call as well to reorganize the county’s audit joint committee and add more members. 

“Steve Bellone doesn’t know how to spend less.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Bellone said the changes would allow for a more robust and diversified review of the fiscal condition of the county. 

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman (D), who helped piece the plan together along with a team from the county executive’s office, said its goal was to figure out how Suffolk County can be best managed and reach its fullest potential. 

“What we can do is to present reform in a manner to get the best out of what this county can offer,” Kaiman said. 

County officials indicated legislation has been filed and expect a hearing to be set at the end of March and the proposals could be up for consideration into law sometime in April. 

Gun control activist Linda Beigel Schulman speaks next to a picture of her son Scott. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

As the first anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, passed by Feb. 14, gun control advocates and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are gearing up for another round of gun debate.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) alongside gun violence prevention groups advocated for support for a proposed federal bill that would require background checks on all sales of firearms at a press conference Feb. 19. 

“We are not trying to take anyone’s guns away — we are trying to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one in the first place.”

— Tom Suozzi

H.R. 8, or the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, was first introduced in early January by U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-California). Suozzi is a co-sponsor of the bill. 

The congressman announced that H.R.8 had passed the House Judiciary Committee and would next be put to vote on the House floor. 

“It will go to the floor in the next week or two,” he said. “I feel good that this bill will pass the House of Representatives — the challenge is whether or not we can get the votes in the Senate.” 

The bill would also see the end of a known loophole in firearm sales. 

“There is a gun show loophole,” Suozzi said. “We are not trying to take anyone’s guns away — we are trying to prevent people who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one in the first place.” 

Currently under federal law, individuals who are convicted felons of domestic abuse, those who have a restraining order or those who have been found using controlled substances are restricted from purchasing guns. Gun control activists have argued the gun show loophole has made it possible for private and unlicensed sellers to market firearms to buyers without going through a background check process. 

“I stand here today with Congressman Suozzi to fully back his support of reasonable gun control,” Dix Hills resident Linda Beigel Schulman of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America said.

Schulman’s son, Scott, was a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and was one of 17 individuals killed in the Parkland shooting. She said she first met the congressman at a March for Our Lives rally. 

“He spoke with me about the shooting, and I knew his concerns, his support was genuine,” Schulman said. “He is fighting for the safety of all of us.”

“Just this Friday there was another workplace shooting — this has to stop.”

— Linda Beigel Schulman

Suozzi said many guns that are brought into New York State illegally are purchased through this loophole. He pointed to a statistic that said over 70 percent of gun crimes that have occurred in New York have been caused with firearms that originated out of the state, according to a 2016 report from the New York State Attorney General’s office.

Schulman said the bill is a bipartisan attempt to pass common sense gun control legislation and that safety from gun violence is not a partisan issue.  

“If asked the question: Do you want to be safe, your children to be safe? Have you ever heard anyone answer no?,” she said. 

Marybeth Baxter, Long Island coordinator of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence agreed with Schulman, stating that universal background checks are paramount for the safety of New York, other states and the nation. 

“Just this Friday there was another workplace shooting — this has to stop,” Schulman said. “If the universal background check prevents just one shooting, then it has done it purpose, it has saved lives.”

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Three days after President Donald Trump (R) declared a national emergency to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border, protesters in Port Jefferson Station held aloft a large sheet with four words painted on it, “Trump is the emergency.”

The North Shore Peace Group, a local activist organization, galvanized close to 50 people to protest Feb. 18, despite cold winter winds, about Trump’s Feb. 15 announcement he would declare a national emergency in order to build 234 miles of physical barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border. The total funds freed up from the national emergency and other measure will equal up to $8 billion, more than the originally proposed $5.7 million Trump had previously asked from Congress. 

Trump is “actually giving a demonstration of how a unilateral president — an imperial presidency is emerging — he’s now overriding Congress’ constitutional mandate to control the purse strings,” said peace group member Bill McNulty.

