12/02/12 10:54am

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at a press conference in May.

The judge’s determination couldn’t have been stronger.

“Without reservation and without doubt,” declared Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo, “it is beyond the power of a county to restrict the number of times that such county’s district attorney, sheriff and/or clerk may run for office.”

Nevertheless, there‘s a move by some on the Suffolk County Legislature to appeal Justice Gazzillo’s decision that the 12-year term-limit rule set by the legislature in 1993 for the county’s DA, sheriff and clerk is invalid.

Speaking against an appeal has been Edward Romaine, a county legislator until Monday when he was sworn in as Brookhaven Town supervisor. “The county is in a fiscal crisis and this is a time for us to be careful with taxpayer money,” said Mr. Romaine, whose district has included Shelter Island.

However, a vote on an appeal has been postponed, and Mr. Romaine won’t be a member of the legislature when it’s taken, which begs the question: Will the remaining members of the legislature be sensible like Mr. Romaine?

Public money involved in an appeal is, of course, a major issue in a county that’s cutting back dramatically on services. Why waste tax dollars on an appeal of a judicial verdict that was so emphatic and clear? But even more important: Why act on something which could end the tenure of the best district attorney Suffolk County has had in modern times?

Tom Spota, originally a Republican who ran for DA as a Democrat in 2001, taking on then incumbent James M. Catterson Jr. — a Republican who had politicized the office — has demonstrated he’s beyond politics. Indeed, that’s why he ran by acclamation in his two campaigns for re-election, appearing on all party lines.

Spota’s demonstrated, too, that prosecutorial over-reaching isn’t part of his make-up. The website of the DA’s office is now headed with the banner: “The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”

In his years as Suffolk DA, Mr. Spota has been measured, fair, careful and extremely active. Whether taking on governmental corruption in Suffolk (a long and dubious tradition here), drug trafficking, organized crime, gang violence, and everything else a good DA is supposed to attack, he’s been at it vigorously, unlike many Suffolk DAs who preceded him.

The term-limits rule was enacted by the Suffolk Legislature at a time when, as the rule’s “legislative intent” section said, citizen dissatisfaction with long-serving elected officials had “reached a fever pitch” and there was a view that public officials could “entrench themselves.” That wasn’t incorrect then or now. But term-limits weren’t applied where they have been especially needed — to members of Congress or the New York State Legislature, as examples, who through gerrymandering have carved out safe districts enabling them to get re-elected endlessly.

Suffolk has been the only one of the 62 counties in the state to impose term limits on its DA, sheriff and clerk. As the legal challenge to the rule brought by DA Spota, incumbent Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and incumbent County Clerk Judith Pascale stressed, all are “quasi-state” positions and Suffolk County was “without authority” in imposing term limits on them. They are “defined by state law for law enforcement and administrative activities.” Thus “only the governor of the State of New York may remove or fill a vacancy in the offices of district attorney, sheriff or county clerk.”

Justice Gazzillo in September fully agreed. “The authority to promulgate additional qualifications” like term limits “is solely vested with and retained by the state,” he stated.

Incidentally, Justice Gazzillo wasn’t ruling from a judicial ivory tower. He has plenty of life experience in government and law. He’s a retired New York City police sergeant, was an assistant Suffolk DA and law secretary to judges including Suffolk’s Gail Prudenti, now chief administrative judge of all New York State courts. He was elected a Suffolk District Court judge, then elected to County Court where he served as supervising judge of all criminal courts in Suffolk.

Commenting in the New York Law Journal on the decision, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York — which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case — said it “upholds the independence and integrity of each of New York’s 62 district attorneys.”

This is no decision to waste county tax dollars appealing.

11/18/12 10:00am

JOHN GRIFFIN FILE PHOTO | Congressman Tim Bishop speaks to reporters on election night.

In analyzing Election 2012 in Suffolk County, the race in the First Congressional District was the nastiest I’ve ever seen in my 50 years observing and writing about contests in this eastern Long Island district.

Whether they involved Otis Pike or George Hochbrueckner, Felix Grucci or Mike Forbes, Gregory Blass or Regina Seltzer, Walter Ormsby or Jack Hart (among others who have run through these five decades), I’ve never seen anything like it.

“Corrupt Career Politician Tim Bishop” Republican Randy Altschuler trumpeted over and over again in voluminous advertising, in print and on TV and radio. “Career Politician Tim Bishop abuses the system at our expense,” it was repeatedly claimed. “Tim Bishop: The Only Job He Cares About Is His Own.” The continuous barrage of deeply negative advertising was financed not only by the Altschuler campaign but by outside entities. Incumbent Bishop says that $3.5 million came from outside groups “to attack me.” It was, says Mr. Bishop, the “most expensive Congressional race in Long Island’s history.”

