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editorial

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Ethical behavior has always been required and expected of government officials. In the pages of our newspapers, we are reporting on corruption cases, conflicts of interest and varying degrees of unfair, immoral and in some cases illegal practices in government — all levels of government. 

As one elected official recently stated, there’s a lot of this going on. You see it on federal, state and local levels of both major political parties and we need to eliminate that. 

An administrator in the Village of Northport recently pleaded guilty to using village funds as his “personal piggy bank,” according to Tim Sini (D), Suffolk County district attorney. Former county DA, Tom Spota (D), and one of his top aides were convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. 

We are learning that the New York State Public Service Commission lacks oversight of the Long Island Power Authority, which can easily lead to abuse. Lawmakers are now looking to address that omission. We are not saying LIPA is corrupt, but if fraud is detected through agency audits, officials say they currently can’t take action. And with impeachment proceedings moving forward in the White House, there’s no shortage of examples of issues that deserve our attention. 

What exactly is corruption? It’s when elected officials steer contracts or use public policies and practices for their own personal benefit rather than the public good. When a government agency steers contracts to its family members, clients and business partners or to family members affiliated with these groups, it’s a red flag.

Corruption can, and often does, lead to fraud, wasteful spending and higher operational costs for government that you ultimately pay for personally. The costs are hard to quantify, but said to be significant. The state comptrollers office reports that over 215 arrests have been made and over $60 million recovered. 

Citizens need to sit up and pay close attention. Attend meetings, file Freedom of Information Act requests, look at government contracts, look at campaign contribution filings, demand transparency and ask for town hall-style meetings from your elected officials. If they’re not responsive, elect new officials. 

Among the best remedies known to prevent and beat corrupt practices is keeping citizens informed and engaged.

It may be tempting to look the other way and give officials a pass. It’s certainly easier. But turning a blind eye on corruption only breeds malfeasance. It’s about the worst response there is. Corruption ultimately corrodes the fabric of society and undermines people’s trust in their political systems and leaders. According to Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, it can cost people freedom, health, money and sometimes even their lives. 

As governments struggle with budget deficits and aim to address urgent issues, the prudent thing to do is hold government officials accountable. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel. We the people need to make a point to stay engaged and informed in the new year and demand good government on all levels. 

State officials encourage the public to fight fraud and abuse. To report suspected abuse, call the comptrollers office at 1-888-672-4555 or email investigations@osc.ny.

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People are scared.

You hear it walking down the aisle in the supermarket. You hear it in chatting with co-workers. You hear it with your relatives at the dinner table or over the phone. With the threat of war looming, everybody everywhere wants to know: Will we be safe? What’s going to happen next?

After President Donald Trump (R) ordered the assassination of the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani last Friday, Jan. 3, the world has been reeling in a vortex of panic and debilitating fear. Iran has said there will be retaliation, and the president has said he will respond to the response.

That rhetoric has escalated, with Iran canceling all hopes of a nuclear deal and Iraq moving to remove all U.S. troops from its country. Meanwhile, Trump has said he would even consider bombing cultural sites in Iran as a response — something the International Criminal Court has called a war crime in the past. 

As Iran held a funeral for the slain general, with many thousands of mourners in the streets shouting “death to America,” the Pentagon has asked amphibious forces to be ready to support ground-based operations in that country.

War, huh, what is it good for?

The nation’s armed forces stand ready and, for what seems like only an eye blink from the last war, young men and women may yet again be asked to serve overseas.

One of our reporters encountered a young recent high school graduate at the checkout register in a local grocery store who recently signed up to serve in the military. What was his opinion of the situation? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” After a pause, he added, “We do what we have to do.”

In June of last year, CBS TV’s “60 Minutes” ran an interview by Lesley Stahl with 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. He was also at the head of establishing the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Ferencz fought in World War II and had seen some of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front, including the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. During the interview with “60 Minutes,” he gave a very specific opinion on war.