Standing at the corner of state routes 112 and 347, which has been dubbed by other left-leaning activists as Resistance Corner, the protesters chanted and asked passing cars to honk in support.

Myrna Gordon, a Port Jefferson resident and peace group member, said there are other national issues which are better suited for the moniker “national emergency.”

“With all the things that could be an emergency, think about all the people every day who die from gun violence.” Gordon said. “Down at the border people need help. Instead it’s a wall that people will either tunnel under — they
already have — or find a way to go over.” 

Some activists said the president calling the ongoing illegal migration across the southern border a national emergency opens up the doors for future presidents to declare national emergencies for agenda items. While activist Rosemary Maffei said this could mean, in the case of a Democratic president, national emergencies to deal with gun violence or climate change, it could also set precedent for a Republican president could call national disasters on practically any agenda.

McNulty said the ongoing illicit immigration across the southern border is due to the past and continuing foreign policy of the U.S.

“Our policies in Central and South America have caused the destabilization of country after country, including overriding democratic elections,” McNulty said. “Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, these are the very countries that have been negatively impacted by American intervention.”

The peace group has hosted many pop-up protests in Port Jefferson and the Three Village area since the inauguration of the 45th president, enough to lose count. Gordon said she expects they will host many more in the future.

Satellite image of the 795-acre Brookhaven Calabro Airport. Image from Google Maps

Most couples agree there’s nothing worse than receiving a breakup message on Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, that’s the message New York City received Feb. 14 when Amazon said it would no longer build its next headquarters in Queens.

Reactions from Long Island’s elected officials was swift. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said the blame rests on New York’s unfriendliness to business.

“New York’s 1st Congressional District would be happy to be Amazon’s Valentine today and take these 25,000 great-paying jobs,” Zeldin said in a statement. “New York wouldn’t even need all the subsides if we didn’t have one of the worst business climates in the United States. We must level the playing field, reduce taxes and burdensome regulations, stop picking winners.” 

“New York wouldn’t even need all the subsides if we didn’t have one of the worst business climates in the United States.”

— Lee Zeldin

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who were both heavily involved in the Amazon deal, also made public comments lamenting the loss. Meanwhile, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) reaffirmed the town would welcome the retail giant with open arms. 

Now that Amazon is no longer courting New York City, Romaine offered to sign over the 795 acres of Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Shirley if the corporation chooses Brookhaven as a site of their future headquarters. 

“We would close and give them the airport,” he said. “That’s a transfer of property. We’re interested in economic development.”

The town had offered the airport to Amazon before they had originally settled on Queens. The supervisor said the same tax deal proposed by Cuomo is still on the table should the company want to come to the East End of Long Island. The state offered a total of $1.2 billion in refundable tax credits to Amazon, in addition to providing a $505 million capital grant to aid in building its new headquarters. With New York City also pitching in, the total aid package would have been at least $2.8 billion. Romaine said the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency could make up the same amount of aid should Amazon rethink its plans and come back to Long Island.

A representative from the Brookhaven IDA did not respond to requests for comment.

The town supervisor was adamant the airport location was perfect for Amazon’s needs, boasting of its proximity to Sunrise Highway, the Long Island Expressway and William Floyd Parkway. The site is also a few miles away from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Mastic-Shirley train station. He said the proposed location’s close proximity to the Hamptons, Shoreham and Wading River would be an extra incentive for those looking to make day trips.

“They’re looking for a campus-life situation, and this would provide that,” Romaine said. “If they wanted to they could keep one of the runways for light aircraft. That is totally negotiable.” 

“If they wanted to they could keep one of the runways for light aircraft. That is totally negotiable.”

— Ed Romaine

Despite the pushback the Queens Amazon headquarters received from residents and city politicians, Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Brookhaven residents are much more open to the idea of a company like Amazon coming in.

“We’re looking for corporate businesses that would create good-paying jobs,” she said. 

