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Politics

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

People enrolled in county septic program say it’s political

Suffolk homeowners, who received county grants to install nitrogen-reducing septic systems as part of the county’s septic program, are facing the reality of additional tax burdens and payments after they received IRS 1099 tax forms in the mail.

Participants in the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, which helped install prototype home septic systems that filter out nitrogen in participants homes, were told since the program’s inception in 2017 that only the contractors who did the installation of the systems would need to declare the grant money as taxable income because they received disbursement of funds from the county. 

This year, the office of Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) sent tax forms to the program participants, and in many cases both homeowners and contractors received 1099s for the same job, despite a legal opinion by the county’s tax counsel that advised that the tax forms go to the companies that received the funds, not homeowners. 

SBU’s Christopher Gobler, with Dick Amper, discusses alarming trends for LI’s water bodies at a Sept. 25 press conference. Photo by Kyle Barr

In response, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully sent a letter to the comptroller’s office on March 14 requesting that Kennedy rescinds the 1099 forms issued to homeowners. After getting no response, Scully sent a second letter on March 26 asking Kennedy again to rescind the 1099s and mentioned since the first letter there had been new information that had come to light in the issue. 

Scully stated that the county’s Department of Health Services has confirmed that some of the homeowners who received 1099s have declared the grants as income and like the contractors will be paying taxes on the same grants. 

“It boggles the mind that anyone can believe that having both homeowners and installers declaring the same grants as income and having taxes paid by both parties on the same disbursement of funding is an acceptable outcome,” the deputy county executive said in a statement. 

In a Newsday article earlier this month, Kennedy said he planned to ask the Internal Revenue Service for a private letter ruling on the matter. Scully said that would be unnecessary, citing again the county’s legal counsel advice and other municipalities who have similar programs and are structured the same way. The letter ruling would cost close to $30,000 and could take more than a year, Scully added. 

Some residents who are enrolled in the program have claimed Kennedy, who recently announced he is running against County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in the next election, is politicizing the issue and potentially sabotaging the program. 

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Tim Sheehan of Shelter Island. “I don’t understand the rationale behind double taxing participants besides politicizing water safety and punishing homeowners for doing the right thing.” 

The Shelter Island resident was one of the early applicants of the program and had an advanced septic system installed in his home August 2018. He said without the help of county and town grants he and his wife would’ve not been able to afford the upgrade. 

The deadline to file taxes is April 15.

While Sheehan expected to pay taxes on the town grant, he didn’t anticipate the county liability. He said he is facing close to a $3,000 higher tax bill on the $10,000 grant and as a result has put him into a higher tax bracket and is required to pay a higher percentage on his income.

“Nowhere in the grant contract is there a mention of a tax liability to homeowners,” the Shelter Island resident said. “From the get-go we were told there would be no tax burden.”

Coastal Steward of Long Island volunteer Bill Negra checks the health of oysters in Mount Sinai Harbor. Oysters are one way in which Brookhaven Town hopes to clear up nitrogen in coastal waters. File photo by Kyle Barr

The Shelter Island resident was surprised when he received a 1099 form for the system and reached out to county officials for help. When they said they couldn’t help, Sheehan called the comptroller’s office hoping to speak to Kennedy directly. After numerous calls without getting a response, Kennedy finally called him. 

When questioned Kennedy blamed the current administration for mishandling the issue and told Sheehan that he never agreed with the county’s legal counsel decision. 

Kennedy has not responded to requests for comment.

George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said the tax form issue couldn’t have come at a worse time for a program that not only helps homeowners but improves water quality and waterways on Long Island. 

Hoffman said excess nitrogen, from homes with outdated septic systems or cesspools, seeps through the ground causing harmful algae blooms and can negatively affect harbors and marshes that make areas more susceptible to storm surges as well. 

“These people are pioneers, we should be applauding them for doing the right thing,” the task force co-founder said. 

Hoffman added he supports any effort to reduce excess nitrogen in our waterways and said many homes on Long Island have septic system that are in need of replacement. He is also concerned that the comptroller’s decision could stunt the progress the program has already made. 

Bellone has said there are about 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, and with the issue of being taxed, dozens of applicants have dropped out of the program after learning of Kennedy’s decision to issue forms 1099 to homeowners, according to Scully. 

Officials in the county executive’s office are concerned it could endanger the future of the program and impact funding from the state. In early 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) awarded Suffolk County $10 million from the Statewide Septic Program to expand the county’s denitrifying systems. 