“War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people,” he said. “All wars, and all decent people.”

Whatever your opinion, whether Suleimani had to die to protect American lives, or whether the U.S. has committed itself pointlessly to another potential war in the Middle East, the common feeling is anxiety. 

We at TBR News Media feel the best way to live in such times is to ultimately stay informed. We ask people not to jump to conclusions. Take the time read the news and watch TV with a critical eye. Avoid posting rumors, propaganda or unverified info to Facebook and other social media sites. 

Perhaps something worse than being uninformed is misinformed, or to be purposefully led astray. Rely on facts that are verifiable to its original source. Consider the opinions of people with first-hand accounts, or named reliable sources with expertise. Some people like using fact-checking sites such as Snopes.com. We also suggest reading Glenn Kessler’s fact-checking blog in the Washington Post, both of whom are largely known for being nonpartisan.

Please, to all our readers, stay informed, stay aware and stay safe.

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There’s something brilliant about a letter. In fact, one of the best ways to test one’s writing skill is in the art of correspondence. Try reading “A Life in Letters” by Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, to see the unique power of the written word. 

Each and every one of our readers letters has power and each and every word counts. Just like news stories, your letters might be capable of prompting change, or inspiring another individual, typically in 400 words or less.

With that power, every letter writer also has a responsibility to readers, and we at TBR News Media would like to clarify just what is at stake when you send in a letter to us. 

As journalists, we are the community’s closest connection between people and government, covering news and events that impact people’s lives on the local level. We especially welcome letters that touch on recent articles, even if it’s something as seemingly benign as roadwork near your house or a neighbor down the road setting off fireworks well past July 4. 

We edit for A.P. style, which is the standard in most U.S.-based news publications. If you were wondering why we only use a person’s last name after the first reference, for instance, that is why. It helps maintain coherence over the many thousands of words contained in each and every issue.

But we also edit for length, libel and good taste. These last three items that have especially been a bone of contention for some of our writers. Lately, many of our letters relate to national issues and the policies of President Donald Trump (R) and include incessant squabbling between the two major political parties. We would never alter your opinion, but we do have an obligation to make sure the facts you cite conform with the truth.

We ask that our writers provide sources or backup information with letters, so we can fact-check the information. 

We’ve received letters using derogatory nicknames for Trump, former President Barack Obama (D) and other legislators and political figures. We have done our best to edit out this potentially defamatory language. Some writers might disagree with this. But, we have also received letters berating other letter writers, and we have looked to soften that language to invite more civil discourse. 

Our view is the “Letters to the Editor” page serves as a form of public debate. Its purpose is to argue the issues, not personally attack an individual. Yes, please send us letters on what you think about the issues of the day, but when letters cross the line, they cheapen or even invalidate their arguments to knock at a supposed rival, or to drag people who live close to us through the mud.

We make a conscience effort to fairly represent opposing views to avoid discrimination. In fact, we find it most interesting and useful when we include letters from people on multiple sides of an issue. 

The majority of letters we get today concern the national discourse, and are essentially a mirrored reflection of the tirades and proceedings we see from people who are supposed to represent the best of us, the majority of us. 

Let’s raise the bar.

Instead of parroting the rhetoric of politicians and pundits, who regularly resort to insults, rely instead on the laws of logic and critical thinking. Analyzing arguments in the free marketplace of ideas is one hell of a responsibility. We the people hope we all take that responsibility seriously. Since accountability is the basis of democracy, let’s give it the gravity it deserves.

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As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So, the Sierra Club, state and local elected officials in Brookhaven are making noise, calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and target the Long Island Rail Road for electrification.

So far, the group, which held a press conference in Stony Brook Dec. 9, has accumulated more than 7,500 signatures, and hopes for 10,000 from Long Islanders by Dec. 12. It may be enough to grab the governor’s attention, but why not help expand the campaign, since people from many other communities along the line benefit from such a long-awaited move.