Romaine said he knows it’s a long shot, especially with Amazon saying in a Feb. 14 blog post it would not be conducting its new headquarters search again. Instead, the corporation would be looking toward northern Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee, for its new headquarters location.  

“I think it’s worth a shot,” the supervisor said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) along with other legislators propose plastic legislation. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

County legislators are looking to restrict the sales of several plastics, some harmful to health and others harmful to the environment.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), along with members of the Legislature’s Single-Use Plastic Reduction Task Force announced four policy initiatives intended to reduce plastic and polystyrene waste in the county at a press conference Feb.13. 

“Today we announce policies that will come to define our county’s environmental legacy for generations to come,” Hahn said in a press release.

“Long Island has some of the highest cancer rates in the country.”

— Sarah Anker

Hahn and the task force have outlined regulations directed at local businesses and the county. One of the proposed bills focuses on polystyrene, banning it in food service products including plates, cups, containers and trays. It would require businesses in the county to use biodegradable products, though the bill would exempt items used to store uncooked eggs, raw meat, pork, fish, seafood and poultry. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, polystyrene manufacturing process is the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States. 

“[Styrene has] recently been upgraded from a possible carcinogen to a probable carcinogen — a cancer causing chemical,” Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said. “Long Island has some of the highest cancer rates in the country.” 

Hahn said polystyrene and plastics are causing a waste management problem as well. 

“You see waste in waterways, on our beaches, on our roadways,” she said. 

A second bill would require single-use plastic beverage straws and stirrers to only be given in Suffolk County by request as a means of reducing plastic consumption. As an alternative to plastics, businesses would give customers biodegradable products, such as paper straws. There is an exception for those who have a disability or medical condition. 

Hahn and the task force also plan to prohibit the use of plastic products in all Suffolk County parks as part of their third initiative.  

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) supports the proposed bills. 

“We see that these things are happening — I know with the plastic bag ban there was some push back,” he said. “But it is nice to be able to do something that will make a difference and that works.”

In conjunction, the task force proposed a requirement that all future contracts with concessionaires at county parks include a restriction on the use of plastic and nonbiodegradable cups, utensils and
beverage straws. 

Hahn and the task force advised the issue of waste produced by these products is a more urgent problem than some people realize, and the county needs to clean up its act. 

“We as a society as a whole need to continue to research and study this issue and product.”

— Kara Hahn

These bills are a continuation of Hahn’s and others countywide initiative to reduce single-use plastic straws. One project, called Strawless Suffolk, started in July 2018 and looked for 100 seaside restaurants in Bellport, Greenport, Huntington, Northport, Patchogue and Port Jefferson Village take a pledge to stop using plastic straws by Sept. 3, 2018.

Hahn cites some landfills on Long Island are almost at full capacity and said that it not just about recycling more, rather its reducing the use of plastic items and to reuse things.

“We as a society as a whole need to continue to research and study this issue and product,” she said.”

To further decrease the use of plastic products, a fourth initiative will call to replace existing water fountains with new ones designed to allow bottle filling at county facilities that have 10 or more employees and in county-owned parks that have water dispensers. 

“People will be less likely to use plastic water bottles and will be able to fill their own reusable bottle if they bring it with them to our county buildings, parks and beaches,” the Setauket legislator said.  

The two nonlocal laws in the initiatives package, the installation of water fountains in county facilities and the concessionaires requirement, could be passed as early as March 5, depending upon legislative discussion and a vote. The other two local laws that apply to businesses in the county will require a public hearing, but could end up as law as early as April 9. 

“Plastic waste has become a tangible threat to our $5.6 billion tourism-driven economy,” Hahn said. “We are Long Islanders, our identity is tied to the water.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) formally announces his campaign to run for County Executive on Feb. 12. Photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County’s newest elected officials have taken their oaths of office in recent weeks, and some are still learning the ropes of their new office. But now, voters need to shrug off any remaining 2018 election season fatigue. 