State officials in Albany are aware of the ongoing situation and are similarly concerned, according to Scully. If the IRS were to side with Kennedy, he said they would turn to representatives in Congress for assistance, arguing that those funds shouldn’t be going to Washington but back into taxpayers pockets. 

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John Jay LaValle in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

The cold race for Port Jefferson village mayor just turned hot as a new contender has stepped up to bat, one whose face has appeared large in politics, even on the national stage.

John Jay LaValle, the now retired chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee and village resident said he will be running for mayor of Port Jefferson.

“We need a fresh set of eyes to see how we can assist, revitalize and rejuvenate the Village of Port Jefferson,” LaValle said in an exclusive interview with TBR News Media. 

LaValle announced he is running alongside known villagers Tom Meehan, the principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, and Tracy Stapleton, a local attorney and secretary on the Port Jefferson Free Library board of trustees.

The veteran of politics and local government said he is running mainly to bring back business to the village, which he said was vacating Port Jeff at an alarming rate. He pointed to the multiple empty storefronts both uptown and downtown, and to specific businesses that recently closed their doors, such as Kimi Japanese Restaurant at the end of 2018. He also cites a lack of foot traffic and the seasonal nature of many of the local businesses, which create uneven amounts of patronage throughout the year. On the other hand, he pointed to villages such as Patchogue, which after years of revitalization work has become a booming hub of small businesses, restaurants and bars.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about the village of Port Jefferson.”

— John Jay Lavalle

“The morale in the village needs a bit of a boost,” he said. “You need to encourage the property owners. You can create in government a lot of incentives, expedite applications, rewrite the code to relax certain tax provisions that might be constrictive and restrictive, that’s a simple thing.”

Though he knows Port Jeff as a whole would largely reject the idea of creating a large bar scene, LaValle said he would look to attract young professionals to live and work inside the village, along with expediting the process for businesses to take root in the village and change the village code if necessary.

“If I move my office into the village, I have my employees, myself and my clients who are going to go to lunch every day,” he said. “My clients who are going to see me are going to stop off at different stores. Maybe it creates foot traffic.”

LaValle first held elected office when he was a Town of Brookhaven councilman in 1996. In 2000, he was elected as town supervisor as the youngest man elected to the position. After leaving as town head in 2005, he later became the chairman of the county Republican committee and was a delegate for President Donald Trump (R) in New York’s 1st District during the 2016 Republican National Convention and acted as media surrogate for him on the campaign trail. After the election in November 2018, where LaValle aided U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) into another term, the now ex-chairman said he wanted to get the Republican candidate for Suffolk County executive, the county Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R), settled before he left his countywide position.

LaValle said it was a good question why he would move from a position of sometimes national focus to one in small local government, but he explained it came down to him having a need to take charge when he sees an issue.

LaValle stepped down from the head of the Republican committee March 18, and he said he wants to avoid partisan politics at the head this hyperlocal elected position. He said people he knew personally have asked him to run for the position before, but he did not consider it seriously until after the congressional election in 2018, knowing he was likely on his way out.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about the village of Port Jefferson,” he said.

Election day is June 18. Five-time mayor Margot Garant told TBR News Media she plans to seek re-election. Trustee Larry LaPointe has already announced he will not seek re-election, though petitions seeking re-election still have to be filed by all candidates. Trustee Stan Loucks’ seat is also up for election. Come June 18, whichever two candidates get the highest number of votes will receive the trustee seats. 

Two community members announce their runs alongside LaValle

Running alongside John Jay LaValle are Tracy Stapleton and Tom Meehan for the trustee positions, both who have deep ties to area functions. Stapleton is on the library board of trustees, has worked on the prom committee and is a member of the village zoning board as well.

Tracy Stapleton

The trustee candidate said she is especially interested in making the process easier to bring businesses into the village.

“There’s a lot of empty storefronts, and I would like to see if I can make it easier to bring more people in, get the stores rented,” Stapleton said. “The process seems to be hard to get people in there, they’re finding it hard to get people in.”

“We like our quaint little village.”

— Tracy Stapleton

She also said she would look at parking enforcement, specifically saying current attention to parking is an issue which she has seen with the Port Jeff free library, which she said loses visitors to Comsewogue.

