Politics

School gymnasiums, like at Rocky Point High School above, and cafeterias have long been used as polling places for elections, but citing safety concerns, district superintendents are calling for the end of that practice. File photo

On Nov. 6, voters will be lining up across Suffolk County at polling places, though if some school officials in the county could have it their way, by Election Day 2019 votes will be cast elsewhere.

Despite the fact schools are used as polling places near-universally, recent pushes for additional school security from communities have made several North Shore superintendents question why they should be forced to allow strangers into their buildings.

“You have to admit anybody onto school campus who comes to vote, so those actions and best practices for security that we observe every day, we can’t observe on Election Day,” said Elwood school district Superintendent Kenneth Bossert. “Schools are allowed to make their own rules for every school day, but on Election Day we have to defer to the [Suffolk County] Board of Elections, and in effect our facilities become their facilities.”

“Schools are allowed to make their own rules for every school day, but on Election Day we have to defer to the [Suffolk County] Board of Elections, and in effect our facilities become their facilities.”

— Kenneth Bossert

The Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, of which Bossert is president, released a blueprint for action to enhance school safety in which it specifically requests legislation that might let schools appeal their designation as polling locations. New York State law says all public buildings are in line to be declared polling places, yet all municipalities except schools have the right to appeal that designation.

Board of Elections Commissioner Nick LaLota said approximately 30 percent of polling in the county was held at nonschool municipal buildings. He added if the Board of Elections tried to move its voting apparatus to other places like fire departments or town halls that parking would be inadequate and wait times would increase more than an hour because of space issues.

Many schools close their buildings on November polling days to allow the community into a school without the potential for any danger to students. However, during smaller elections like primaries and school budget votes in June, many schools remain open and wall off the students from the public. Huntington school district Superintendent Jim Polansky said while his district does not stay open during major elections, they do stay open for students during primaries.

“While I understand that it is a challenge to find alternative sites than can accommodate a vote, using schools as polling places when classes are in session [such as for primary elections] is a significant issue,” Polansky said.

Across the North Shore superintendents lamented the Suffolk Board of Elections requirements. Superintendent James Grossane of Smithtown school district agreed with SCSSA’s proposal, and Paul Casciano of the Port Jefferson School District said he agreed with it even though polling in Port Jeff is held at Village Hall.

“When our buildings are used for public polling sites, the Board of Elections has the authority to designate the final location in the building for polling to occur, which in most cases requires voters to travel through our schools, passing classrooms and common student areas along the way all while not having to go through our strict visitor approval process,” Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of the Three Village Central School District said.

LaLota said some local districts were being dishonest in their push to take polling out of schools.

“The school officials who choose to keep their May budget and board elections in their schools but demand that the November elections be moved out of their schools have a sincerity problem and are using recent tragedies to satisfy their political agenda, which predates school shootings,” LaLota said.

“The school officials who choose to keep their May budget and board elections in their schools but demand that the November elections be moved out of their schools have a sincerity problem and are using recent tragedies to satisfy their political agenda, which predates school shootings.”

— Nick LaLota

Since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, more and more schools have been drastically updating security measures. Schools from Northport to Shoreham-Wading River have been adding additional security cameras, installing security doors, building security vestibules and hiring additional security guards. Some schools, like Miller Place and Mount Sinai, have taken it one step further and added armed guards to their current suite of school protection earlier this year.

Mount Sinai School District superintendent Gordon Brosdal said he agreed with the SCSSA’s call for the ability to appeal. Currently the Mount Sinai campus contains four armed guards, with one manning a booth at the entrance to the grounds who asks for an ID from all who wish to drive in. He added that he was concerned that with those procedures, voters may take it as a sign of disenfranchisement to request identification. Current New York State election law says polling places cannot ask for voter ID, though LaLota said he was unaware of any statute which prevented districts from seeking identification from those who come onto their campuses.

Marianne Cartisano, the superintendent of the Miller Place school district, has been fighting the specifics for her district’s polling designation since 2013, she said. In years past, the district has had to separate students and the public with the use of cafeteria tables, for a lack of more appropriate space. Since then the district has decided to close all schools on every election day, even for primaries.

Currently Andrew Muller Primary School, North Country Road Middle School and Miller Place High School are all polling locations. Cartisano has long requested the Suffolk County Board of Elections move all polling operations to the high school.

“We requested that let’s just move everything to the high school, where we could accommodate anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 at a time, we’ll give you the entire building,” Cartisano said. “I know that in other districts accommodations have been made. … I want to do the right thing for our residents, but our residents also include 4-year-olds.”

In April this year the William Floyd school district reported that all polling locations would be moved to the high school, away from the elementary school. LaLota said he would be willing to work with school districts toward that end.

“This is an example of a win-win and I have encouraged my staff to explore more opportunities that increase child safety without disenfranchising voters,” he said.

Smithtown Town Hall. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A change of leadership at Smithtown Town Hall has resulted in a proposed 2019 budget that could increase homeowners town taxes for the first time in three years.

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) presented his $109 million tentative budget for 2019 to the town council in a short meeting Oct. 5, on deadline under New York State Law. The proposed budget represents an increase of $4 million more than this year’s budget, with $1.5 million additional in the taxes levied among Smithtown’s homeowners. The supervisor promised it will be used to the benefit of its residents.