We ask readers, and their affiliated organizations, to join the effort. The Town of Smithtown, for example, recently announced the construction of a new apartment complex to be built across from Town Hall on Main Street in Smithtown. The appeal of that project was promoted as a good housing option for young professionals who regularly commute into Manhattan. 

Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and town council members should push for electrification. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) attended the groundbreaking to applaud that project. He and the other legislators should also appeal to the governor for electrification of the Huntington-Port Jeff line. 

In Huntington, state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) has been involved with the MTA overhaul. He is pushing for the idea, and it might help if industries and businesses along the commuter rail line organize their own letter writing campaign. 

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Stony Brook University are both along the Port Jefferson Branch. The governor has acknowledged, when he delivered this year’s budget plan, that both institutions were key components to growing Long Island and the state’s economy, extolling his intent to make the area a premier research hub in the United States. So, why not address that slow commute with high-speed service between these research centers, New York City and the region’s airports? Let’s not forget it might also reduce the number of cars on our busy roads.

Grassroot efforts are impactful and should be regularly exercised. On this and many other issues it has a way of instilling a community’s faith in the democratic form of government. 

The outcome can not only reduce emissions in the transportation sector and benefit the economy. It will also improve quality of life. For example, the 4:18 train on Dec. 10 from Stony Brook to Penn Station was 35 minutes late from Port Jeff, effectively making the journey to New York an unacceptable 2 1/2 hours. As a result two staff members had their respective evening’s entertainment truncated. 

The Sierra Club has an online petition which can be found at: sc.org/55×35. To submit petitions from a letter writing campaign to the governor directly, his press office recommends using the postal address: Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Capitol, State Street and Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12224. 

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The season for giving is here, and while North Shore residents plan their holiday feasts, it’s a good time to consider the plight of people less fortunate. 

Imagine, more than 89,000 children on Long Island are hungry, according to Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares. These children aren’t dreaming of visions of sugarplums, they are wishing for substantial meals to get them and their families through the day.

Some centers, such as the Community Food Council on East 5th Street in Huntington Station, are reporting a 33 percent increase in demand over the last three months. It’s unclear why the sudden surge in food insecurities but the food banks are in need of supplies and volunteers, and counting on the local community to find ways to pitch in. So, it’s a good time to develop a plan. 

When preparing to donate to a food bank, a good rule of thumb is to call the nonprofit or visit its website to see what is needed. During this time of year, many have volunteers on hand to put together holiday meals. Throughout the year, depending on donations, there may be a surplus of one item and a deficit of another.

While many may be inclined to reach into their pantry to find nonperishables, a cash donation can often be the most beneficial to nonprofits, so they can turn around and buy food in bulk. This can also save volunteers time, because they don’t need to go through items looking at expiration dates.

If one wants to donate food, a trip to the supermarket is the best bet to ensure the donated items aren’t expired. Though if your cabinets are bursting at the seams, reach in and make sure to check expiration dates on cans and boxes. Also, look cans over to ensure they are not dented or leaking and that boxes aren’t damaged. And steer away from food in glass jars as these containers can easily break.

Take into consideration more nutritious options, too, such as cereals high in fiber, whole wheat pasta and low sodium soups and vegetables. When it comes to any kind of mixes, remember many households may be out of milk or eggs, so choose a mix that can be used with water. Another thing to consider is purchasing toiletries such as toothpaste, deodorant, diapers and toilet paper.

To increase the spirit of giving, organize your local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops or religion classes or get your children involved. Or, if you already know of a group organizing a food drive, contribute your items to the event. Collecting food for those in need is a wonderful way to inspire young ones to help others and it encourages them to continue charitable pursuits when they reach their goals or succeed them.

In our coverage area, in addition to Long Island Cares and the Community Food Council, there are the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry, St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in Rocky Point, St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church in Selden, Ecumenical Lay Council Pantry through the First Presbyterian Church in Northport, St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church in Port Jefferson Station, Our Daily Bread Food Pantry in Setauket and many more. 