She added she has spoken with LaValle and believes she can work with him, having agreed that more needs to be done to bring businesses into the community. She would also like to look at more beautification projects within the village, whether its creating additional flower beds or putting fresh coats of paint on old structures.

“We like our quaint little village,” she said. “We like that you can walk around. I like everything the village does, especially in the summer. We just need to make it easier.”

Thomas Meehan

Meehan said he and his family are embedded in the village, having graduated from Port Jefferson High School and having his mother, and two of his sons as homeowners within it. Along with being the principal of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, he is also an elected commissioner of the Port Jefferson Fire District.

He said he has considered running for village office for several years, and after having conversations with LaValle, said he thought now would be the best time to run

“I don’t do anything without making plans,” he said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of aspects in the community. I’ve always had in the back of my mind someday I’d run for office.”

Along with Stapleton and LaValle, he is also concerned about the loss of business in downtown. He added he is also concerned with certain commercial developments, specifically the tax breaks given to the Shipyard apartment complex along West Broadway.

Principal Tom Meehan is all smiles with returning students on the first day of school. File photo

He promised to add his voice to problems such as downtown flooding and erosion along east beach and the Port Jefferson Country Club. He also has his reservations about the proposed apartment and retail space at the Cappy’s Carpets location

“We can’t put all the burden on the backs of the residents,” he said. “It seems not much thought is put into a lot of what we’re doing. I’m not pleased with some of the endeavors we’ve taken in the past several years.”

The elementary school principal added he would do what he could to reign in some of the village constables, who he said have been too proactive in placing tickets on residents’ cars. 

“That’s how they subsidize the constables,” he said.

While he said he is largely on the same page as Stapleton and LaValle when it comes to business in Port Jeff, he said he wants to remain autonomous in his decisions.

“I’m very independent,” he said. “I can work with whoever, but I make my own decisions.” 

While he plans to finish out the remaining years of his term as fire commissioner, he is still considering what he would do as elementary school principal should he win as village trustee. 

“I said I’d be here five years — I’ve been here eight, after I’ve already retired” he said. “If I’m elected, I’ll have to look at my role here.”

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.”

John Kennedy Jr. (R) and Steve Bellone (D). File Photos

Executive Steve Bellone, Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. offer differing view of what financial future holds

When asked to critically examine Suffolk County’s finances and what lies ahead for residents, our executive branch and accounting officials couldn’t be further divided on their vision of the future. 

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) said out of the $410 million operating note the county sought to sell for 2019 operating funds only half, or $207 million, could be competitively sold in December. Instead, he had to rely on a negotiated agreement with Bank of America to give the funds needed to run the county’s government at an interest rate of 2.35 percent. 

“This has been one of the toughest times we’d had in the market since I’ve taken office,” Kennedy said. 

“We are in some very strenuous times.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

The county comptroller, since 2015, said it was a combination of factors that negatively impacted Suffolk: seeking funding later than normal, stock market uncertainty and, perhaps most importantly, that Moody’s downgrading the county’s bond rating from A3 to Baa1. 

“We are barred from being purchased by many major investment funds,” Kennedy said, citing Fidelity and T. Rowe Price Group won’t invest. “We are in some very strenuous times.” 

Eric Naughton, Suffolk’s budget director, said while the county’s bond rating was dropped the comptroller was “overstating” its impact and meaning. 

“[Moody’s investors] are looking at the past,” he said. “They are not looking at what is happening in the future.” 

Naughton cited how Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) has implemented many structural changes since taking office in 2012 including reducing the county’s workforce by approximately 1,200 employees, closed John J. Foley nursing home in Yaphank that was losing money and creating the Traffic and Parking Violations Agency to bring in additional funds. 

Kennedy countered that from March 2012 to September 2018 Moody’s has downgraded the county’s bond rating by five ranks. 

“We need to change how county government operates,” the comptroller said. 

Suffolk is not likely to see the state takeover of the county’s government like Nassau according to Kennedy, in good part because the county has about half the outstanding debt of neighboring Nassau — a sentiment with which Naughton agreed. 

The comptroller suggested that in order to avoid dire straits, Suffolk officials should move to consolidate by merging county offices with similar functions, encourage shared services among municipalities, reduce its workforce, evaluate and sell off surplus property where possible, like the former Suffolk County Police 6th Precinct building in Coram. 

“Structural changes were needed and these structural changes were adopted.”