County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) formally announced his campaign to take on incumbent County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for the county’s top office. Kennedy already faces a challenge from county Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) who’s made it no secret he wants to take charge, while his fellow Republican party member Larry Zacarese is watching and waiting in the wings. 

The state’s Jan. 18 voting reform bills have already brought out a wealth of contenders for the 2019 county executive race, as the legislation pushed the state’s primary elections from September up to June. This effectively lengthens the campaign season by three months. For the sake of voters, we hope all candidates will use these additional months to talk about critical issues — not make it an extended political slugfest. 

This year’s county executive race is critical. Our next leader faces a never-ending series of challenges to ensure this part of Long Island remains a safe, affordable place we’re still proud to call home. 

The county’s financial status is delicate. One party cries we face fiscal ruin if spending patterns continue while the other claims despite sinking bond ratings, the future will be brighter. Everyone knows taxes are high, wages haven’t kept up with inflation and Suffolk’s cost of living already ranks among the highest in the nation. Our future county executive needs to be ready to tighten down, cut costs and keep life affordable. 

Key to that will be a successful negotiation of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association’s contract that pays the salary of our police officers. It is one of the biggest pieces of the county’s annual budget and it’s on the table — how much taxpayers dig into their pockets will depend on a successful contract. Not to mention many of the county’s other employee unions need new contracts at reasonable and fair rates as well. 

Both parties agree that a focus on infrastructure and securing economic growth will help to ensure the area’s future success and stem the “brain drain,” or the droves of the 20- and 30-year-olds leaving Long Island to keep their hopes of the American Dream alive. How to best do it is a matter for debate that should be addressed by all candidates. 

We’d also like to see promises kept to existing projects, some of which have been decades in the making, such as Wading River-Port Jefferson Rails to Trails and its commitment to help push forward with sewers in Kings Park. 

A lot of important tasks will fall to whoever wins the 2019 county executive race, so we encourage Suffolk residents to extensively question all candidates and demand concrete answers. Don’t settle for vague promises without a plan for execution.

To the candidates, don’t let this dissolve into negative campaigning, name calling and bullying. We expect you to have an open-door policy and intelligent discourse of your future plans, if elected. You are expected to rise to the challenge before you, not mire Suffolk in a cesspool of negativity.

Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) and his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset). Photo by Kyle Barr

Less than a month ago, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) was still debating whether he would run this year for Suffolk County executive. 

On Feb. 11, Kennedy stood shoulder to shoulder with other top Republican leaders to announce his running for the top county office.

“None of us forgets who we work for, and that’s the taxpayer,” Kennedy said. “We will stop the hemorrhaging, stop the bleeding. We will cut up the credit cards, start to pay our debts and bring life back to Suffolk County.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) points to the county’s loss in bond rating. Photo by Kyle Barr

Kennedy, along with other county Republicans, has been consistent in attacking county Executive Steve Bellone (R) for the current state of the county’s finances, pointing to a drop in bond rating from A3 to Baa1 on the Moody Rating Scale since 2015. In a Jan. 31 article by TBR News Media, Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating has dropped, Kennedy was “overstating” the impact. He went on to say Moody’s, which gives the bond grades to municipalities, was only looking at the past and not the future. 

Kennedy has called for a 90-day top to bottom look at the county’s offices to see which ones can be pruned, which employees can be shuffled around and what belts can be tightened. He also called for an end to excessive spending, while cutting county fees and reducing the size of the county’s red light camera program. He said he was especially concerned with delays in payment to public employees and to contractors.

“We don’t pay our daycare providers on time, we don’t pay anybody on time,” the comptroller said. “We make them all our bank.”

John Jay LaValle, the Suffolk County Republican committee chairman, said during a phone interview the party is throwing its weight behind the current county comptroller. So far two other Republicans have announced their candidacy, including Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). LaValle said former police officer Larry Zacarese, who previously ran for Suffolk County sheriff in 2017, was also considering running on the Republican ticket. 

