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Referendum

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1993, residents voted to implement a limit of three terms of four years each on elected officials, though that law was no longer applicable following a 2002 public vote to establish council districts since state law dictates councilmembers in towns with council districts serve two-year terms,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.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine. File photo by Erika Karp

Although politicians in Brookhaven Town are not up for election this cycle, voters will be asked a question with long-term implications for town government in November.

Brookhaven Town board voted unanimously 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. The referendum will have a second component as part of the same 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. Putting the issue up to a vote was established as a result of an Aug. 2 public hearing. If passed the law would go into effect for terms beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

“[The voters] have, in the past weighed in, and whatever they weighed in to is not being listened to now,” Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said during the hearing. “Maybe that’s fine with them, maybe it’s not, but I would like to go back and ask them, ‘what do you think?’”

In 1993, residents voted to implement a limit of three, four-year terms on elected officials, though that law was no longer applicable following a 2002 public vote to establish council districts, as 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 hearing.

Several members of the public commented in opposition of various aspects of the referendum, saying the two components should be separated to be voted on individually; there’s not enough time to untangle issues with the language of the law, like what to do with an individual who served as a councilperson for 12 years and then is elected to another position such as supervisor; and how to handle time already served by current members. Others cited shorter terms as fostering more accountability for elected representatives.

“I think it’s too complex to be one resolution,” said Jeff Kagan, a resident and representative from Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization. “I think you’re asking the voters to vote on somethings they like and somethings they may not like.”

Anthony Portesy, the Democrat candidate for town highway superintendent in 2017 and a private attorney, spoke against extending terms to four years, but said he would be in favor of three years because having to campaign every two years can be “arduous.”

“While I’m not opposed to the extension of terms per se, four-year terms is an eternity in politics, too long for hyperlocal town races,” he said. “We don’t want to create electoral feudalism in Brookhaven through the coercive powers of incumbency.”

Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri spoke in favor of going to four-year terms during the hearing about having to run for office every two years, saying it can get in the way of accomplishing goals set forth at the beginning of a term. Romaine and councilmembers Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) and Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) each expressed similar sentiments when asked if they intend to support the idea in early July when the public hearing was set.

“You don’t have the constant churning in politics that can sometimes undermine the system,” Romaine said. “It allows for long-range planning and programs. It takes the politics out of local government.”

Eaderesto said the town’s law department will draft the wording as it will appear on the ballot in November and share it with the town board prior to submitting it to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by Oct. 1.

St. James Route 25A firehouse. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

St. James residents are planning a rally against the June 19 referendum on the sale of the Route 25A firehouse, feeling they have too many questions left unanswered.

Troy Rosasco, founder of the community organization Citizens for a Safer St. James, is working with others to encourage voters to say no to the sale of the landmark Route 25A firehouse proposed by the St. James Fire District. A group of concerned citizens is planning to gather at 10 a.m. June 16 on the grassy median at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Route 25A.

“I would like to see the main firehouse be owned and retained by the community and by the taxpayers,” Rosasco said. His Facebook following has grown to nearly 400 concerned residents. “We have more control over the future of that building if the entire community owns it, rather than selling it to a group of only 100 firefighters.”

We have more control over the future of that building if the entire community owns it, rather than selling it to a group of only 100 firefighters.”
 – Troy Rosasco

On June 19, the St. James Fire District — which consists of elected officials who are responsible for setting taxes to provide and maintain the buildings, fire and EMS service equipment the volunteers use — will ask community residents to approve a sale of the Route 25A firehouse for $500,000 back to St. James Fire Department, a nonprofit organization representing volunteers for fire and emergency response services.

Rosasco, a practicing attorney, said he feels it’s unfair to the taxpayers that the sale price is set at $500,000; the building is listed on the tax rolls as being valued at $1.5 million. He cites New York State Consolidated Town Law Section 176, Chapter 23, which governs the sale of excess equipment and property by fire districts, claiming the board of commissioners has a fiscal obligation to the residents to sell the building for as much as possible.

Fire Commissioner Ed Springer has said the sale is legal due to a clause in 2013 contract of sale for the firehouse, which switched ownership from the fire department to the district, was granted the state’s approval. The clause allegedly grants the volunteer firemen organization first rights to purchase the building back, if and when it went up for sale, at the same price paid.

“Even if this referendum passes, anyone in the district can go to court and challenge the sale of that firehouse because it was not sold in the taxpayers’ best interest,” Rosasco said.

The St. James resident won a New York State Supreme Court case against the district earlier this month. A state judge ordered the fire district to provide Rosasco with a copy of the 2013 contract of sale, emails between the fire commissioners before and after the failed September 2017 capital bond vote and other documents he requested back in December 2017 under the Freedom of Information Act.

St. James Fire Department has sponsored signs urging residents to “Vote Yes” June 19. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“I wanted to see what their true positions are, their desires of what to do with the firehouse in the future,” Rosasco said June 12. “To date, I still don’t have those emails.”