As the lights come down in a few weeks, remember when it comes to food banks, the hungry keep coming. The spirit of giving can last all year round as these organizations are always in need of donations no matter what month on the calendar.

The gift of time, too, is also a generous way to contribute.

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The pending impeachment proceedings of the 45th president of the United States means dinner table conversations this holiday season could get extra heated and dicey. So, it may be in everyone’s best interest to avoid broaching the topic, which risks exposing the passionate political leanings of loved ones.

So, what’s a family to do?

As the saying goes, you can’t pick your relatives. But you certainly can choose and encourage activities that bring people together rather than widen the divide. As you and the brood gather, equip yourself with a solid plan that keeps the peace.

Keep in mind, talking about the weather, once a light, safe-harbor topic, could backfire. Discussing California wildfires, for example, could spark a fruitless debate over the scientific theories behind climate change. Knowing this tendency, if you see news footage of the flooding in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, you might want to quickly change the channel.

The first step in any successful endeavor is to set a realistic goal: Coming away from the weekend festivities without anyone suffering black eyes or bruised egos.

One idea is to play a game. Try coming up with a new name for the country, one that drops the word “United” in the United States of America. To keep it democratic, go around the table allowing each person to suggest their own clever alternative.

Before or after dinner, you can also play the fast-paced word game Bananagrams, only conduct politics-themed rounds. The entertaining activity allows for self-expression and could likely become a fair-minded approach to spending quality time together while eliminating tensions in the air. If it doesn’t? Hold a regulation wrestling match on the living room floor and keep score. Takedowns, reversals, near falls and escapes all count.

If tensions rise? Flip the bird.  As in turkey. (Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that you can get away with this one.)

Music soothes the savage beast. So, stream it in. Or better yet, make your own. Form a drum circle using common household objects as percussion instruments. The ancient practice of striking rhythm together is known to alleviate isolation and alienation. But be sure to hide the good china from the tribe.

Building crafts can also be a fun and rewarding activity for family members. Martha Stewart built a dynasty, once she acknowledged this fundamental fact. Try building sock gnomes together. The blind, deaf and mute miniature humanoids can actually become an unexpected and perhaps even necessary source of inspiration for the crowd.

Instead of discussing politics, you might try identifying the moral virtues of each of the world’s many different great religions. 

On second thought, don’t do this.

You could eat in silence like monks. Or you can try giving thanks with everyone recounting their blessings out loud in turn. This may in fact be the wisest strategy, since there’s likely plenty of material to go around.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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For journalism to be effective in not only covering the events of the day, but also uncovering mistruth and misdeed, it requires access to people and records. 

As local journalists, that usually means sitting in an interview or talking on the phone with our local school district, village and town officials, as well as our local, state and federal representatives and officials. More often, though, we find a certain lack of … well, frankly, the ability to connect with some of them. 

This issue needs to be addressed.

Journalism is financially struggling, locally and nationally. Advertising dollars have plummeted, and staffing is short on people. The Pew Research Center has reported print circulation for weekday papers was down nationally by 8 percent for 2018 over the previous year, and 9 percent for Sunday papers.

So, as newspapers struggle to maintain current standing, access to information from all these local sources is now at a premium. 

Too often, information is withheld, embargoed or stymied. Though it is more rare, some officials resort to tactics of intimidation to prevent the release of information. Some sources are afraid to comment on issues for fear of public retaliation. 

Cases of great importance, like that of the ongoing health issues at the Northport Middle School, have bureaucratic hurdles that include using public relations firms as contact people. Something as simple as getting an official’s comments or requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Law can often become problematic. 

It seems to take more work than it has in years before. 

In modern times, the number of public relations professionals only seems to increase, while the number of journalists decline. Bloomberg News wrote this year there are six PR professionals for every one journalist working in the field. This is up from a less than two-to-one ratio just 20 years ago. If you were to check our inboxes, you would likely have to shield your eyes from the blinding number of emails we receive daily from PR firms.