“We’ve committed in this administration to invest in Smithtown,” Wehrheim said. “We are going to do just that. I looked at the operating budget and we’ve stayed within the 2 percent mandated state tax cap.”

If approved, the 2019 tentative operating budget will be a total $66.60 annual increase for the average Smithtown homeowner, according to Wehrheim, with $28 of that increase attributable to a rise in solid waste district fees.

This graph shows the Town of Smithtown’s 2018 salaries for three positions — town supervisor, town council member and supervisor of highways — with their proposed 2019 salary increases and how that relates to similar positions’ pay in the neighboring townships of Brookhaven and Huntington. Graphic by David Ackerman

The town’s singular largest driving cost behind the proposed budget was a $1.1 million increase to health care insurance contributions for its full-time union employees, according to the supervisor. He also expects operational expenses such as fuel and utility costs to continue to grow over the year ahead.

The tentative budget sets aside $5.5 million for road, curb and sidewalk improvements, which Wehrheim said he decided in conjunction with Superintendent of Highways Robert Murphy (R).

The town supervisor has also proposed an approximately 40 percent increase to the Community Development Fund, which he said is used to help fund a list of neighborhood projects to improve local look and character of the neighborhoods. Most of the town’s funds will be used to kick-start projects, according to the supervisor, before hopefully being reimbursed through a combination of state aid or other grants.

Wehrheim is looking to increase the salary of each town council member by more than $9,000; from $65,818 up to $75,000. This represents a year-to-year increase of about 14 percent.

“I feel that it is in line with surrounding neighboring municipalities,” he said. “I feel the council position deserves that salary. It’s a different administration and they have far more responsibilities than they did previously.”

By comparison, each Town of Brookhaven council member is poised to make $72,316 in 2019 while to the west, the proposed annual salary for Huntington town council members is $76,841 next year.

In Smithtown, Wehrheim has proposed $30,000 for a new government liaison position, which if approved, will become an additional title and responsibilities for one of the town board members. The supervisor said the individual appointed will take on responsibilities similar to a deputy supervisor or chief of staff.

“It’s a more economical way as opposed to additional full-time staff in the supervisor’s office,” he said.

Murphy also stands to get an additional $20,000 a year, increasing the highway supervisor’s salary from $110,000 up to $130,000 per year, if the proposed budget is approved. Wehrheim said the 18 percent hike is warranted and has been talked about for several years.

“[Highway] is the town’s largest department,” Wehrheim said.

In perspective, Murphy’s new salary would be more than Brookhaven’s highway superintendent, poised to earn $119,132 in 2019 but less than Huntington’s $140,000 salary per year.

Wehrheim said that while he has added a few new positions to his administration in 2018, including a public information officer, he is hoping to hire two additional laborers each for the Highway Department and Parks, Buildings & Grounds Department next year. The exact salary for these positions has yet to be determined, according to the supervisor, as the town is in the midst of negotiating new contracts with both the Civil Service Employees Union, representing the municipality’s employees, and the Smithtown Administrators Guild, which represents its departmental directors. The previous contracts expired Dec. 31, 2017.

“Any increase would be result of union negotiations,” Wehrheim said.

The supervisor has also put forth a proposed $10 million capital budget for 2019, presented at the same time as the operating budget. He said $8 million of that budget will be borrowed by the town, and allocated toward large projects such as $2.3 million for new water mains along St. James Lake Avenue business district and $2 million in 2019 toward renovation of Flynn Memorial Park.

Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano and board President Kathleen Brennan. File photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski & Sara-Megan Walsh

Port Jefferson and Northport-East Northport school districts, as well as the Town of Huntington, were dealt a blow in the legal battle against Long Island Power Authority in August. But, it doesn’t mean they are going down without a fight.

Port Jeff board of education voted unanimously — 6-0 with board President Kathleen Brennan absent — during a Sept. 24 special meeting to file an appeal of New York State Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Emerson’s Aug. 16 ruling that LIPA “made no promises” to the Town of Huntington, Northport-East Northport and Port Jefferson school districts not to challenge the taxes levied on its power stations.

Huntington Town Attorney Nick Ciapetta said the municipality formally filed its appeal of Emerson’s decision the following day, Sept. 25.

The judge’s ruling dismissed the third-party lawsuits brought forth by Huntington and the two school districts which alleged LIPA broke a promise by seeking to reduce the power plant’s taxes by 90 percent. The resolution passed by Port Jeff school board authorized its legal counsel, Ingerman Smith, LLP, to file the appeal.

“We do think her decision was incorrect, and clearly we do recommend that the board consider filing a notice of appeal in this proceeding,” said attorney John Gross of Ingerman Smith, LLP, prior to Port Jeff’s Sept. 24 vote.
Northport-East Northport’s board trustees had previously voted to pursue an appeal at their Sept. 6 meeting.

