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Government

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In an attempt to promote transparency, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently proposed requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists if they are trying to influence editorial writers.

That would mean any public relations professionals who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media to advance their client’s message would be considered to be delivering a lobbying message.

Several New York public relations firms and New York Press Association members immediately spoke out against this proposal, and we side with them and share their concerns.

To force anyone to report to the government before they speak to a reporter seems dangerous, and almost medieval. It treads on freedom of speech if the government is effectively regulating newspaper content, and interfering with a newsroom staff’s ability to independently and objectively judge its sources on its own. On top of that, it is an example of government butting its nose into what are largely privately owned companies — a place it has no business giving orders.

On the surface, it seems as though JCOPE is paying the press a compliment, saying the news media are so valuable that it wants to help preserve the public watchdog’s objectivity. But, in an ironic twist, within the same stroke it would be compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate by controlling its sources.

Freedom of the press is one of the rights America was built upon and relies upon to this day, and this move would tramp on the media’s liberty to print the issues and concerns of the public without needing permission from the government. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to evaluate whether a source is credible and whether a story is newsworthy. Let’s keep this task out of the hands of the government and in the hands of the people who make these decisions every day.

As a newspaper that takes pride in serving the community before anyone else, we stand against this proposal to restrict our communication and we hope you will too.

Plan freezes salaries for pols, bumps highway budget

Town board members receive a copy of the 2016 preliminary budget. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) unveiled a $188.7 million preliminary 2016 budget on Wednesday. Sept. 16, that reduces spending slightly from this year and stays within a state-mandated cap on property tax levy increases.

If approved, the budget would amount to a $29 increase for the average homeowner, if looking only at the town’s three major funds. The budget is balanced by a 1.3 percent increase in the town’s tax levy, because Huntington is using fewer funds from reserves to balance the budget, according to a town statement.

The town board voted at a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 16, to schedule an Oct. 6 public hearing on the budget. The public hearing will take place at 6 p.m.

The spending plan is a “no-frills” budget, which is down from this year’s spending by .2 percent, officials said. The budget would maintain current services and reflects a reduction in staffing through attrition —fewer than five employees due to some retirements in the town’s General Services department, Petrone told reporters after the meeting.

There’s $1.9 million more budgeted for the town’s Highway Department, due to last year’s severe winter. That increase was offset by little to no increase in other major town funds and decreased spending in some of the special districts, a town statement said.

One of the issues the supervisor said he’s wrestling with is funding expenses taxpayers may want but that count against the municipality in its state tax cap levy increase calculations.

To that end, Petrone said officials have not included renewing a multi-million dollar Open Space Bond Act town taxpayers voted in favor of to have the town fund green initiatives, park improvements and land purchases, because revenue raised through the act counts into the town’s tax levy. Petrone also said that the town has been considering putting up a referendum to create a parking district, which could have the authority sell bonds to fund a long-desired parking garage in Huntington village, but that would count against the town’s tax levy calculation.

Petrone said he’s been calling on state lawmakers to look at possible revisions to the tax cap law in cases where voters directly choose to tax themselves.

“This 2016 budget preparation presented challenges and realities that will alter how the town does business going forward, without important changes to the tax cap act,” Petrone wrote in his budget message. “While the tax cap act seeks to stabilize the tax base, it also limits our ability to enhance or expand services to our residents.”

Other highlights of the budget include freezing all salaries for elected officials and appointment management, continued focus on building a $1.5 million new animal shelter and implementing design and initial construction of the James D. Conte Community Center at the former Huntington Armory.

The supervisor also proposed a $15 million capital budget that focuses on improvements to the town’s infrastructure, such as the rehabilitation of various plants and pump stations in the Dix Hills Water District to headworks improvements in the Huntington Sewer District. Funding is also included for road rehabilitation, drainage infrastructure and paving, according to the statement.

Victoria Espinoza contributed reporting

Brookhaven officials flood county public works offices with hopes of addressing water quality on North Shore

The creek flowing from Stony Brook Mill Pond, above, and into the Stony Brook Harbor is collecting sediment, making it difficult to use the body of water. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Just as the Town of Brookhaven officials are fighting to improve the Long Island Sound’s water quality, officials have also recently taken steps to combat the buildup of sediment deposits in Stony Brook Harbor.

According to a press release, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) wrote a letter to the Suffolk County Commissioner of Public Works Gil Anderson on Sept. 14 urging the county to include a navigational channel to the “Stony Brook Boat Works” property. The channel will end south of Brookhaven’s “kayak/canoe launch.”

Officials noted that the creek, which flows from Stony Brook Mill Pond into the Stony Brook Harbor, has accumulated sediment deposits over the years, which is restricting tidal flow in that area. The growth of Phragmites, a common grass found in wetlands, has largely contributed to the sediment deposits. Romaine said the water is shallow in that area and it is difficult for the anchored boats at the Stony Brook Yacht Club to navigate the body of water during low tide.

“[The town] raised this issue because we think it should be examined,” Romaine said. “We think that the boaters particularly in the yacht club should have the ability to use the recreational waterways. We also think it would help [tidal flushing] for that creek.”