The Republican committee chairman said he would ask the current candidates to sit down and work out their differences, saying a primary could do damage to the party’s chance to win.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone,” LaValle said.

Kennedy announced his plan to run for office at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, surrounded by U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford), along with many other elected Republicans. King ran again for his position alongside Kennedy in the 2018 electoral season.

“If we do a primary, we give the executive seat to Bellone.”

— John Jay Lavalle

“He ran us all into the ground — I’ve never seen a harder working campaigner,” King said.

Trotta said during a phone interview he would be willing to sit down with Kennedy and the Republican leadership, potentially to drop his candidacy if he agrees with what he hears.

“I welcome John Kennedy to the race, this is what democracy is all about, and no one knows more than John about what a financial mess the Bellone administration has created,” Trotta said.

Kennedy has worked in public office for years, working with current Brookhaven town supervisor Ed Romaine (R) when he was county clerk before being elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 2004. He then later ran for and was elected to the Suffolk County comptroller position in 2014, boasting at the time he was vastly outspent by his opponent on the campaign trail.

Bellone’s office came out the gate swinging as Kennedy’s candidacy was announced.

“No one has opposed government reform or voted to increase spending and debt more than John Kennedy,” said Bellone spokesperson Jason Elan in a press release. 

“Under [Bellone’s] watch, I have seen red light cameras pop up over intersection after intersection, finding new ways to put their hands in their pockets,” Zeldin said during Kennedy’s campaign announcement.

Kennedy was also joined by his wife Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who is running again this year for re-election. Both husband and wife said partially it took so long for him to announce his candidacy because of the concern one’s campaign fight could affect the other’s.

“It was a weighing process for both of us,” Legislator Kennedy said. “It’s about what he can do to make it better here so that everybody can afford to stay.”

Elected officials, scientists and environmentalists filled the legislative auditorium of the William H. Rogers Building last year to provide testimony against offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

State legislators are trying to ensure the federal government doesn’t murk up New York’s coastal waters.

Both the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislation Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 to prohibit oil and natural gas drilling in New York’s coastal areas. The legislative action comes a year after hundreds of Long Island residents attended a public hearing at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Smithtown to voice concerns relating to discussions on the federal level over potential drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright addresses the crowd before a hearing last year concerning the proposal of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Maria Hoffman

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the Assembly environmental conservation committee chair, was one of the legislators who hosted last year’s Smithtown hearing. The assemblyman said in a statement those who attended the hearing unanimously condemned the federal government’s proposal to drill for oil and gas in open waters.

“This legislation will safeguard our water and shores from the dangers of fossil fuel exploration and drilling, and will support our efforts to move our state toward cleaner and renewable energy sources,” Englebright said.

The legislation would prohibit the use of state-owned underwater coastal lands for oil and natural gas drilling; prevent the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of General Services from authorizing leases which would increase oil or natural gas production from federal waters; and prohibit the development of infrastructure associated with exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas from New York’s coastal waters, according to a press release from Englebright’s office.

The new legislation will reaffirm the state’s coastal management practices to ensure the protection of endangered and threatened species, along with tourism and recreational and commercial fishing industries, according to Englebright.

“Our largest industry in New York, and especially in coastal New York, is tourism,” Englebright said. “Oil and gas exploration is incompatible with tourism. We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

“We’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that have occurred in other parts of the world where oil and gas exploration near recreation areas and near active fisheries has occurred. We don’t want those kinds of chaos to descend upon our economy or our state.”

— Steve Englebright

The legislation updates New York State laws that are decades old, according to a press release from state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport).

“Offshore drilling is the single largest threat to the sustainability of Long Island’s environment,” Gaughran said in a statement. “I am proud that under [Senate] Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins [D-Yonkers], New York State is moving toward protecting our natural resources and banning senseless proposals to drill off our beautiful coast.”

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who was the original lead sponsor of the legislation in the state Senate, said he urges the governor to sign the bill.