Gross, who has been hired to represent both Northport and Port Jeff schools, said the districts

will have six months to perfect appeals. During this time, the districts’ legal team will prepare a record including all exhibits, witness depositions, and information gathered from the examination of about 60,000 pages of documents. He said a brief outlining the  legal arguments against Emerson’s decision will be crafted prior to submitting the appeal.
LIPA will be given several months to prepare a reply, according to Gross, prior to oral arguments before a four-judge panel in New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Further appeals are possible following that decision. Gross said the process could take more than a year.

Meanwhile, Huntington Town, Northport-East Northport school district, LIPA and National Grid have agreed to pursue non-binding mediation relating to the case, which begins Sept. 26. Gross said while Port Jeff is not a party to the mediation, it will be monitoring the outcome because the process could establish a pattern of resolution for its case. He also said the district can withdraw its appeal at any time, but once that occurs it cannot rejoin the process.

“Legal actions taken by the Town [of Brookhaven], [Port Jefferson] Village and school district to generate an equitable solution to the LIPA tax assessment challenges are intended to protect its residents and children against exorbitant property tax increases; especially in a very short interval of time,” Port Jeff school district said in a publicly released letter Sept. 12 prior to passing a resolution authorizing the appeal. “Please know, that the district fully understands that the decision about engaging legal counsel is one to be made with great care, as it always carries a financial implication while never guaranteeing a verdict in one’s favor.”

An aerial view of Town of Brookhaven’s Green Stream Recycling plant in Yaphank is surrounded by recyclables in August. Photo from Town of Smithtown

It’s a rubbish time to be involved in the recycling industry.

The Town of Brookhaven’s recycling plant is grappling with unprecedented mounds of bottles, used paper goods and trash. Ever since China implemented its “National Sword” policy in January banning the import of various nonindustrial plastics, paper and other solid wastes, Brookhaven’s had a hard time selling off collected recyclable materials. As China was one of the top buyers of U.S. recyclables according to NPR, this move has left many Suffolk townships unsure what to do with their residents’ recycled garbage.

To recycle or not: Tips  on handling your trash

By Kyle Barr

Operators of the Brookhaven recycling plant deal with a lot of junk. Not the good kind of junk, however, as many household items that residents assume can be recycled can cause havoc in the machinery.

In the four years since the town invested in single-stream recycling,  Erich Weltsek, a recycling coordination aid for Brookhaven, said there has been increased resident participation in the recycling program. But it has also led to some residents chucking in items that have no business being recycled.

We’ve gotten chunks of concrete, and you even get sports balls — like soccer balls, footballs — constantly,” he said. “A lot of what we call ‘wish cycling,’ where people think they’re doing the right thing and when in doubt they throw it in a recycle bin instead of the right receptacle.”

Weltsek said people have tried to recycle Coleman outdoor stoves and propane tanks, which is extremely dangerous and could result in an explosion at the facility.

The most pervasively disruptive items are plastic bags and other items that Weltsek called “tanglers,” such as Christmas tree lights, pool liners and garden hoses. The recycling facility operates on a number of conveyor belts that first feed into a device called a star screen, a number of rotating cylinders with feet that separate recyclable fibers from other items. These items either wrap around the wheels on the conveyor belt or star screen, either letting fibers through the wrong end or stopping the machine entirely.

Suffolk residents should clean out any plastic bottles or cans before putting them in the recycling. Any low-quality paper products or grease-stained cardboard such as used pizza boxes, should not be recycled because they affect the sellable quality of the entire recycling bundle.

Andrade said all plastic bags should be recycled at a local supermarket, which are mandated by New York State law to have a receptacle for all shopping bags.

The plant often has to turn away other nonrecyclable material, such as plastic utensils, bottle caps and Styrofoam. All of these are considered contaminants, either because they cannot be recycled properly, or they
dilute the quality of the material.

“While it hasn’t stopped it, China’s new policies have significantly slowed down the ability of recyclers to move material to market,” said  Christopher Andrade, commissioner of Brookhaven Town’s waste management department. “There are domestic mills and domestic markets [but] the thing is just finding them, negotiating them and moving the material.”

That is easier said than done, according to Andrade, as many recycling plants across the nation now have fewer options of where to sell their collected goods. China has publicly claimed the decision has to do with the quality of the materials, as low-quality newspaper print or thin PVC plastics are not considered valuable enough for reuse. There’s also the problem of recyclables being mixed with other, nonreusable garbage.

In 2014, Brookhaven moved from dual-stream to single-stream recycling, a system that allows residents to put out all their recyclables in a single can to be sorted out at the town’s facilities instead of bringing out a different material — plastic, papers or metal — every other week. This increased overall participation in the recycling program, Andrade said, but has led to some confusion.

The loss of the Chinese market has severely interrupted the Brookhaven-owned Green Stream Recycling facility’s outflow. Green Stream Recycling LLC, a company that contracts with the town and operates the town’s facility in Yaphank, made good use of China’s market. While the facility continues to operate without a definitive answer to where else the company can move its materials, some of it is now going back into the landfill, according to Andrade.

This crisis is not only affecting the Town of Brookhaven, but other municipalities on Long Island which sell their collected recyclables to Suffolk County’s largest township. In 2014, the Town of Smithtown formed a five-year contract with Brookhaven to send 12,000 tons of garbage to the Green Stream facility,  in return for $180,000 per year. While Brookhaven continues to honor the agreements with its partnered municipalities, the lack of market availability for recyclables has some members of Smithtown Town Board concerned.