That is not to say we oppose these professionals. They are often a very useful and necessary component of business. And a good PR person can make a reporter’s work a little bit easier. But of course, that’s only when good things are happening. When there are issues, we often find communications professionals actively make getting even simple comments from officials that much harder.

We as journalists often prefer to speak directly to officials when the need arises. That’s what the public expects. We thank the many people who have worked with us on stories, both public officials and spokespersons alike, but we also ask everyone to understand the importance of the press, often regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, even at the levels closest to the community.

Restricting access to even the smallest bits of information hinders the effectiveness of government by the people. It’s problematic for both the journalist and the municipal body that maintains government operations.

In the great tug of war match between journalists and officials over information, the knot in the rope should always land on the public’s side of the line, and our role is to be the watchdog for the people.

We thank the officials and communication specialists who honor that premise and work diligently to uphold high standards. Our world is a better place when that happens. 

Dennis Sullivan blows a bugle at the 2011 Veterans Day Ceremony at the Centereach VFW post. File photo by Brittany Wait

Veterans Day events across Long Island have inspired children to sing, bands to play, politicians to speak and servicemen to march in parades.

Many Long Islanders came out to exhibit unwavering support for veterans on this national holiday. But with so many veterans facing hardships, such as food insecurities, joblessness, homelessness and health issues — some service-related — more needs to be done each and every day.

There are many ways our readers can help the men and women of the armed forces long after Veterans Day is over. Long Island organizations are always looking for help, year-round, whether it’s donating time, money, clothing or gently used items.

Here are a few groups, where you might lend a hand: 

• Long Island Cares Inc. — The Harry Chapin Food Bank: This Hauppauge-based center has been helping veterans, military personnel and their families since 2010. According to the nonprofit, more than 1,200 veterans per month typically receive support from its regional food bank through many of their programs. Long Island Cares will provide 500 veterans with holiday meals this year. The food bank is able to do this in part thanks to an $11,000 donation expected from Steven Castleton, civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. Long Island Cares also offers the Veterans Mobile Outreach Unit, the VetsWork program and Military Appreciation Tuesdays where all Long Islanders can help by donating food items or money.

• United Veterans Beacon House: Headquartered in Bay Shore, this organization provides housing throughout Long Island for veterans. According to its website, on any given day more than 255 men, women and children throughout the tristate area have received services ranging from help with homelessness to treating PTSD, addiction and more. The organization can always use coats, gently used clothing and furniture.

• Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University: Located on SBU’s west campus, interested people can help out by assisting the home’s residents during their recreation programs and trips, or simply by sitting and talking with the men and women.

• Northport VA Medical Center: The VA presents opportunities where community members can volunteer or donate their time or money. A cash donation can be used by the VA to buy items for patients including hygiene products and refreshment supplies. The hospital also collects items such as magazines, coffee, and new or gently used clothing.

Some veterans are doing well, but sometimes they could use a little company. Many people at the senior centers and retirement homes would welcome a visit, so they can share a story, or have someone even record it for future generations.

Long Island has the highest concentration of vets in New York state. These men and women are our neighbors. Make some time to find a vet in your community.

Steve Bellone (D) and fellow Democrats celebrate keeping the county executive position. Photo by David Luces

As election season draws to a close, finally, we are among the many breathing a sigh of relief. 

We heard that a few people were unhappy with our endorsements. That, of course, should be expected. Some points, though, need to be made clear about our process for endorsing candidates.

Starting in late summer, we start gathering a list of candidates for the upcoming electoral season and arrange candidate debates in TBR News Media offices in Setauket. The process is long and grueling and, despite months of effort, sometimes candidates cannot find a time that works for everyone or, as we saw in several cases this year, some people simply never respond or don’t show up. So, we talk with the candidates that do come to the office and conduct candidate interviews over phone or email with the remainder. The better interview is always done in person as a debate in a roundtable discussion.