“We have painstakingly worked to preserve and protect our pristine waters, and we certainly do not want to imperil all of our efforts to maintain clean water by allowing drilling off our shoreline,” LaValle said.

Kevin McAllister, founding president of Sag Harbor-based nonprofit Defend H2O, said restricting oil and gas exploration off the coast is important as the drilling for fossil fuels negatively impacts the environment. He said it’s critical for states along the entire Eastern Seaboard to follow suit, and he urges Cuomo to enlist coastal solidarity.

“If rising seas, ocean acidification, killer floods aren’t sobering enough, don’t overlook a legacy of regret with oil extraction and transport,” he said. “Santa Barbara oil spill, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon all inflicted massive damages to the marine and the coastal environment over thousands of square miles. In the oil industry, accidents happen. The best way to prevent another catastrophe is to close the door on further exploration.”

Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

More than a year into his first term in office, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) believes his administration has brought a renewed sense of energy and purpose to Town Hall. 

Wehrheim took over the reins from former Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R) — a man who once held the title of New York’s longest active serving town supervisor after 40 years in office — in January 2018. The move came after Wehrheim narrowly beat Vecchio in a party primary that deeply divided Republicans in the township, before securing the office with 57 percent of the vote over two challengers. 

TBR News Media sat down with Wehrheim in an exclusive interview to review his performance on 2017 campaign promises and the status of the township.

“I came in, kept the same people here, and made them understand what my initiatives were and how I operate.”

— Ed Wehrheim

“I would give myself an A,” Wehrheim said. “I’ve gotten out to the Smithtown community and business community on what we are  doing and the feedback that I’ve gotten has been consistently positive.” 

One of the first challenges the new supervisor faced was how to unite a Republican town board and administration that had been split into opposing camps during the 2017 election process. 

“I did not come in and make a lot of changes, which I could have done,” Wehrheim said. “I came in, kept the same people here, and made them understand what my initiatives were and how I operate.” 

One of his pledges had been to create town government for Smithtown that was more transparent to its residents. Wehrheim appointed Nicole Garguilo as the town’s first spokeswoman within days of his swearing-in and has ensured live streaming of town board meetings. A mobile phone app was launched in August 2018 to keep residents up to the minute with the latest public safety notices, but a complex town meeting agenda
he once criticized as “75 items, labeled A to ZZ, and nobody understands that” he admits has changed little. 

“People have to remember we inherited a government that had zero transparency,” Wehrheim said. “Not many people outside it, and sometimes not even town council people, would know what was happening. We couldn’t fix it immediately.”

For 2019, the supervisor is focused on restructuring the town’s website and said an updated town agenda was available Jan. 24, with more to come in once the website revisions are made. 

Wehrheim made promises during the 2017 elections to revive “long dormant downtown
revitalization” projects including sewers for Kings Park and to bring apartments to Smithtown. He said the town’s Nov. 30, 2018, report found there have been 2.1 million square feet of commercial development that’s begun or is permitted and ready to begin construction. The supervisor has worked with Suffolk County to complete an engineering study for sewering downtown Kings Park, which has been stymied by the state Legislature’s unwillingness to vote on a home rule bill that would isolate a necessary piece of land needed to construct a pump station. 

“People have to remember we inherited a government that had zero transparency.”

— Ed Wehrheim

He said received assurances from state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-East Northport) and Assemblyman Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) will be taking up the legislation, hopefully for a vote shortly.

Wehrheim had led the town in approving construction of Lofts at Maple & Main, which has all approvals needed to bring a mixed-used building containing 9,500 square feet of retail space and 72 apartments to Smithtown’s Main Street. He hopes this will help address “brain drain” on Long Island and be a move toward creating a walkable downtown environment. 

In St. James, the town has more than $8 million set aside for revitalization with sewers, water mains and improved streetscaping. He’s also brokered a promise with Gyrodyne LLC to expand the sewer treatment plant for proposed Flowerfield property development to accommodate the Lake Avenue business district. 