At a Sept. 4 work session, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) showed board members a photo taken by a drone in May showing recyclables piled in heaps just outside Brookhaven’s facility. The picture made Wehrheim and other board members question what might become of the town’s current recycling agreement.

“At one point, we’re going to come to some decision what to do with [Brookhaven Town,] Wehrheim said. “It could be a potential problem … in the short term.”

Andrade said that excess dumping on the facility’s land came from the “shock” of China’s National Sword policy being implemented earlier this year, though he said the situation has since been brought under control. Despite these international issues, Andrade said Brookhaven remains committed to recycling.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) “and the board believe very strongly in recycling, and we’ll bounce back from this,” he said.

The markets are being overwhelmed; the people taking the material can be picky on what they accept. We’re going to have to respond by being better at only putting out the things that people can actually reuse.”

— Russell Barnett

Russell Barnett, Smithtown’s environmental protection director in the Department of Environment and Waterways, said he is working on a solution with Brookhaven, including a regional approach comprising Smithtown, Huntington, Southold and several other communities that are partnered with Brookhaven.

Smithtown had its own dual-stream facility that was closed before it started sending its materials to Brookhaven in 2014, though reopening it could be costly.

“We’re assessing our equipment — seeing what’s operational, what’s not, what repairs need to be made and what upgrades need to be made if the occasion comes up that we want to go that route,” Barnett said.

In the meantime, he said residents need to be more discriminating when it comes to deciding what items to recycle. Otherwise, it will be much harder in the future to find a buyer for the world’s recyclable garbage.

“When they talk about the standard, they’re not just talking about nonrecyclable material
but the right kind of recyclable material.” Barnett said. “The markets are being overwhelmed; the people taking the material can be picky on what they accept. We’re going to have to respond by being better at only putting out the things that people can actually reuse.”

Incumbent New York State Assembly 2nd District Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo speaks at TBR News Media during the 2014 election cycle. File photo by Elana Glowatz

After a Republican primary characterized by a challenger’s legal battle, the status quo prevailed in New York’s 2nd state Assembly District Sept. 13.

Two-term incumbent Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) defeated challenger Mike Yacubich, a Shoreham resident and chief of the Rocky Point Fire Department, to earn a spot on the general election ballot in November. Palumbo secured more than 80 percent of the vote, with 2,740 registered Republicans in the district casting their ballots for the incumbent to just 641 for the challenger.

“Thank you to all of the friends, supporters, staff, volunteers and especially family who sacrificed the summer to get this done,” Palumbo said in a post on his campaign Facebook page. He did not respond to a request for comment sent to his campaign email. “I’m humbled by the tremendous turnout and the results last night are a reflection of your hard work and support. It’s an honor to serve you and we are on to the November general election.”

Yacubich’s effort to challenge Palumbo wasn’t without a dose of intrigue. Judges from the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled in his favor Aug. 24 allowing his name to appear on the Sept. 13 ballot following challenges to his petition signatures raised by three citizen objectors from the district concerned two Mike Yacubichs were registered to vote at the same Shoreham address — both the candidate and his 25-year-old son.

The objectors argued that since the father and son are registered to vote at the same address, those who signed the petition approving the elder Yacubich as a political candidate couldn’t have distinguished between he and his son, who also goes by Mike. The argument was heard by the Republican and Democratic commissioners of the Suffolk County Board of Elections — Nick LaLota and Anita Katz, respectively — who brought the case to the Suffolk County Supreme Court. The lower court initially ruled against Yacubich, who then appealed and won to restore his name to the ballot. The appeals court judges ruled the board of elections “exceeded its authority,” in disallowing Yacubich’s signatures, finding no proof of any intention to confuse voters.

“We fought hard and put a lot of time and effort into an election process that clearly does not welcome outsiders,” Yacubich wrote in a Facebook post. “I can only hope we shed some light on an election system that could certainly use some changes, and I hope that some good will come from us expressing our frustrations with our elected officials.”

Palumbo, who won a special election in 2013 to assume the seat he has held for two official terms following campaign victories in 2014 and 2016, will now turn his attention to Democrat Rona Smith, who he will meet in the Nov. 6 general election. Smith is a Southold resident who currently serves as chair of Southold’s Housing Advisory Commission, sits on the town’s Economic Development Committee, and is vice chair of the Southold Local Development Corporation.

“Now we move forward with real issues that are important to constituents,” Smith said in a phone interview following the primary. “It’s about coming out and saying what you believe in, what you stand for and if that connects to the constituents.”

Students holding buttons at voter registration

By Judie Gorenstein

New York ranked 41 out of 50 states in voter turnout in 2016 and 49 out of 50 in the 2014 off-year election. Of all eligible New York voters, only 28.2 percent voted in 2014. When you look at the youngest age group, those between 18 and 25 years old, the turnout is even lower. And nationally in 2016, 70 percent of those over 70 years old voted. By contrast, only 43 percent of those under 25 did.