— Jason Elan

Jason Elan, a spokesman for Bellone, said the county executive has done just that. Under Bellone, the county treasurer and comptroller positions were merged, as were four departments made into two:  Labor and Consumer Affairs and Economic Development and Planning. Bellone made county employees contribute 15 percent to their health insurance premiums while taking a pay freeze himself, at an estimated savings of more than $300,000. Further, Suffolk’s workforce has been reduced and, according to Naughton, county-operated land and property is being evaluated to see if it can be deemed surplus. 

“Structural changes were needed and these structural changes were adopted,” Bellone’s spokesman said, noting Kennedy voted against or opposed many of the measures. 

What looms ahead for Suffolk is negotiation of a new contract with the Police Benevolent Association. Kennedy said at a current cost of $573 million per year, the police contract is the largest item in the county’s $3.11 billion 2019 budget followed by roughly $451 million for county employee’s health insurance. 

“If we are not focused on actively managing those expenditures in both categories, we might as well shut off the lights and go home,” he said.

In fact, it’s not just the police but all of the county’s employee contracts have expired. Elan said Bellone would not comment on the status of PBA negotiations. 

Rather he said the county’s greatest opportunity lies in furthering its economic development, like the proposed Ronkonkoma Hub and other projects that will bring businesses to the area.

These issues are some that are expected to be addressed by Bellone when he gives his annual State of the County per tradition in May. 

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta confirmed he will throw his hat in the ring for county executive in 2019 — by launching a grassroots campaign, if necessary.

Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he wants to run against incumbent Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) next November in an effort to tackle a series of what he called wasteful spending decisions, illegal fees and poor contract negotiations that have negatively impacted Suffolk taxpayers.

“No one can afford to live here anymore, kids are leaving in droves,” Trotta said. “I think I could make a difference.”

No one can afford to live here anymore, kids are leaving in droves. I think I could make a difference.”

— Rob Trotta

The representative of Suffolk’s 13th District denounced several of the county’s 2018 capital projects as “wasteful spending.” He rattled off examples including the approved plans for construction of a new fingerprint lab in Yaphank, a study for a guardrail outside Rocky Point High School and a resolution to spend $150,000 for the design of a new K-9 headquarters and kennel for Suffolk County Police Department — which ultimately was voted down in July. Trotta said significant taxpayer money could have been saved if the design work, planning and studies for current and future capital projects were performed in-house rather than hired contractors.

“Do you think we have architects capable of designing a dog kennel? Of course we do,” he said. “That is what’s wrong with the county. That is why I want to run for county executive, because it would never happen.”

The legislator alleges the county’s financial woes are a direct result of Bellone’s negotiation of the 2012 police contract. The eight-year contract gave approximately 400 of Suffolk’s top ranking cops a 28.8 percent pay increase, according to Trotta, over the course of six years costing taxpayers from $55.4 million to $72.3 million. Negotiations between Suffolk County and Police Benevolent Association for the next contract will start in 2019, with the next county executive to expected to play a main role.

“The reality is we can’t afford to pay them what we’re paying them,” said Trotta, who retired as a Suffolk County detective in 2013. “If they had gotten a cost of living increase — which everyone else on the planet would be happy with — we’d be in much better fiscal shape.”

Since the 2012 contract, the Republican pointed out that Moody’s Investors Services has lowered the county’s bond rating by five ranks from March 2012 to this September. The county has borrowed $171.3 million from its sewer fund and $384.4 million from the state pension fund in order to keep paying its contractual salaries and pensions — mainly the Suffolk County Police Department, according to Trotta.

“It’s unsustainable,” he said.

Trotta has spoken out against a number of county fees including the red-light camera program, the alarm registration fee, mortgage recording fee and cremation fees, many of which he alleges generate money Suffolk needs to pay its cops. He’s filed legislation to limit the county’s fees in 2017 and 2018, which failed both times.

If they had gotten a cost of living increase — which everyone else on the planet would be happy with — we’d be in much better fiscal shape.”

— Rob Trotta

The county-executive hopeful said he plans to launch a grassroots fundraising effort by creating a website where supporters can donate to his campaign, with a suggested contribution of $80 because it’s the equivalent of a red-light camera ticket — a program he’s called for to be suspended, if not shut down. Trotta said he cannot morally accept funds from any public sector unions he’d be expected to negotiate contracts with, such as the Police Benevolent Association, although not prohibited by campaign finance laws.

“I might not get elected because of that,” he said. “I might not be able to get my message out.”