Large-scale commercial developments approved under Wehrheim’s tenure include CarMax taking over the Smithtown Concrete Plant on Route 25 and Tesla renovating the former 6th Avenue Electronics on Route 247 in Nesconset.

One thing Smithtown’s supervisor has yet to get around to is creating the business advisory council. Wehrheim has promised interviews for an executive board are underway as of January.

“There’s always room for improvement, there’s not a question about that,” he said. “At this particular time, it’s going well, and I’m sure down the road we will improve more.” 

Rich Shaffer at his office in North Babylon. File Photo by Alex Petroski

In the lexicon of tarot, cards used by soothsayers for divination, there are many cards used to describe a person’s lot in life. 

If Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic Committee chairman, could be represented by any card, it would be the chariot. Schaffer is at the head of the race, with the Democrats taking majority positions in the New York State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, but he’s holding onto the reins of two horses, the moderate and far-left elements of his party, and he said his task is to keep both heading in the same direction.

“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief,” said Schaffer, who is also Town of Babylon supervisor. “I’m always either talking somebody off the ledge or helping them through an issue.”

“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief.”

— Rich Schaffer

In last year’s elections, the Democratic Party won big both in New York state and nationally, securing the state Senate as well as the Assembly, and gaining a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a change of pace for the party, which was beleaguered after its loss during the 2016 elections that saw Donald Trump (R) sent to the White House.

In Suffolk County, many GOP members retained their seats despite hard campaigns from the Dems. Longtime Republican representatives such as state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) kept their seats in Albany, while U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) won out at 51.5 percent against his Democratic challenger Perry Gershon. Still, Schaffer said they have made strides in the county, pointing to the election of state Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) who won out over her GOP rival Dean Murray by 2,996 votes.

Schaffer added that he thinks the next time District 1 is up for grabs, it could swing blue.

Suffolk County “has been blue in the past,” the Democratic committee chairman said. 

Specifically, he points to the 35-day government shutdown that was put on hold for three weeks Jan. 25. Schaffer laid the blame for the shutdown at the president’s feet and said his Republican supporters in Congress would take the brunt of the blame.

“What they are doing to people’s livelihoods and their survival is unconscionable,” he said. “A political debate has now turned into almost scorched earth, where people’s lives are at stake.”

On the state level Schaffer said there are, all in all, six Democratic members elected to the state Senate who will represent Long Island, including new members Martinez and James Gaughran (D-Northport). 

This is important to the party commissioner, as in other years when the Democrats had majorities in both state houses, his experience was many of those focused on New York City rather than Long Island’s more suburban elements.

The differences between those two subsets of Democrats is something Schaffer said he’s particularly aware of. Nationally, much has been said about the rise of much more left-leaning Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx). She has been open about progressive ideas such as universal health care, establishing tuition-free colleges and trade schools, and creating a marginal tax system as high as 70 percent, which would mostly affect those in the wealthiest tax brackets. A bill for single-payer health care is currently being circulated in the state Assembly.

“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport.”

— Rich Schaffer

Schaffer said he was not against policies such as universal health care, but he wanted the discussion to be had up in Albany about how the state was planning to pay for that program. 

Schaffer also questioned the viability of a Cortez-like candidate in Suffolk County. 

“I mean it’s easy for [Cortez] to speak like she does with the district she comes from, when your main election battle is the primary,” Schaffer said. “When you’re running Suffolk County North Shore and your district is not as friendly registration wise, this gets to if you elect Democrats who support basic Democratic ideas.”

Overall, Schaffer was adamant the best way to win Democratic seats in Suffolk County was to form coalitions, work off core democratic principles and promise to work toward local issues.

“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport,” he said. “Some people will argue with me that ‘Yes, you can,’ but it has not been my experience out here. That’s not to say we can’t have things on the progressive agenda, but they have to be spoken about in a way that’s going to get you 50 percent plus one.”

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