As Election Day approaches, students who leave for college will ask how and where they should register and vote. Although a Supreme Court decision in 1979 gave all students the right to vote where they attend college, election law is a state’s right. Each state thus has its own laws regarding voting, including registration deadlines, residency and identification requirements (ID) at the polls. 

In New York State, any citizen not in jail for a felony conviction can register to vote in the year they turn 18. To vote this year they must be registered by Oct. 12 and be 18 by Nov. 6, the date of the 2018 General Election. 

Even if a college student is living in another state or another New York county, they can ALWAYS vote absentee in their home district, which is a two-step process. They first need to complete an absentee ballot application and mail or deliver it to their county Board of Elections by Oct. 30. (The application form can be downloaded from NY BOE at http://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/download/voting/AbsenteeBallot-English.pdf and is available at libraries, post offices and the BOE.) 

The BOE will mail the actual ballot to the student, who must return it to the BOE postmarked by Nov 5. As long as the ballot was correctly completed and received by the BOE no later than 7 days after Election Day, the vote will be counted. Absentee ballots matter … they can change an election’s outcome.  

Frequently college students decide to register and vote where they are attending college. They feel it is important to get connected and have a voice on the issues in their new community and in the state where they may be living for four plus years. The Supreme Court may have given college students the right to vote where they go to college, but students are NOT ALWAYS ABLE to vote there. Some states have put up barriers to out-of-state students through their ID and residency requirements.  

Although New York in most cases does not require any voter ID at the polls, 34 states do so, with 17 states requiring photo ID. In Pennsylvania a college photo ID is sufficient while in other states it is not. In Texas a state-issued driver’s license or handgun license is accepted but not a college ID.  

Election laws can change. New Hampshire has just tightened its voter residency requirements, making it necessary for a student to register his or her car in New Hampshire and obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license. Students who want to vote at their college address should access that state’s most current requirements at www.campusvoteproject.org/ for election law and registration deadline information. “Your Right to Vote in New York State for College Students” is also available from LWVNYS at http://www.lwvny.org/advocacy/vote/RTVCollegeStudents.pdf 

In this time of student activism, those interested in a political career should strongly consider voting absentee; the residency requirement for a New York State candidate is living in the state or district for five years prior to being able to get on the ballot. But whether students decide to register and vote absentee in New York or in their college community, it is important that they learn about the issues and the candidates on their ballot, and VOTE. Our democracy works best when everyone participates.

Judie Gorenstein is vice president for voter services of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Candidates to meet again on the ballot in November

Theresa Whelan and Tara Scully discuss their Democratic primary race, which takes place Sept. 13, during an exclusive interview at TBR News Media in Setauket Sept. 6. Photos by Kyle Barr

Their first race is in the books, but the more important one is yet to come.

Family Court Judge Theresa Whelan defeated attorney Tara Scully in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 to secure a spot on the November ballot in the race to preside over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court. Whelan received nearly 65 percent of the vote, besting Scully 38,674 to 21,040 votes.

“Last night was a great victory for Democrats,” Whelan said in a statement Sept. 14. “I want to thank the voters of Suffolk County and Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer for having confidence in me and my credentials. I’m looking forward to presenting my 10 years of judicial experience and 30 years of courtroom experience to the voters in November.”

“Last night was a great victory for Democrats.”

— Theresa Whelan

A spokesperson for Scully’s campaign characterized the primary result as a win for the candidate.

“Tara scored her first victory in July, when her entrance into the race forced party leaders to scrap their plan to make a Conservative the candidate of the Democratic Party and scurry to find a Plan B,” campaign spokesman James Walsh said in a statement. “Today, more than 21,000 Democrats who voted to make Tara the candidate of their party sent a clear message to the party bosses that they are fed up with cross-endorsement deals. Tara is still the only candidate for Surrogate nominated by the people. No other candidate gathered a single signature to get into the race. We are confident that she will have broad support across party lines in the General Election.”

The nearly 60,000 voters in the closed primary represented a significant turnout jump from the last time Democrats went to the polls. On June 26, a little more than 32,000 Suffolk County residents registered as Democrats voted in Congressional primaries for the 1st and 2nd districts combined, though the Sept. 13 primary also featured New York gubernatorial, lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates.

“Today, more than 21,000 Democrats who voted to make Tara the candidate of their party sent a clear message to the party bosses that they are fed up with cross-endorsement deals.”

— James Walsh

The Surrogate’s Court race came under scrutiny after Newsday ran an editorial publicizing the political patronage and cross-endorsement agreements that highlighted the race. Newsday reported earlier this year District Court Judge Marian Rose Tinari, who is married to Suffolk’s Conservative Party Chairman Frank Tinari, and is a Conservative herself, had secured the Democratic Party line in the Surrogate’s Court race as a result of a deal with Suffolk Democratic Committee Chairman Rich Schaffer.
As a result, Scully said she gathered enough petitions to run on both Democratic and Republican lines in July to offer voters an alternative. When presented with Scully as a primary challenger, Tinari dropped out. The Democratic Party then nominated Whelan, who calls herself a life-long Democrat.