Romaine also said even if the project is approved, dredging the body of water depends on the amount of money available to execute the project. Once approved, the town will have to handle how and where the sediment is disposed. Romaine said hydraulic dredges, which dredge spoils and pump them half a mile away, and dewatering sites among others are ways the town can dispose of the dredge spoils.

In a press release, Romaine asked for the Stony Brook Task Force and Legislature Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) to support his position on the issue. Although Romaine submitted the letter to the county, it’s unclear when or if the Dredge Committee will accept the modified project, as the committee doesn’t meet regularly and is working on other dredging projects.

“It will take some time before the county addresses this. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” Romaine said in a phone interview. “This may not be their first priority but [the town] put the request in and we’re hopeful that it will get some attention.”

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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.”

Suffolk Republicans select candidate with experience serving as town councilman, building commissioner

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone file photo

The Suffolk County executive race is on.

Jim O'Connor is stepping up to challenge Steve Bellone for Suffolk County Executive. Photo from Jim O'Connor
Jim O’Connor is stepping up to challenge Steve Bellone for Suffolk County Executive. Photo from Jim O’Connor

County Republicans have selected Jim O’Connor to challenge Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in November. And in his words, O’Connor said he could not be more honored to represent his party in the pivotal race.

“John Jay LaValle [chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee] called me up and asked me if I would be interested in the position, and I said of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you be interested in that position?”

O’Connor, now a resident of Great River, is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Maroney O’Connor LLP. He has a long resume of working in local government, starting in the Town of North Hempstead in 1998 as an elected councilman, where he served until 2001. From 2006-08, O’Connor was appointed building commissioner for North Hempstead.

He had a very brief run at the Nassau county executive spot in 2001 — for approximately 48 hours, to be exact — before the Nassau Republicans chose to back candidate Bruce Bent instead.

O’Connor’s opponent, Bellone, also garnered similar public service accolades before assuming office at the county level in 2011. Bellone served on the Babylon Town Board for four years, starting in 1997, and was then elected supervisor of Babylon Township in 2001.

Since being voted into office, Bellone said he was proud of passing three consecutive balanced budgets under the tax cap, securing a $383 million investment in clean water infrastructure — the largest of the county in 40 years — and negotiating labor contracts that make new employees more affordable and requires new employees to contribute to health care costs.

“We must continue to move Suffolk County forward,” Bellone said in an email through a spokesperson. “While we have made a lot of progress there is so much work left to do.”

Specifics of moving Suffolk County forward, Bellone said, include continuing to hold the line on taxes, creating new jobs, growing the economy and keeping young people on Long Island.

Bellone also said he is interested in utilizing better the many assets that Suffolk County has, including Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. If re-elected, he said he wants to make sure the county is leveraging those assets to create innovation jobs.

But O’Connor said he found flaws in the way that Bellone has handled the financial aspects of the county.

“The attitude is, ‘Let’s put off tomorrow what we could do today,’ and that is hurting my children and my children’s children, in terms of the amount of debt that will fall on their shoulders,” O’Connor said in a phone interview.

Under an O’Connor administration, there would be an implementation of a Suffolk County debt management plan, which would start the process of a debt ceiling, much like what has been done in Washington D.C., O’Connor told Times Beacon Record Newspapers in an exclusive interview.

“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “Let’s look at the county’s existing revenue streams and compare it to the county’s maturing debt in an effort to retire, or reduce, the interest payments that will burden future generations of Suffolk residents.”

Suffolk County has $180 million of structural deficit and more than $1.5 billion in cumulative debt, according to O’Connor, who said these factors have led the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, to say that the county is in fiscal distress. O’Connor said he wants to stand up for the taxpayers of the county.

According to Bellone, when he first entered office, Suffolk County’s finances were in free fall, with a deficit of more than $400 million. He has since cut the deficit significantly by shrinking the government by more than 10 percent.

“I know that Suffolk County taxpayers are overburdened,” Bellone said. “That’s why I am committed to staying under the property tax cap at the same time as I cut my own salary and volunteered to be the first employee in the history of Suffolk County to directly contribute to their health care.”

Keith Davies, campaign manager for Bellone, said his candidate was the right choice for residents to continue moving Suffolk County forward: “Steve Bellone has a proven record of protecting our tax dollars and our quality of life. He’s balanced three consecutive budgets, kept taxes under the tax cap and protected our drinking water by investing in our clean water infrastructure.”

The Suffolk County Republicans, however, said they believed O’Connor would lead the county in a better direction.

In a statement, LaValle said O’Connor’s reputation from both Democrats and Republicans from North Hempstead is what drew him to asking him to fight for the position.

“He’s a guy that is very well respected of course by Republicans in the area, but also by many Democrats,” LaValle said. “In this day and age of almost political hate, here is a guy where not only Republicans but prominent Democrats were speaking very highly of him. That stuck with me.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, right. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) is inviting all North Shore residents to attend a community forum looking into potential visions for the future of Route 25A in Stony Brook and Setauket.

The forum is scheduled for June 30, at 6 p.m., inside the Stony Brook School’s Kanas Commons, located at 1 Chapman Parkway, Stony Brook.

RSVPs can be sent to [email protected], or call (631) 451-6963 by June 26.