Mr. Bishop returned fire by zeroing in on how Mr. Altschuler became a millionaire by pioneering outsourcing, setting up a company that specialized in providing workers overseas for U.S. businesses. He cited Mr. Altschuler’s statement that, “In India, you get a much higher standard of person.”

Does Mr. Altschuler’s second loss to Mr. Bishop, and the central focus both times on outsourcing, point to it being a permanent albatross, a fatal political flaw for Mr. Altschuler? Quite likely. Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle spoke of Mr. Altschuler’s background in outsourcing as being among his “flaws” when Mr. LaValle initially wouldn’t support Mr. Altschuler for the GOP’s lst CD nomination in 2010.

This year Mr. Altschuler stressed that his company, OfficeTiger, also “created jobs in America” — printed in bold in campaign literature, adding, in normal type, “and around the world.” His material declared him “a job creator.”

It all didn’t work. Mr. Bishop far surpassed his narrow win over Mr. Altschuler of 2010.

And he did it without the backing of the Independence Party. Under that organization’s Suffolk County and New York State chairman, Frank MacKay, the Independence designation went to Mr. Altschuler. But that didn’t matter either.

Also not mattering was that Newsday, which historically has liked to function as a kingmaker in Long Island politics, editorially endorsed Mr. Altschuler rather than 10-year incumbent Bishop. (Another Newsday endorsement this year which didn’t work out was its support for Mitt Romney for president.)

Election 2012 will continue the sad trend of an absence of women officials from Suffolk at the state level. Of the 15 representatives from Suffolk in state government, there won’t be a single woman. Bridget Fleming, a Southampton Town councilwoman running on the Democratic ticket, was the only woman in races for the four State Senate seats, and though waging a solid campaign, lost to long-time incumbent Republican Kenneth LaValle. The only woman up for State Assembly was Deborah McKee, on the Republican and Conservative lines, and she was trounced by long-time incumbent Democrat Steve Englebright.

With the election last week of Edward Romaine as Brookhaven Town supervisor, the Suffolk Legislature will lose a leading member. I’ve written about the Suffolk Legislature since it was created in 1970, and in my judgement, Republican Romaine, whose district has included Shelter Island, has been among the half-dozen finest county legislators in all those years. His departure leaves a huge vacuum. Will his protégé and long-time legislative aide, Bill Faulk, get the GOP nod to replace him?

And, most remarkably, Democrats won five of six state Supreme Court seats in the judicial district covering Suffolk and Nassau. Years ago, a Democratic judicial nomination in Republican-dominated Suffolk was tantamount to a suicide run. Among the GOP losers was incumbent Republican Justice James M. Catterson, son of the former Suffolk DA.

The political demographics and direction of Suffolk County have changed through the years — as they also have in the United States, as demonstrated by the re-election of Barack Obama. Still, we have much to work on here in the fair representation of women in government.

11/11/12 12:00pm

GIANNA VOLPE FILE PHOTO | A view above Shelter Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

As I write this (last Sunday), electricity is still out for thousands of homes and businesses in Suffolk County — and out, too, for thousands of people in Nassau, New York City, as well as a large part of the Northeast. The snaking gasoline lines are unprecedented, eclipsing the situation during the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

It might be premature at this stage to consider lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy but some things are obvious. The so-called “Frankenstorm,” awing us with the power of nature in its fury, has demonstrated the folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dump sand along ocean beaches to supposedly “fortify” them. In a matter of hours, that strategy, along with the sand on the affected Mid-Atlantic coastline, was washed away.

Sandy also brought the issues of climate change and global warming home to us in a hurry. Bloomberg Businessweek, the polar opposite of a radical journal, put Sandy on its cover with the headline: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was asked at a press conference last week whether, in view of global warming and the greater frequency of major storms, Suffolk needs to change its land-use policies. “I think what you say is correct. It’s something to think about when power is restored,” he said.

It is, indeed, something to “think about.” But thinking only goes so far; more importantly, nations should be taking action to significantly reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which is heating up the planet.

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, commenting on the killer storm, asked, “Is this related to global warming? … Global warming is heating up the waters, and warm water is the basic energy source driving a hurricane … So global warming is actually the weather on steroids. This is consistent with the 100 year floods, 100 year forest fires, 100 year droughts that we seem to have [now] every few years. So is this the new normal? We cannot say with certainty, but a case can be made that this wacky weather is, in part, driven by global warming.”