Despite Thursday’s primary defeat, Scully has secured the Republican Party line in the race for Surrogate’s court and will face off Whelan again at the polls in less than two months.

Judge John Czygier Jr., who currently oversees the county’s Surrogate’s Court, is nearing the mandatory retirement age, leaving a vacancy Scully and Whelan are competing to fill. The position, which yields a salary in excess of $200,000, carries a 10-year term, and the occupant may serve until age 70.

Surrogate’s Court is responsible for handling all issues involving wills and the estates of people who die. The court also handles guardianship hearings and some adoption cases for children whose parents are deceased. Each of New York state’s 62 counties has one surrogate judge except New York and Kings counties, which have two each.

This post was updated Sept. 18.

Three Village Civic Association held a forum Sept. 4 during which Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Rich Johannesen, Mary Ann Johnston and Anthony Figliola weighed in on an upcoming referendum in Brookhaven. Photo by Alex Petroski

Brookhaven Town has taken steps to change laws pertaining to terms of office for elected officials, but civically minded citizens are discussing it before jumping on board just yet. The Three Village Civic Association hosted a forum Sept. 4 at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library featuring four experts to discuss the proposal, which will appear on November’s ballot in the form of a referendum to be passed or failed by Brookhaven voters. Audience members came from as far afield as Medford and Patchogue.

The speakers included 1st District Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station); Rich Johannesen, a veteran of local politics considered an expert in governmental workings, who helped lead a citizens initiative to establish council districts in the town more than 15 years ago; MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations who also has seen more than her fair share of political races and policy discussions; and Anthony Figliola, former Brookhaven deputy supervisor and vice president of Empire Government Strategies, a company that provides strategic counsel on governmental relations and practices to municipalities.

Brookhaven’s board voted unanimously Aug. 2 to establish a referendum on the ballot Nov. 6 asking town residents to weigh in on changes to terms in office for elected officials, specifically increasing terms from two years, as is currently the law, to four years for councilmembers, the supervisor and highway superintendent, which would put it on par with the other Suffolk townships. The referendum will have a second component as part of the same, single “yea” or “nay” question: limiting officials to three terms in office. That component would impact the above positions, as well as town clerk and receiver of taxes. Both components will appear as part of a single proposition, according to Town Attorney Annette Eaderesto. If passed the law would go into effect for terms beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

In 1993, residents voted to implement a limit of three terms of four years each on elected officials, though that law was no longer applicable following a 2002 public vote to establish council districts since state law dictates councilmembers in towns with council districts serve two-year terms, according to Emily Pines, Romaine’s chief of staff and a former New York State Supreme Court justice, who spoke during the Aug. 2 town hearing.

Some of the speakers at the Sept. 4 civic forum took issue with Brookhaven’s interpretation that the law of the town isn’t already limiting elected officials to serving three terms, calling on politicians to solicit an opinion from the state attorney general. Others pointed to language which could allow sitting board members to start their term clocks afresh, despite having served several terms already on the board, as particularly objectionable. Some suggested the referendum felt rushed saying, waiting a year would ensure full community awareness about the town’s intentions.

Below are some of the comments from the civic association’s invited guests in a session moderated by the civic’s Herb Mones:

Johannesen: “I’m going to be very clear — I oppose four-year terms. The longer we allow elected officials to serve without putting them before us, the more likely it is that they are going to become corrupt. I think if you look at the history of corruption in this town and you look at the history of corruption in this county, one of the reasons why our elected officials have gone south is because there were no checks and balances. There hasn’t really been the kind of political diversity we were hoping for.”

Johnston: “The founders thought it was good enough for our congressmen to be two years; the state constitution provides for our assemblymen and our senators to be two years. And if the problem is raising funds for political campaigns, then the issue isn’t the length of term, because we have no guarantee they’ll ever stop raising funds and do it continually for four years. This is what the voters want: We chose councilmatic districts and the Town of Brookhaven fought us tooth and nail all the way down the line. And now they’re telling us that the 1993 referendum that we enacted was repealed by council districts. That’s not true. We already have term limits. It can’t be repealed by implication.”

Figliola: “To be perfectly candid, whether it’s two years or four years, you can’t legislate human conduct. So, if people are going to be corrupt, they’re going to be corrupt. I think that’s what prosecutors are for. It’s very hard to get elected if you’re a challenger unless it’s an open seat. It’s possible … but it’s difficult. That doesn’t have anything to do with corruption. I believe term limits can help, they can’t completely stop it, but can help because it will open up an opportunity for citizen legislators to be able to run. What this will do is, this will say ‘you have consecutively or nonconsecutively three four-year terms and then you’re out.’”

Cartright: “As you all know, two town board meetings ago, I voted in support of putting this on the ballot for a vote. This has been something that me and my colleagues have been discussing for quite some time — at least four years or so. I think this is an important discussion that needs to be had. Am I advocating one or another? I am not. I understand both sides. My personal opinion is that for good governance, I do think that four years would be better than two years, based on my experiences.”