John Jay LaValle, chairman of Suffolk’s Republican Committee, confirmed Trotta is a possible candidate for county executive, but the party will not make any official decision until January. The legislator wasn’t concerned about vying for his party’s nomination.

“I think competition is good,” Trotta said. “I think hearing different people’s views are good. Ultimately, the party will come together and pick someone, whether it’s me, [county Comptroller] John Kennedy or whoever else.”

North Shore residents line the corner of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station Nov. 7 in response to the removal of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Photo by Alex Petroski

They say all politics is local.

The national drama of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the potential ties between President Donald Trump’s (R) 2016 campaign and Russian interference in the election experienced an escalation of tensions Nov. 7, one day after the midterm elections, and the response could be heard as far from Washington D.C. as Port Jefferson Station.

Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) resigned that day in a letter that stated the president requested he do so.

As a result, the left-leaning political action group MoveOn organized nationwide protests called Nobody is Above the Law — Mueller Protection Rapid Response to take place across the country Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. A few dozen protestors congregated at the corner of Routes 112 and 347 to make their voices heard and send a message to Washington. The local activist organization North Country Peace Group acted to mobilize North Shore residents in the aftermath of the news.

“[Trump] firing Sessions and everything that he’s been doing since he’s been in the White House is my impetus to get out here,” Ellie Kahana, of Stony Brook, said. “He’s obviously going to try and get rid of Mueller and conceal whatever Mueller is finding out.”

Sessions’ position at the top of the U.S. Department of Justice would ordinarily make him the person in charge of a special counsel investigation, though he recused himself from that investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because he campaigned with Trump during 2016. Sessions’ potential removal was long viewed as a signal by his opponents that Trump may be moving to undermine Mueller’s probe or even fire him altogether.

When asked by White House pool reporters if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, whom Trump appointed, was installed to harm the investigation, Trump called it a “stupid question.” While Trump has referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt” repeatedly on Twitter and in interviews, he has yet to take any steps to conceal its eventual findings or cut off its funding.

“I knew this would happen, in fact I thought it would happen at midnight,” said Lisa Karelis, of East Setauket.

Karelis said the Democrats seizing of the U.S. House of Representatives on election night creating the possibility of increased scrutiny triggered Trump’s urgency for a new attorney general. She added Whitaker’s public statements opposing the expanding scope of the Mueller probe prior to his appointment made it clear what the president hoped to accomplish by naming Whitaker acting attorney general.

Members of U.S. Congress and from both political parties have suggested legislation be advanced to prevent removal of the special counsel. The bill has yet to gain enough support to be delivered to Trump’s desk for signature.

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As I sit here, writing my column on election eve, I can feel — or imagine I can feel — the nervousness of a nation on the threshold of the unknown. More than perhaps any other midterm election, this one has come to epitomize the turbulent and contradictory forces pulsating within America today. One thing is certain, however. The day after the election, we will still be living with those same forces: racism, income inequality, foreign affairs and the role today of the Constitution written more than two centuries ago.

Seemingly just in time, although he explains that he started the book two years before President Trump was elected, Joseph J. Ellis has written about these same subjects by sharing the conflicting viewpoints of a quartet of our most admired Founding Fathers. Remarkably they concern these same issues, and hence Ellis states in “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” that he is writing about “ongoing conversations between past and present.” He even labels chapters “then” and “now” lest the specific themes of his dialogues and how they relate to today are not clear. Our Founding Fathers not only argued among themselves, they argue across more than 240 years, speaking to us in the present — and in a way reassuring us that the dialoguing is not ruinous but rather an asset of our democracy.

So much for our current concern about a divided country.

The four founders are Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and James Madison. Ellis describes Jefferson’s contemptible views on race as he grew older, insisting as he did that the two races could not live together and that blacks could never be equal to whites. This after a younger Jefferson wrote that “all men were created equal,” and denounced slavery. But as we know, he benefited from many slaves at Monticello in Virginia and sired multiple children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Certainly he struggled with the whole issue of race but did little to try to ameliorate the problem. He might have banned the spread of slavery to the Louisiana Purchase that he so brilliantly acquired in 1803, or sold some of it to compensate slave owners for freeing their slaves or even have provided a safe haven for freed slaves to live there. He did none of that.