The St. James resident, the fire district and their attorneys were schedule to appear in court June 13. The fire district did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the court case and the outcome was not available by press time.

St. James Volunteer Fire Department is actively pushing for approval of the June 19 referendum both on its Facebook page and by posting lawn signs throughout the town.

“We want the property back,” Glen Itzkowitz, chairman of the board of the St. James Fire Department, said in January. “We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”

But St. James and Head of the Harbor residents, who contract their fire rescue services through the fire district, say the legality of the vote is not the only thing raising questions. The fire department publicly stated at a May 30 community forum the board is considering consolidating all fire rescue services out of the Jefferson Avenue substation in the future. The potential change has raised questions about the impact on response times as the Route 25A firehouse and Jefferson Avenue substation are on opposite sides of the Long Island Rail Road tracks that bisect the town.

“We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”
– Glen Itzkowitz

This spring, the fire commissioners hired a third-party consultant RFG Fire Rescue Consulting to conduct a study on response times of both fire houses to different parts of the hamlet. While an initial draft
report of the findings was in the board of fire commissioners’ hands by May 30, Springer
said the fire district would release the report only once it is reviewed by the district and consultant.

TBR News Media immediately verbally requested a copy of the draft report after the May 30 community meeting from Springer and was denied. A formal written FOIA request was submitted to the fire district last week by TBR News Media, asking for a copy of the study to be released, and the request was not fulfilled by press time.

“I think they are hiding something that will hurt their position on the June 19 referendum,” Rosasco said. “It’s absolutely outrageous that they are asking us to vote on the sale of the firehouse without having the safety study done and released to the public.”

Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard first voiced his concerns about the safety of his residents if the Route 25A firehouse were to be sold and then shutdown, no longer serving as an active station, at a January community meeting. Since then, the village has officially requested the fire district provide it with a detailed proposal identifying where equipment will be located and anticipated response times to the village.

They haven’t figured it out or they are not providing the information to the residents of St. James.”
– Douglas Dahlgard

“We have not gotten the answers yet, but they say its pending,” Dahlgard said. “I assume we will be getting it shortly.”

The mayor said residents of Head of the Harbor are not eligible to vote in the June 19 referendum.

Both Rosasco and Dahlgard said the fire district has not been forthcoming in providing enough detailed information on its plans after the June 19 referendum.

“They haven’t figured it out or they are not providing the information to the residents of St. James,” the mayor said. “It’s rather strange in my view.”

St. James Fire District officials said publicly if the sale is approved, it will consider leasing space in the Route 25A firehouse from the department at a possible rate of $20,000 per year to hold events and meetings. If the sale is approved by the referendum, the volunteer fire department will still have to officially vote on whether to purchase the building.

The referendum will be held June 19 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue substation on 221 Jefferson Ave.

Harborfields Superintendent Diana Todaro. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Harborfields school district residents voted in favor of $11.7 million in districtwide capital improvements while also mowing down a $1.9 million plan to add turf fields.

The proposals were presented to the public in two separate propositions in a referendum vote held on Tuesday. 

Proposition No. 1, the districtwide upgrades, received 1,248 yes votes and 573 no votes, while Proposition No. 2 for the turf garnered 629 yes votes and 1,177 no votes.

In an email, Harborfields Superintendent Diana Todaro thanked the community for voting.

“I also thank all residents who took the time over the course of the past several months to attend our public meetings and offer their input,” Todaro said in a statement. “We will continue to update the community on the progress of the capital improvement work that was approved.”

The first proposition involves approximately $11.7 million in upgrades to all school buildings in the district. These upgrades include infrastructure repairs, classroom reorganization and athletic facilities improvements, according to a district statement.

This bond contains work to renovate bathrooms and replace damaged doors. It will also upgrade some science labs and completely transform the wellness center into a multimedia production computer lab with a new, bigger wellness center reconfigured in other rooms.

Specifically for the high school, the auditorium and gym will be upgraded and certain athletic fields will be reconstructed with natural grass. Permanent visitor bleachers will be added to the football field and the locker rooms will be renovated and reconfigured.

At Oldfield Middle School, the science labs and family and consumer science room will be renovated as well as athletic fields and tennis courts. The locker rooms will also be reconfigured and renovated. Certain bathrooms in the school will be upgraded and an outside masonry would be appointed. The gymnasium floor will be refinished and the bleachers replaced. The lighting systems in the school’s auditorium will also be upgraded.

At Thomas J. Lahey Elementary School, upgrades will include the installation of a new gym floor, replacement of curtains and risers in the multipurpose room, renovation of student bathroom and the creation of a multi-sensory learning lab. Outdated playground equipment will be replaced and the western parking area would be renovated and drainage improved.

Also, Washington Drive Primary School’s parking area will be expanded.

The second proposition for turf fields was dependent on the approval of the first and would have included a transition to a synthetic turf field at the high school and using an alternative fill, such as Nike infill, instead of crumb rubber.

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