Scully and Whelan face off in Democratic Primary Sept. 13, but they could meet again in the general election

Theresa Whelan and Tara Scully discuss their Democratic primary race, which takes place Sept. 13, during an exclusive interview at TBR News Media in Setauket Sept. 6. Photos by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Alex Petroski

Political races for local judgeships don’t tend to garner much attention, but the 2018 race to preside over Suffolk County’s Surrogate’s Court is breaking the mold.

Judge John Czygier Jr., who currently oversees the county’s Surrogate’s Court, is nearing the mandatory retirement age, leaving a vacancy candidates Tara Scully and Theresa Whelan are competing to fill. The position, which yields a salary in excess of $200,000, carries a 10-year term, and the occupant may serve until age 70. The candidates face off in the Democratic primary Sept. 13 for the party line in the general election.

The situation has drawn criticism far and wide, largely on the practice of cross-party endorsement deals. The candidates sat down Sept. 6 for an exclusive interview with TBR News Media’s editorial staff to set the record straight.

What is Surrogate’s Court?

Surrogate’s Court is responsible for handling all issues involving wills and the estates of people who die. The court also handles guardianship hearings and some adoption cases for children whose parents are deceased. Each of New York state’s 62 counties has one surrogate judge except New York and Kings counties, which have two each. The court’s rulings can involve large amounts of money, making it uniquely susceptible to political patronage.

Scully and Whelan both said they have the utmost respect for Czygier and seek to continue his legacy and practices.

“Surrogate’s Court is there to help families when they can’t really help themselves,” Whelan said. “It has to be fair.”

Scully stressed the importance of having empathy in Surrogate’s Court.

“It’s a sanctuary and it needs to be treated like that,” she said. “People there are dealing with extremely difficult issues.”

Family Court Judge Whelan vies for nod

“I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

— Theresa Whelan

Whelan, 56, a Wading River resident, said she is throwing her hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination because of her qualifications and experience.

“I have the bench experience,” Whelan, a registered Democrat, said. “I thought that it was important that an actual Democrat represented the Democratic Party in this race.”

The nominee took the bench in Suffolk County Family Court in 2008, before becoming the supervising judge in 2016. There, she hears primarily abuse and neglect cases. Her responsibilities include overseeing nine judges and seven support magistrates in two courthouses.

“I have assisted hundreds, if not thousands of children to be successfully reunited with their parents,” Whelan said. “And if that’s not possible, we try to find them another loving option.”

Since 2009, Whelan has led Suffolk County’s Child Welfare Court Improvement Project, an initiative to address court practices when a child is removed from a parent’s care while trying to ensure their safety and well-being.

The nominee said she is an active member of the Suffolk County Bar Association and often lectures for them. She co-chaired Suffolk’s Family Court & Matrimonial Law committee for three years and is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association. Whelan’s husband, Thomas, is also a judge, currently serving as a Suffolk County Supreme Court justice.

Despite current calls for an end to party patronage, Whelan said the position she’s running for is not a tool to fix the political system. She hopes to win on her own merits.

“I have support of statewide judges, the chief judge, the administrative judge, the bar association, etc. [in my roll on the Family Court],” the nominee said. “I stand here as my own candidate.”

Scully cites her experience in elder law

Scully, 41, of Setauket, said she’s seeking the Democratic nomination after calls by Newsday and other elected officials to challenge the patronage system affecting this and other judicial races.

A registered Republican, she pointed to her years working in elder law as part of the experience she can bring to the Surrogate’s bench.

“I do recognize I have an uphill battle,” Scully said. “But I love the Surrogate’s Court, and I believe the sanctity of our courts has to be preserved.”

Scully started her career working in the executive chamber of former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R), before serving as counsel in guardianship proceedings for the state’s Appellate Division’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service. Like Whelan, she also is a former president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association.

Scully began her Port Jefferson-based practice in 2011 focusing on elder law. She said she has extensive experience in estate planning and administration, asset protection and guardianship proceedings, all of which she said would be important knowledge for Surrogate’s Court. Like Whelan, Scully also has political connections in the family as her father, Peter Scully, has name recognition in Suffolk County. He previously served as the regional chief for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and currently works as one of County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) deputies.

Tara Scully said she often provides free legal representation for indigent seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.

“I have a poor business sense in the amount of pro bono work I take on,” Scully said.

In 2015, Scully ran for Brookhaven Town District Court judge where she said she saw firsthand the way party patronage has entwined itself with politics after turning down a cross-endorsement deal. She lost by 173 votes.

“I was so green I didn’t realize at the point that in many circumstances it was business as usual,” Scully said. “I think a lot of people were upset with me that my gut reaction was revulsion.”

Political backstory

“Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

— Tara Scully

Although judges are expected to set aside their personal beliefs, politics has marred the race, though not necessarily thanks to the candidates themselves. Neither Whelan nor Scully were involved in this race as of early summer. Newsday reported earlier this year District Court Judge Marian Rose Tinari, who is married to Conservative Party chairman, Frank Tinari, and is a Conservative herself, had secured the Democratic Party line in the Surrogate’s Court race as a result of a deal with Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, Rich Schaffer, which was one of many similar deals between Suffolk party bosses.

