Suffolk County: Come Clean on the Coup

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

This week I find myself freed from the self-imposed undertaking of reporting weekly on the Occupy Wall Street protest that has blossomed into a global fascination, spawning chapters around the globe and gracing the pages and screens of nearly every news media outlet. Since the beginning of the occupation in New York, I have been committed to covering what I believe to be one of the single most important political developments in my lifetime. Yet because our cover story this week dives deep into the machinations of the movement and our staff is fully engaged, I am able to return to a Long Island story of great political importance.

This story, however, is not entirely unrelated to the discussions in Zuccotti Park. In fact, it has much in common with the reasons behind the growing unrest among Americans. It is a story of hubris and duplicity right here on Long Island that is symptomatic of a political system completely out of touch with the needs and rights of those it is designed to represent.

On Sept. 22, the Long Island Press published a cover story titled “Suffolk County’s Bloodless Coup,” which recalled Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s shocking announcement that he would step down at the end of his term. This decision came as the result of an arrangement between Levy and District Attorney Tom Spota, who was investigating irregularities in Levy’s campaign fundraising. In a backroom deal, which has not been made public, Levy agreed to hand over his campaign funds to Spota and forgo running for re-election. In return, it seems Levy has been allowed to simply go quietly into the night.

This agreement, which made an end-run around the electorate, has the tacit approval of party leaders Rich Schaffer and John J. LaValle, the county’s Democratic and Republican chairmen, respectively, who both claim to have been caught totally by surprise. Suffolk legislators shrugged off the news of Levy’s unceremonious demise as if to say “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The incredible indifference on display from people who often found themselves on the receiving end of a Steve Levy tirade only furthers speculation that something is rotten in Hauppauge.

One persistent theory is that Levy’s quiet removal paves the way for several pieces to come together on Suffolk’s political chessboard. (Warning: Serious “inside-baseball” alert.) Let’s start with the obvious. With the pugnacious Levy out of the picture and politically castrated upon the liquidation of his war chest, a significant obstacle has been removed from Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone’s quest to become the next Suffolk County executive. Suffolk GOP infighting over the choice of County Treasurer Angie Carpenter to run on the Republican ticket may have further cleared the way for a Bellone victory, although no one apparently told Carpenter, who is running full bore against her opponent despite being out-financed rather handily. Quite a remarkable turn of events for a GOP committee that at the beginning of the year thought they would have a popular candidate with more than $4 million in the bank at the top of their ticket.

As far as the GOP is concerned, neither the Carpenter nor LaValle camp has erased the animus between them. At times it seems as though they’re running completely separate campaigns. For his part, Suffolk County Democratic leader Rich Schaffer has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who sat on his war chest, and as result was banished to the private sector after failing to fully grasp the discontent of the electorate.

Enter the crux of Suffolk’s political conspiracy theory; it’s a doozy. (Takes a deep breath, and…)

A newly minted County Executive Bellone taps Spota to replace Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. After all, with a serial killer on the loose, who better to replace the unpopular commissioner than Suffolk’s superstar top cop, Tom Spota? Given his resume, the public would probably favor this move and, quite frankly, Spota would likely do a terrific job. Next to Dormer, of course, this is like saying you’re the smartest kid in the remedial class; but it would be well received, regardless.

A vacancy in the district attorney’s office would give Gov. Andrew Cuomo the ability to appoint Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko, former federal prosecutor and bright light in the Democratic Party, to the position. Lesko, who many say is frustrated by the cronyism and the acrimony in Brookhaven politics, would likely welcome the chance to shine as district attorney. Naturally, this transfer would give John Jay LaValle and his mentor John Powell a chance to reclaim the supervisor’s office, a position both men covet.

Undoubtedly, the people mentioned above will publicly deny this scenario and dismiss it as unfounded sedition. Or perhaps they will all remain as taciturn, and therefore complicit, with respect to this scheme as they were during Steve Levy’s fall from grace. Either way, should all or part of it come to pass, perhaps then Suffolk County residents will finally wake up and realize that they were robbed of their right to know the circumstances behind Levy’s demise.