Land-use policies on the coast need to change — especially the use of tax dollars “encouraging people to live in harm’s way,” as the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said in a statement last week. “The storm should heighten awareness about the dangers of federal policies that encourage development in risk-prone areas. Key among these is the National Flood Insurance Program which is expected to pick up as much as half of the $20 billion in economic losses Sandy is projected to produce. The 44-year-old NFIP is the federal government’s second largest fiscal liability, behind only Social Security, with taxpayers on the hook for the program’s $1.25 trillion of coverage.”

Private insurance companies are reluctant to insure houses built on shifting sands in the teeth of the ocean, so the U.S. government — under enormous pressure from the beachfront homeowner lobby — has stepped in with our tax dollars.

Then there’s the Army Corps of Engineers and beachfront homeowners forever pushing for sand-dumping or “beach replenishment.” As Eli Lehrer, R Street’s president, said in a media conference call in which I participated last week: “I would say the ideal federal percentage for ‘beach replenishment’ is zero.”

Barrier beaches such as those along Suffolk’s south shore need to move with nature to protect the mainland and not be tailored to suit real estate interests. Old-time Long Islanders will tell you that not until “modern” times did people dream of building on barrier beaches.

Then there’s “undergrounding” of electric lines. In 1991, East Hampton Natural Resources Director Larry Penny called for undergrounding the lines running between Amagansett and Montauk, along the eight-mile Napeague stretch. Many of the poles holding lines had gone down that year in Hurricane Bob and the nor’easter later known as “The Perfect Storm” and the Long Island Lighting Company agreed to Mr. Penny’s request. Although the Napeague stretch was severely battered by Sandy, electricity in most of Montauk stayed on.

“They say undergrounding is expensive,” said Mr. Penny last week. “But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption.”

Sandy underlined a potentially catastrophic consequence involving nuclear power plants. It affected several, including Oyster Creek in New Jersey, where the storm surge nearly overwhelmed critical cooling systems, including one maintaining a pool of thousands of hotly radioactive spent fuel rods. Oyster Creek is 90 miles southwest of Suffolk.

Could a future superstorm set off an American Fukushima-like disaster?

10/21/12 5:00pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Greg Fischer speaks at a Suffolk 9-12 meeting last year, when he was running for Riverhead Town Supervisor.

The legal papers crackle with verbal lightning. Those bolts are aimed at the Long Island Power Authority and, especially, the maneuver that jettisoned the democratic system under which LIPA trustees were to have been selected.

It’s the latest step in a drive by three Suffolk men to run for election as LIPA trustee candidates. They argue there were fatal legal flaws in Governor George Pataki’s 1995 move to undo the original plan for LIPA to have elected trustees. He instead sought to have them appointed by the governor, State Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.

Among other errors in the Pataki move, according to the legal papers filed with the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, there was no home rule message from the State Legislature to allow the change, as required by the state constitution.

They highlight a statement made on the Senate floor at the time by Senator Martin Connor of Brooklyn. The Pataki move, he said, had come “in a rush, and in contravention of the rules of the Senate, in violation of the New York State Constitution, without proper committee review, without the review of members, and without proper citizen review.” Then Mr. Connor, “in regard to all the flagrant rule-breaking,” added: “So what about the rules … You know, as one member said, ‘What’s the Constitution among friends?’”

The three suing the Nassau, Suffolk and State Boards of Elections for the right to run as LIPA trustees are: Roger Scott Lewis of Southampton, an energy efficiency expert and professor at John Jay College; Greg Fischer of Calverton, a businessman and candidate last year for Riverhead Town supervisor; and attorney Bill Jurow of Mastic Beach.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, who has tried for years to get the State Legislature to pass a bill restoring elected trustees at LIPA, commented that he is dubious the courts will intervene and force LIPA elections. But the litigation is important to “raise awareness” among the public about the issue, he added. Mr. Thiele, himself an attorney, said he will continue to press in Albany for LIPA trustee elections.

“The goal of elected trustees of the Long Island Power Authority is to bring governance and transparency and therefore accountability, efficiency, economy and competition to LIPA,” the plantiffs say in their legal papers.

They charge:

• The “disenfranchisement of voters” has resulted in “an unregulated LIPA, which has been operating as if it was a secret society of elites and not a ‘public authority’ or public utility.” LIPA’s appointed trustees are “positioned to continue to bilk money out of the ratepayers, continue to poison persons and the environment if for no other reason than lack of transparency allows them to. This is the fruit of a poisoned process to repeal voter’s rights. The Court has a duty to restore constitutional equilibrium and government transparency.”

• “LIPA under its present trustee organization demonstrates a lack of controls and a pattern of crimes, which includes overcharge frauds, rebate frauds, pension frauds, no-bid contracts.” The “existing appointed trustees … are either incompetent to be trustees or complicit with malfeasance or both.” LIPA “is subject to examination under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act.”