In their final 14 years through 1826, Jefferson and Adams exchanged letters regularly, arguing not only for their time but consciously for future Americans to be able to read their deliberations. Jefferson held a romantic notion that economic and social equality — not between the races, however — would come to be the natural order of American life. Adams realistically insisted that “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in individuals and families … the snowball will grow as it rolls.” Adams believed that government had a role in preventing the accumulation of wealth and power by American oligarchs. The Gilded Age of the late 1800s proved Adams right, as the unbridled freedom to pursue wealth essentially ensured the triumph of inequality. So has our own age. We have an endemic, widening gulf. What should be the role of government at this juncture in our democracy?

Madison — who orchestrated the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the ratification, wrote many of The Federalist Papers and drafted the Bill of Rights — changed dramatically from a staunchly held belief in federal supremacy to one in which states and the federal government shared sovereignty, thus allowing future residents to interpret the Constitution according to a changing world.

Washington famously warned against foreign adventuring in countries of little threat to the United States. It was almost as if he could see Afghanistan and Iraq over the horizon.

Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books about our early history, believes that history helps us understand the present. We can see the same arguments going back and forth that somehow sound an optimistic chord.

And what does he see as the ultimate fix? A great crisis would certainly unite us, he suggests, perhaps even that of evacuation of the coasts with rising seas. He also thinks mandatory national service would help, not necessarily from the military aspect but toward some form of public good.

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Election Day may be over, but the work has just begun.

Political races are not just about the outcomes. Consistent engagement is needed to make actual change once campaigning is over. The momentum we have seen from our community needs to be kept up by members of both political parties, regardless of the 2018 midterm results.

Political engagement starts with voting, but continues with having conversations with elected officials, attending meetings and keeping an eye on meeting agendas. Let the officials know where you stand on critical issues and how you want them to vote while in office to continue to receive your support. Make a call, send an email or set an appointment to meet your state assemblymember, congressional representative or town councilperson at his or her office. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and let your officials know what’s on your mind.

Another key part of civic engagement is having conversations with the people you encounter in everyday life, whether you agree with them or not, and even joining civic associations.

There is no denying that there has been an air of growing divisiveness during the last few years in our country. Conversations across the aisle are needed more than ever.

Those discussions aren’t happening amid disagreements about gun control, health care, taxes and more. Conversations quickly become so heated people who were once friends, or at least cordial acquaintances, avoid each other in supermarkets or delete and block each other on social media rather than talking it through.

We encourage you to take the first steps in saying the chasm forming in this country is unacceptable. Painting swastikas on election signs is unacceptable. Comedians joking about a U.S. congressman with an eye patch saying, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever,” is just not appropriate. Openly promoting racism and encouraging violence goes against fundamental human rights and American principles.

With two years left until the next presidential election, and campaigns warming up already, it’s time to radically change the tone of the nation’s political discourse before it’s too late. People from different political parties can meet up, have intelligent conversations and come to an agreement. Or, simply agree to disagree and respect each other. There used to be a baseline acceptance that differing opinions were just that, and not an indication of evil motives.

Not satisfied with election results or your elected representative? Start demanding political party leaders seek candidates who have fresh, new ideas supported by concrete plans and the knowledge, confidence and energy to get things done, but do it constructively and with an open mind.

Neither party should take anything for granted, nor should President Donald Trump (R). After a turbulent first couple of years, there is serious work that needs to be done to unite our country to get it moving forward, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Will we be better than our political leaders this year?

For starters, will we get out and vote? It is one of our most important civic duties and responsibilities. Not to sound like a pedantic parent, but people risked their lives long ago so that we could become One Nation Under God. If we don’t vote, are we sending a message to our politicians that we are indifferent until something doesn’t go our way?

How can we possibly complain about the people in Albany or Washington in our representative democracy if we didn’t bother to interrupt our busy schedule to elect people who will make decisions for us?

This election isn’t about any one person, and it shouldn’t be. This isn’t a referendum on anyone other than us.

We have to make informed choices, but, even that is not enough. This year, it seems especially important to vote for the strong, courageous and thoughtful individual.

At this point, we have come down to two parties. It’s the Democrats, who say “no” to everything, and the Republicans, who, in unison, say “yes.” Our politicians shouldn’t be on two diametrically opposed teams — this country is filled with people from every team and walk of life.

It’s stunning how unified both parties are. That doesn’t seem especially valuable to the country. After all, shouldn’t Democrats know a good idea when they see it, and shouldn’t Republicans stop something they don’t think will work?

