Suffolk Closeup: A year of ground-breaking legislation

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

2015 marked the 45th year of the Suffolk County Legislature’s existence, which continued its tradition of passing pioneering laws.

Through the years the Legislature has regularly approved what were first-in-the-state and even first-in-the-nation measures.

The Legislature replaced the centuries-old Suffolk County Board of Supervisors (SCBS) in 1970, which had consisted of the supervisors of Suffolk’s 10 towns. It came to an end as a result of a lawsuit citing the one-person-one-vote court decisions of the 1960s. On the board a supervisor of a relatively lightly-populated East End town had the same vote as a supervisor of a populous western Suffolk town.

I’m the only journalist still around who covered both the board and the Legislature and can say the board had some advantages.

Its members, the town supervisors, had the advantage, for the most part, of drawing from extensive governmental experience.
Giants of the SCBS in my time were Shelter Island Supervisor Evans K. Griffing and Smithtown Supervisor John V. N. Klein, both chairmen of the body. With the prospective advent of the Suffolk Legislature, Mr. Klein left his supervisor’s post, ran for a legislative seat and became presiding officer of the new body, providing an important connection between Suffolk County’s two governing panels.

The advantage of the more egalitarian Legislature over the SCBS is that many, if not most, members of the legislature through the years have been new to elected office and provided a fresh prospective. That is one explanation for the ground-breaking legislation for which the 18-member Legislature has become known and celebrated.

A pioneering law enacted in 2015 was Legislator Kara Hahn’s (D-Setauket) bill banning the sale in Suffolk of personal care products containing microbeads, tiny plastic balls a few millimeters in size. Over the past decade they have been placed by manufacturers as “scrubbing components” in face soaps, body washes, even toothpaste.

Too small to be filtered out by most wastewater treatment systems, the microbeads pick up toxins as they flow in before being discharged. Once the microbeads hit water where there is marine life, they’re mistaken for food by fish and other species.

But the contamination doesn’t stop there. People who eat the contaminated fish and other marine species are affected by the toxins.

At the time of passage of her bill, Ms. Hahn said, “This legislation will protect our environment, protect our health and protect our fishing and tourism industries.”

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in recent weeks both passed legislation to ban microbeads on the federal level and President Obama is expected to sign it into U.S. law.

Meanwhile, also in 2015, taking effect in Suffolk was a measure of the Legislature — the first in the nation by a municipality — banning the sale of powdered caffeine to minors. It was authored by the panel’s presiding officer, DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).

Suffolk has long been in the forefront statewide and nationally with  measures restricting smoking. This year was no different.

The Legislature passed a measure authored by Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) banning smoking in common areas, including halls, lobbies, courtyards, stairs, parking garages, laundry rooms, eating areas and meeting rooms of “any property containing 10 or more dwelling units.” This includes condominiums, senior and assisted living facilities, long-term health care facilities and apartment buildings.

Speaking of the difference between the Suffolk Legislature and the SCBS, there was never a woman on the  SCBS in its more than two centuries. And there was never an African-American (Mr. Gregory is African-American) or a Latino (Ms. Martinez).

There is diversity, finally, in Suffolk’s governing body, mirroring the county’s people. Two women, Sondra Bachety and Maxine Postal have been its presiding officers and African-Americans and Latinos are represented. But I can’t give completely high marks to the activities of the Suffolk Legislature in 2015. A great mistake was made again by letting itself be bamboozled by the county’s Division of Vector Control to spray the dangerous pesticide methoprene to kill mosquitoes.

In the process, methoprene also kills “non-target” insects and other life, noted Kevin McAllister, founder and president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H2O. States including neighboring Connecticut and municipalities all over the U.S. have banned the use of methoprene.

“Suffolk County in the 1960s led the way nationally in banning the use of DDT,” Mr. McAllister said. It, like methoprene, was sprayed widely by the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission, replaced by the Division of Vector Control.

“Relative to methoprene now, Suffolk County has really lost its way,” Mr. McAllister said.

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