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Civil Service

Fred Leute (right) presented certificates of commendation to code officers during a general meeting of the Port Jefferson Board of Trustees on Monday, Feb. 6. File photo by Raymond Janis

Fred Leute, the code enforcement chief in the Village of Port Jefferson, has been suspended with pay.

In an email, Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden, the village’s public safety commissioner, confirmed Leute’s suspension. 

“Chief Leute has been suspended with pay until further notice,” Snaden said. “The department is running smoothly, and the village is safe and in good hands.”

The news comes just days after Leute delivered the department’s monthly report on public safety during a Board of Trustees meeting held Monday, Feb. 6. 

Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview that Leute “had the opportunity to resign, and if he didn’t resign, then he has been informed that he will be brought up on the [New York Civil Service Law Section] 75 disciplinary charges and potentially have a hearing.” 

When asked whether any particular incident precipitated the suspension, Garant declined to provide further details. “I cannot disclose anything that’s led up to this,” the mayor said. “He has rights. There’s a procedure to follow — being brought up on charges and having the hearing that he’s entitled to.”

Asked whether she or the village board had decided to suspend, Garant said, “The Board of Trustees was fully informed in exec session — and the labor attorney as well. There is no technical vote that has to happen until a hearing officer, after the hearing, makes a recommendation to the Board of Trustees.” She added, “Based on that recommendation, we will then take further action.”

Section 75

Village residents ‘have to assume that the person being charged is not guilty, and they shouldn’t expect any details until the hearing process has proven otherwise.’

— Ken Girardin

The state law requires that an employee covered under Section 75 “may not be removed or otherwise subjected to disciplinary penalty except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon stated charges.” 

Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, has extensively researched the Section 75 disciplinary review process. In an interview, he said the guidelines have been in place for nearly a century, laying out the ground rules by which a public employee can be charged and disciplined.

Section 75 “sets a process where those charges can be laid out and answered in a court-like setting, where an employee can bring witnesses in his or her defense,” he said, offering elected officials “an opportunity to decide whether that discipline should be meted out.”

Girardin suggested a degree of confidentiality is embedded within the review process to protect the due process rights of public employees.

“With respect to the public, there’s always a tough balance between keeping the public apprised of what’s going on and respecting employees when charges have not yet been substantiated,” he said. “But with respect to transparency, the public has an absolute right to know whenever an employee is disciplined” following a Section 75 hearing.

Along with transparency is the matter of cost, which Girardin stated can quickly add up. Between the expense of paying a hearing officer, prosecutor, stenographer, potential witnesses and the suspended employee, he said municipalities must weigh the costs of going through with a hearing.

“The cost becomes a part of the calculation with employee discipline,” Girardin said, adding that mounting costs often increase the likelihood of a settlement, “the terms of which the public should know.”

Given the sensitive nature of the dispute, Girardin maintains that village officials are in a difficult bind, simultaneously weighing competing values of promoting transparency while respecting due process.

“To be fair, it puts them in a really weird spot,” he said. “Because it is a personnel matter, where someone is potentially still without fault here, it’s really hard for them to talk about it.”

For village residents who may wish to stay informed about a potential disciplinary proceeding, Girardin implored them to wait patiently and to respect the procedures put in place.

“They have to assume that the person being charged is not guilty, and they shouldn’t expect any details until the hearing process has proven otherwise,” he said.

A moment in village history

In Leute’s absence, deputy chief John Borrero has assumed the role of acting chief. Garant ensured that the transition within the code department was relatively smooth.

“Everything is pretty automated up there,” she said. “We’re… assuring the ladies and gentlemen of the code bureau that they’re going to continue to get the support that they have always gotten from the administration and from the executive team here.” 

Leute’s suspension also came shortly after Garant announced her retirement from public service. When asked if there was any connection between the two matters, she said they were unrelated.

“Unfortunately, this is the way the timing worked out,” the mayor said. “It is just a coincidence,” adding, “I wish that the timing had been altogether different.”

 

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Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio, right, hears Alan Schneider of Suffolk County Personnel discuss a proposal that would reorganize the town's government. Photo by Phil Corso

When it comes to government efficiency, Smithtown’s supervisor says it is not broken, and doesn’t need to be fixed.

Making good on his promise, Smithtown Town Councilman Bob Creighton (R) invited Suffolk County Personnel Director Alan Schneider to Tuesday morning’s work session to rap over a Creighton-backed proposal that would give the Town Board authority to appoint commissioners, which he argued would streamline workflow within the town. Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R), however, was not swayed in his previous position against changing the way the government operates, welcoming Schneider to the meeting by referring to it as “the lion’s den.”

Earlier this year, Creighton floated the proposal to restructure Smithtown’s government, similar to actions taken in other nearby municipalities like Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington and Islip, taking 24 departments within the town and condensing them underneath four Town Board-appointed commissioners, including planning and development, human services, public works and public safety. The Town Board and Supervisor would remain the same, as would the offices of the town attorney, clerk, comptroller, assessor and tax receiver.

The plan would replace the current structure, which appoints Town Board members as liaisons to various different departments.

“We refined the plan, to some degree, and Alan indicated it was a workable plan,” Creighton said. “It has been utilized in other towns as well.”

Schneider told the board that local laws needed to be written and be brought before the state’s Civil Service Department for approval in order for such a plan to move forward, although he added it would likely make it through if it followed suit of neighboring municipalities that have already taken that route. He gave Creighton’s proposal his personal stamp of approval, nevertheless.

“What you have put before me is doable,” Schneider said. “It would give you four additional commissioners, or directors, depending on what you want to call them, and you can fill these positions with whomever you choose to fill them with.”

Councilman Tom McCarthy (R) suggested that if the town were to go in this direction, the board implement some sort of criteria or standards for commissioner positions in the future to prevent political pandering, or appointments borne out of government deals made behind closed doors.

When he initially brought the discussion to the table, Creighton asked his fellow councilmembers about inviting Schneider from the county level to come in and move the discussion forward. The proposal also received support from Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R), but the others remained reserved.

Vecchio, who had been against the proposal from the beginning, said he did not gain any additional insight into the debate after sitting down with the personnel director.

“It wasn’t helpful to me, I already knew about it” Vecchio said to Schneider. “What we have has worked well, having councilmembers supervise various departments.” Vecchio argued that neighboring towns that underwent government restructuring opened themselves up to political corruption and mishandlings that could have been avoided otherwise. Creighton, however, argued the town should keep the focus on its own municipality.

“We are doing this to correct the span of control,” he said. “In any business, having 23 different people in charge is out of control.”