The last publication date before election day — which for us is a Thursday — becomes the election edition. In that issue, we exclude letters to the editors that focus on local politics, because there is no way for people to respond publicly before the election. Instead, we include our endorsements on the letters-to-editors pages. 

Our election issue contains multitudes of political advertising, but there’s a common misconception that advertising buys our endorsements. The advertising and editorial departments are two distinct entities, and work on two separate floors of our small office space. Advertising is indeed what keeps TBR afloat, but that department has no input on editorial decisions. Of course, there is communication between departments in the newsroom, but that comes down to the placement of ads, and our papers policy avoids placing political ads for candidates on the same page as the candidate profiles that we write.

The endorsements are a product of the interviews, not the other way around. In fact, we are prouder of the debate articles we conduct, which we try to make as balanced as possible between the candidates. We let all sides speak their piece before carefully writing the articles. The debate interviews are conducted throughout October, then written and placed into our annual election issue. These articles range from 500 to more than 1,000 words each for some of the wider-ranging offices. 

The endorsements, on the other hand, are barely more than 200 words each. They represent the collective opinion of editors, along with our publisher Leah Dunaief who moderates the debates. We consider long and hard all that we heard, along with our experience with the candidates on the campaign trail. Sometimes we cannot come to an agreement, or may be on the fence, and meet again the next day to review pros and cons of our choices. The endorsements represent those who we feel might make a better fit for office, but they are also our chance to compliment the person we didn’t endorse or criticize candidates for past performance. 

We at TBR News Media congratulate all who stepped up to campaign for public office but, if we were to be honest, endorsements sometimes have little bearing on future performance. In 2016, we endorsed the opponent of Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) for the office. Toulon won that election, and in 2018 we named him one of our People of the Year. What matters is what an elected official does for the constituents when in office.

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It may be difficult sometimes for news consumers to decipher between a news article written by a journalist and a press release composed by a public relations practitioner, especially when the number of the latter outnumbers the former. In an era of websites and social media,  press releases are plentiful and can be easily shared. So, readers should take heed.

No offense to those in the public relations field. These are the people who play a valuable role in working with journalists to alert them about interesting stories in their coverage areas and connect them with important people.

However, during times when newsrooms are short-staffed and websites make it easier to post items, many times press releases may appear as articles, though they adopt a public relations position that aims to promote rather than inform. For many news outlets, the luxury of using a press release as only a starting point and digging in deeper with their own reporting has become more and more difficult. And with one quick posting, a story presented by a PR person is shared as news.

When it comes to some short pieces — say about an upcoming career fair, what’s going on at the local library or what awards students or people have won — sharing a short press release isn’t a bad idea. When applicable and appropriate, these pieces can be a valuable tool, because journalists can’t be everywhere.

But when it comes to articles that take on controversial subjects, such as where taxpayer money goes, or where an elected official or political candidate stands, it would be wiser to look for the pieces written by a bona fide journalist. Why? Simply because a press release is written to present the stance of a person or institution, usually from a positive point of view. News articles written by journalists look to represent the various sides of an issue, and when it comes to hot button topics, to find the information that wasn’t revealed. This information is also vetted and double-checked.

It’s important for readers to pay attention to what they are reading. When it comes to contentious events, does the article include all sides? Does it cite documentation that verifies the stated facts? Does it show different points of view and include the names of people who chose not to comment? Be sure to look for multiple points of view from credible, authoritative people with firsthand knowledge of a situation, such as an eyewitness or an expert.

It can be difficult at times. There are those contacts who are inaccessible — some even hiding behind their public relations staff — and with short-staffed newsrooms, a well-written press release can be a big help. But when it comes to articles about contentious topics and important matters, make sure that article you’re about to quote at the dinner table or party or share on social media has been carefully constructed by someone who attends the meetings, makes the phone calls and asks the important questions.

Sharpen your skills when it comes to interpreting information. The skill is essential at a point in time when the ways of democracy are being challenged.