In June, Newsday ran an editorial in the form of a want ad, calling for a candidate “with a backbone to resist pressure from political bosses,” in response to the cross-endorsement of Tinari. Scully said she sprang into action as a result of the editorial to meet a tight deadline, and garnered enough signatures to run as both a Democrat and Republican. With a primary challenger stepping up to the plate, Tinari withdrew. Democrats then selected Whelan, who called herself a lifelong Democrat, as their candidate.

Scully has argued her decision to enter the Democratic primary — despite being a registered Republican — has provided voters with a more transparent choice than if a Conservative had remained on the Democrat line.

“I think the real point is six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, the Democrat candidate was a Conservative, and Democrats would go in and vote and not have any idea that the individual they’re voting for is not in line with their party philosophies,” Scully said. “Cross-endorsement deals are dictating who our judicial choices are, and the voter is unaware an individual without political backing, without a political upbringing or allegiance to political parties is never going to take the bench.”

Whelan argued that voters are equally in the dark with a Republican in a Democratic primary. If she loses Thursday, there will be one name occupying both major party’s lines come November, as Scully has already been penciled onto the ballot by the Republican Party. Whelan joked when voters enter booths Sept. 13 they’ll simply be deciding between two Irish last names with little knowledge of the politics. She also took issue with Scully portraying herself as “standing up for Democratic principles” on her campaign site.

“If I don’t win the primary, voters don’t have a choice, and I think that’s fair to say,” Whelan said. “I’m presenting myself as a Democratic Party member and the experienced judge, so that Tara and I can actually have a real election on Election Day, and I think that’s what she was trying to accomplish in the beginning.”

This post was updated Sept. 11. This post was updated Sept. 12 to clarify a quote from Whelan.

Trustee Adam DeWitt resigned from Port Jeff's BOE. File photo by Elana Glowatz

If you were out enjoying the last drop of summer at the beach or on vacation you might have missed it. Port Jefferson’s board of education appointed a new member at an Aug. 29 meeting following the Aug. 1 resignation of Adam DeWitt, who was elected to a third term in May 2017.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of appointing Port Jeff resident Ryan Biedenkapp, one of six candidates who ran to fill three open seats in the May 2018 election and placed fourth. New trustee Ryan Walker was the lone vote in opposition of the appointment. He said he wanted to take more time to discuss other options, like opening up the process to interested applicants to be interviewed and selected from by the board, or holding a special election within 90 days of DeWitt’s resignation. René Tidwell, another newly minted member of the board, abstained citing similar reasons to Walker, with whom she campaigned in May.

“I think we’ve had time to discuss it, to bring up our feelings about it,” BOE President Kathleen Brennan said prior to the Aug. 29 vote, referencing a similar discussion at an Aug. 14 meeting, at which the board’s options to fill the vacancy were laid out. “I don’t think that we are rushing this. I think Mr. DeWitt resigned Aug. 1. It’s now the end of the month.”

The board’s options included leaving the seat vacant until the May 2019 vote, holding a special election at a cost of about $10,000, or appointing someone to fill the seat. Members Brennan, David Keegan, Tracy Zamek and Ellen Boehm voted in support of option three to appoint Biedenkapp based on how previous boards handled surprise vacancies in the past.

2018 BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. File photo by Alex Petroski

“I think we’ve got someone in the community who’s committed to doing it, who’s done the thoughtful work of making the commitment,” Keegan said.

Biedenkapp received nearly 500 votes in May, falling a little more than 100 votes short of Zamek, securing her the third trustee seat.
“I feel like it’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” Zamek said, who had campaigned with Biedenkapp.

The newly appointed trustee could not  immediately be reached  for comment. Although, the board president said she had been in contact with Biedenkapp and he was interested in the position. Brennan said, at the request of the board following the Aug. 14 meeting, she also reached out to trustees who recently stepped down or did not seek re-election to gauge their interest. Both declined.

Tidwell argued the board was in the unique position to appoint someone with qualifications that could be an asset to the board. She supported the idea of doing due diligence to find a new member by conducting interviews and further discussion amongst the BOE.

“I believe our board should also consider all other community members who expressed an interest in serving on the board as well as those who have served previously,” Tidwell said. “I think if this board is going to take the first steps in bridging the divide that has existed in our community, then pursing a transparent and equitable process for filling this vacancy is a first step in the right direction.”

Tidwell’s reference to a community divide was a harkening back to a Dec. 2017 $30 million bond referendum that was overwhelmingly voted down by the community. It sparked a heated community debate based on the items included in the list of proposed projects.

Walker said, in part, he was opposing Biedenkapp’s appointment because the appointee had previously been in favor of adding lights to the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road and it would be a betrayal of  Walker’s campaign message. The elected trustee added he would work with the new member if the majority were in favor, a point Tidwell also reiterated.

DeWitt said he was proud of his time on the board, adding that he learned a lot and appreciated his fellow members’ desire to better the community. He also wished his former colleagues well.

“It became increasingly more challenging to attend the meetings because of my work schedule,” DeWitt said.
He is employed as a school principal at a seventh- and eighth-grade building by Longwood school district.
“I don’t like to do anything if I can’t commit fully, it’s not fair to the community,” DeWitt said. “I wish I could continue to make the commitment.”

Biedenkapp’s appointment will run through May 2019.

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