Irrespective of whether this theory holds any water, our public officials— and the leaders they answer to—fail to understand that it is this impertinent attitude toward constitutionality and disdain of our citizenry that has people around the globe filling parks, flooding streets and occupying public squares. This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

If the Suffolk County district attorney can unilaterally decide the fate of a sitting county executive and administer a political punishment without fear of reprisal from citizens, his example illustrates on the smallest level why the upper political echelon of the republic have likewise engaged in even more dangerous, egregious and undemocratic behavior. Therefore, for the very same reasons the public has a right to know why more than 1,000 people have been locked up for protesting corporate greed while those responsible for corrupt banking practices that are bringing our economic system to its knees aren’t also subject to the same treatment, so too is it our right to know the real story behind the bloodless coup in Suffolk County. The latter may pale in scope and degree, but the seed of this argument bears the same fruit.

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

The Season of Our Disconnect

The only thing predictable these days is the unpredictability of life on the planet. It’s one part Yogi Berra and two parts Alice in Wonderland as everyone tries to make sense of the world that is using lessons learned from the world that was.

First, a correction. In last week’s column “Whither Reform?” I mistakenly suggested that New York State’s proposed 2-percent property tax cap regulation would apply solely to the amount of the rate increase and not the assessment portion of a property tax bill. This would have allowed local municipalities to skirt the cap and artificially raise the total property levy. That is not the case. The proposed cap applies to the total combined rate and assessment levy. My apologies to the seven people who read a column about the property tax cap on a sunny holiday weekend.

The underlying theme of the column remains unchanged, however. The property tax cap is welcome relief, but a symptomatic and shortsighted one should the government not take care to fix the structural imbalances in the budget that presage the need to increase taxes to begin with. To overcome the existing budget crisis in Nassau County and the one that looms in Suffolk, we must embark on an extended period of construction and redevelopment growth to expand the tax base while deconstructing and redefining the most dramatic and expansive expenditures such as public employee pensions and Medicaid. Absent massive, collaborative efforts to pursue both measures a property tax cap has the potential to be devastating to local municipalities that will be forced to increase their  indebtedness to fund state mandates and obligations, or find more creative ways to tack on hidden taxes and fees at the consumer and recreational levels.

There is much yet to be discussed about the impending budget disasters on the Island and even more on a national scale, but after a long and glorious weekend divorced from bad news and the economic realities at hand I would like to offer a handful of vignettes–loose variations on the theme I like to call “The Great Disconnect.”

Housing Prices
This week Germany agreed to offer further assistance to help control the debt crisis in Greece. Meanwhile, the United States reported that housing prices fell sharply again in the first quarter, one of the strongest indications that the so-called recovery is still on the ropes. Equity traders on Wall Street were nonplussed by the latter news, opting instead to push the Dow Jones Industrial Average north on the news that Greece won’t be adding to its already impressive collection of ruins.

Gas Prices
The good news in Greece was also somehow good news for commodities traders who pushed crude oil prices up to $102 a barrel. My only guess here is that they misunderstood the news and thought someone said, “grease.” That’s about as logical. Elsewhere in the United States, human beings are getting cozy with one another and participating in a phenomenon known as “slugging.” A CNN report showed long lines of commuters waiting to hitch free rides into urban areas so passengers can avoid high gas costs and the drivers can take advantage of the HOV lanes. Despite the mounting evidence of corruption in the markets and the manipulation of oil and gas prices by Wall Street banks and Big Oil, we accept what we’re told at face value and line up like Russians waiting for toilet paper in the ’80s. We are sheep.

GOP field
The GOP field of potential presidential candidates is getting stranger by the minute. Well, strange to some perhaps. I prefer to think of them as a merry band of satirical awesomeness. 2012 is going to rock. Of course, before we get there, we have an exciting local year ahead of us. At the top of the list is the recent news that Suffolk County Treasurer Angie Carpenter, a Republican who was treated like the last kid chosen for kickball on the playground, will be taking on Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone, the Democrats’ candidate, in the Suffolk County executive’s race. Nationally and locally the GOP really knows how to take advantage of the mid-term momentum they just gained. Sigh.

 The Great Disconnect inherent in the above topics and several more will be the prevailing theme of my summer columns. The only thing predictable these days is the unpredictability of life on the planet. It’s one part Yogi Berra and two parts Alice in Wonderland as everyone tries to make sense of the world that is using lessons learned from the world that was. As the lazy days of summer roll on, we’ll pop open a frosty beverage or three together and explore the season of our disconnect.