We are a country of rugged individuals. Our system of national and state governments started when people wanted more freedom from taxes, religious persecution and class systems with relatively limited mobility.

How much freedom are we exercising if we vote “all blue” or “all red,” without knowing the candidates, their positions or their ability to differentiate themselves from their party by making their own choices?

The parties have become caricatures of themselves. They are no longer a collection of ideas coming together, compromising and protecting a wide range of people: They seem to exist for their own sakes and for a specific subset of their party.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if a Democrat promised to support some Republican platforms or ideas? Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a Republican to propose something that ran contrary to their hierarchy?

Where are the men and women with big ideas, who can irritate their own party while gaining reluctant appreciation from the other side of the aisle? Since when did everyone in Washington feel like they had to be the Montagues and the Capulets in “Romeo and Juliet”?

Were Shakespeare alive today, I suspect he would have had a field day with the bickering, finger-pointing and bipolar world of politics.

If we vote along party lines, does it really matter what name is attached to the ticket? If we do, are we sending a message that we’d like our representatives to do the same thing?

Maybe, especially for this election, we should scrap the entire notion of party affiliation. After all, we’re better than a mob. Some time between now and the election, we all should get to know the candidates. If we have a chance to speak with them, we should ask them if they’re going to fall in line with other members of their party or if they’re going to think for themselves. We shouldn’t have to elect a party with each choice at the ballot. Instead, we should elect an individual who thinks for him or herself the way we do.

We should show our politicians how it’s done, by making informed choices and then asking them to do the same.

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Partisanship is a distressing topic these days. We are a divided country on so many issues, and savvy candidates in the upcoming elections try to sooth that aggravation by offering to reach across the aisle to get the nation’s business done. But here is an age-old question that is simply unbridgeable: Which are smarter, dogs or cats?

Now many of us have heard of Chaser, a border collie from Spartanburg, S.C., who understood 1,022 nouns. His owner was John Pilley, a scientist who studied canine cognition and trained his pet as part of his work. There was also a border collie named Rico who could identify 200 items. These dogs helped us reach the conclusion that dogs were extraordinarily intelligent and certainly smarter than cats. But had their partisanship colored the verdict of remarkable canine smarts on the part of owner-scientists?

Currently there seems to be a study for every question, and this one is no exception. Stephen Lea, an emeritus professor in the psychology department of the University of Exeter in Devon, England, along with Britta Osthaus, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England, conducted one such study, according to a recent Laura Holson article in The New York Times. The results are published in the journal Learning & Behavior. In the interests of full disclosure, Lea confessed that he was a cat person. Nonetheless the scientists tried to impartially compare dog cognition with three similar groups: carnivores, social hunters and domestic animals. Among those selected were wolves, cats, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons.

Here is what they found.

Dogs cannot use tools, unlike dolphins, New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, which according to The Times, can harness plant stems to fish for termites. Homing pigeons are trained to fly home over great distances, and probably would be more trustworthy to travel on a 1,000-mile errand than a dog, Lea believes. Domestic animals, like horses, can also impress with their learned tasks and tricks. Dogs seem smart in part, Lea said, “because they like to be trained.” The same cannot always be said for cats.

In my dog-owning years, some 45 all together, I’ve loved and enjoyed the company of three golden retrievers and one royal (the largest) standard poodle. From this small sample, I would conclude that the poodle was the smartest. When I would sit on the sofa and read the newspaper, he would hop up on the cushion next to me, sitting upright as people and that breed do, and peer over my shoulder. I swear I think he was reading the paper, much as paperless people used to do to their paper-toting seatmates on subways before the arrival of the smartphone.

So all right, I am a bit partisan.

The conclusion that Lea’s study reaches is that dogs “are not smarter than they are supposed to be, given what they are.”

Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe and a dog lover, recognizes merit in Lea’s study. He explains that Lea is not putting dogs down but rather putting them in their proper context. What Wynne touts about dogs is their outstanding capacity for affection.

Cats, I feel, are more aloof. So while Lea concludes that dogs are not particularly extraordinary, I would say that by being so affectionate toward humans, they have created the best possible lives for themselves. I once had a plumber working in my house who, eyeing my dog asleep on a pillow, told me, “In the next life I want to return as an American dog.”

Now if that doesn’t show superior intelligence on the part of dogs and their ability to earn that kind of existence, I’m not sure what could reveal a higher IQ. Certainly our elected officials are not nearly so endearing.

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