• “LIPA has the second highest rates in the nation after Hawaii and there seems to be no reasonable justification why those rates cannot be lower.” And the utility this year has been rated in a poll conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates as having “the worst customer service of any utility in the U.S.”

The legal initiative by Messrs. Lewis, Fischer and Jurow comes at a timely moment. Two weeks ago, the LIPA trustees approved a $240-million annual contract with National Grid to provide LIPA with electricity from its fossil fuel plants for 15 years.

Environmental educator Peter Maniscalco of Manorville protested the move, calling it “arrogant, irresponsible, unethical and possibly illegal.” Then, in front of the dais at which the LIPA trustees sat, Mr. Maniscalco sat on the floor holding a sign: “Long Islanders Want Clean Energy.”

Meanwhile, a comprehensive study done for East Hampton-based Renewable Energy Long Island has concluded that Long Island by 2030 could get all the electricity it needs from clean, renewable energy technologies led by solar, wind and geothermal.

Mr. Maniscalco should have been at the dais as a LIPA trustee instead of having to conduct a sit-in in front of it. And so should other Long Islanders committed to clean energy be eligible for election as LIPA trustees through the democratic process.

10/14/12 5:00pm

An “advocate” for helicopter operators is what Bill Faulk, aide to Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine, has long considered Robert Grotell. Mr. Grotell’s official title is “special advisor” to the Eastern Region Helicopter Council.

Max Young, a spokesman for U.S. Senator Charles Schumer — whose office, like Mr. Romaine’s, has had numerous meetings about helicopter noise over Long Island that Mr. Grotell attended — describes him as a good one. “Robert Grotell is a forceful advocate for the helicopter industry,” he says, “and was a leader in the unsuccessful industry effort to beat back the quality-of-life-improving regulation that reduced helicopter noise by requiring pilots to fly at higher altitudes and over water.”

Nevertheless, the Town of East Hampton in March gave Mr. Grotell’s business, PlaneNoise, a contract to provide “noise complaint management services for aircraft noise complaints” involving East Hampton Airport.

The town-owned field has become the biggest noisemaker on Long Island, largely because of the helicopters flying between East Hampton and Manhattan. The choppers fly loud and low over the length of Long Island.

Efforts to deal with the raucous situation have met with stiff resistance from the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents the operators of the choppers.

For example, when Mr. Romaine introduced a county law to try to deal with the helicopter noise in 2008, there was Mr. Grotell at the hearing at the Suffolk Legislature arguing that Suffolk County was preempted by the federal government from passing any law regulating the flight paths of helicopters.

The vote by the East Hampton Town Board to give Mr. Grotell a $15,000-a-year contract to monitor East Hampton Airport noise was unanimous.

Kathleen Cunningham, chairwoman of the Wainscott-based Quiet Skies Coalition, describes the arrangement as a “huge conflict of interest.”

Barry Holden of Noyac, a leader of recent citizen protests to East Hampton Airport chopper noise, says he has been “saddened but not at all surprised that the owner of the company that was hired by the East Hampton Town Board to gather this data is the preeminent lobbyist for the helicopter industry. It just shows how corrupt this [East Hampton] board has become.”

The Sag Harbor Express has editorialized that “it seems to us a little like the fox in charge of the henhouse and makes us wonder if all those calls to that [noise] hotline that we’ve made have, in fact, been for naught. We have to imagine that the East Hampton Town Board has not been ignorant of the fact of who’s been at the other end of the line and what their particular motives may be…”

Pivotal to the East Hampton arrangement was Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the board’s “liaison” to the airport. He defends it. “Some people say he’s in conflict,” he says, “but he’s very diligent and professional. I don’t see Robert as a shill for helicopter interests.”

Mr. Grotell, in an interview, said he sees no conflict. He described PlaneNoise as a “one-person shop” consisting of himself. “I have developed a technological solution allowing airports and governmental entities that run airports to collect noise complaints in an efficient manner,” he said.

As for being an advocate, “I’m an advocate of community capability,” said Mr. Grotell. He said his residence and PlaneNoise are located in Port Jefferson. He worked for New York City for 12 years including as deputy commissioner of transportation under Mayor Bloomberg.

His contract with East Hampton has been followed by one with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In August, the Port Authority “entered into a three-year contract with PlaneNoise for a total amount of $54,400,” said Ron Marisco, its assistant director of media relations. “The contract provides the Port Authority with software and a toll-free number and a web form link on our website to collect noise complaints.” This Grotell contract requires him to field complaints emanating from Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty, Stewart and Teterboro Airports.

Ms. Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition holds that collecting aircraft noise complaints “should be done in an unimpeachable fashion — by a disinterested third party.”

That would be fair and sensible.