TBR News spoke with Town Clerk Donna Lent (R) and Ira Costell (D) over Zoom on Monday. They will be running against each other as the election for town clerk for the Town of Brookhaven approaches quickly.
Lent, who is serving her second term as town clerk, has managed day-to-day operations such as issuing death certificates and handicap parking permits, while land-use applications are filed within the office.
There are three divisions — licensing, registrar and administrative units — in her department alone, and on some days, Lent says up to 200 people will come into the office.
After extensive training, Lent was certified as a registered municipal clerk by the New York State Town Clerks Association in 2017, but before entering public service, she worked as a law office manager and was a small business owner.
Her opponent, Costell, has taken leadership roles in environmental causes such as the Suffolk County Watershed Protection Advisory Committee and served as chair of the county’s Pine Barrens Review Commission.
He has been passionate about the fight against opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse. Costell is a New York State-certified addiction and recovery coach and has been involved in various recovery committees.
The two opponents came to TBR News Media’s offices to debate their opinions on whose ideas would be best suitable for the town clerk’s position.
The concern of making Freedom of Information Law appeals more accessible to the public is something that Costell said he will actively work on if elected. His main argument is that residents of Brookhaven have been left in the dark when it comes to requesting information from the Town Clerk’s Office.
However, Lent said if materials or records are not able to be provided, there is a reason as to why not.
“They probably haven’t asked for the records correctly, we are not required to create records for them, we only have to provide what is already existing,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t search thoroughly because there was an aspect of something they weren’t unaware of that we were able to shed light on.”
Rebutting Lent’s argument, Costell said he had very serious questions about the FOIL process as there were nearly 14,000 requests last year in the town’s Law Department.
“I would like to work as part of that process for an audit to figure out how we can streamline that process,” he said.
Costell feels the information on the town’s website is not readily available to residents.
“When initiating a public hearing notice on the town’s website, the information about the hearing is not connected to the notice, so residents don’t always know about the particulars of what’s being proposed in the public hearing,” he said.
Lent said the Town Clerk’s Office does the public hearing notices, which are readily available on the website as soon as they go up. However, the town clerk does not make the determination on what needs to get posted because the notice is from what the Law Department already drafted.
“It is incumbent upon the clerk in my belief, to coordinate and collaborate, not to just handle a piece of paper and move it on to the next level,” Costell said.
In regards to communicating with the Town of Brookhaven, he said the software the office is using should be able to have direct sign-ups for people who are interested in a particular issue so people from various areas do not have to rely on someone from a different town to tell them there’s a hearing related to something they are interested in.
However, Lent said there is a sign-up system within civic clerks for alerts and areas of topic. She noted that residents can call her office to be added to get notifications as well.
Costell believes that the Town Clerk’s Office should have more outreach to the public on a quarterly basis by using town facilities such as senior centers and recreational programs, to help residents navigate the online services or to assist communities that don’t have access to broadband.
“We have been improving that process, that’s why we changed our software system last February,” Lent said. “There has been a period of adjustment for residents that were accustomed to finding documents within the old system, but if you use the search bar at the top it will take you to whatever you are looking for.”
Disagreeing with Lent, Costell said he thinks the website is hard to navigate and should have the option to be translated to Spanish.
Lent feels her opponent will be biting off more than he can chew if elected as town clerk. “Everyone has hopes dreams and aspirations of what a job may be like, but it’s not until you get into the job that you have to face the reality of day-to-day operations and restrictions,” Lent said.