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Jan 4, 2012 9:41 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

In Levy's Wake, A Promise For More Open Government

Jan 4, 2012 11:22 AM

With the succession from former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to newly minted County Executive Steve Bellone, Mr. Bellone promises a number of changes in the way the county will do business.

Among the changes expected is the vacating of a policy that many found to be inconvenient, disruptive and, at times, inhibitive of county governance.

During the bulk of Mr. Levy’s administration, essentially all communication with the media, and in many cases with county legislators, came through the county executive’s office exclusively. Questions directed to any county employee, department commissioner or director—even employees of some non-profit groups that relied on county funding—were referred to, and often answered only by, the county executive’s office.

“There was no sharing of information—it only came one way, and that was the way [Mr. Levy] wanted it packaged,” veteran County Legislator Ed Romaine said of his sometimes contentious, sometimes congenial experience with the former county executive. “If I asked a commissioner a question as basic as how many people worked in a department, for instance, they would have to wait for permission. And on a lot of things, Mr. Levy’s people would deny any information.”

Mr. Romaine, a Republican, complained often of the control the county executive’s office placed on information during Mr. Levy’s administration—frequently referencing a county law requiring any department head to respond to a request by any legislator within seven days—a rule that was commonly broken, he said.

Numerous calls and emails to Mr. Levy’s county office seeking comment went unanswered in the final month of his administration.

New County Executive Steve Bellone said that the leash on county officials would be loosened considerably. “I’m going to focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than the image in the press,” he said the week before he took office on December 30. “I fully expect that when members of the press or county legislators seek factual information from our departments or individuals, they should be able to get it without going through the county executive’s office. That’s a waste of my time and my staff’s time. We have more important things to do.”

Some were at a loss to understand why the administration saw it as necessary, or productive, to keep such a tight grip on all information.

“I found the total control of information a little bit strange and certainly not in the interest of good government,” Legislator Jay Schneiderman said. “You can’t micromanage the county, and that’s exactly what the county executive did—he micromanaged everything. In the long run, it just created more problems than it solved.”

Like his counterparts, Mr. Schneiderman said that the most basic information—from questions about real estate deals to environmental studies—were filtered and often spun by the county executive’s office. In one instance, Mr. Romaine recalled, the Department of Health Services issued a positive assessment of a new residential sewage system known as Cromaglass, in response to months of questions from legislators trying to address elevated nitrogen levels in Suffolk County’s bays and groundwater. Then, just last month, the department issued a report saying the systems don’t, in fact, appear to work well. Mr. Romaine said the department had apparently been instructed by the county executive’s office to issue the initial positive assessment of the systems, for reasons he could not venture to guess at.

“It makes no sense. I’m interested in nitrogen going into the bays, that’s all,” Mr. Romaine said. “We had a seminar with the [Peconic] BayKeeper, and he ordered the Health Department not to come to it. They wanted to come. These kind of things happened all the time. These are not politics, they’re basic government things.”

In 2009, former Southampton Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney, the director of internet technology for the county, informed a reporter that he could not answer questions about his time in town government without getting permission from Mr. Levy’s office. That permission was not granted, he later said.

In 2008, The Press requested information from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, Division of Vector Control, about a new management plan for mosquito control, which had been the topic of much criticism and legal challenges from environmental groups. Vector Control’s head, Dominick Ninivaggi, referred all questions to Health Department Commissioner Dr. Humayun Chaudhry. Dr. Chaudhry said he could not explain the plan without clearance from the county executive’s office and would call when that clearance was received. The call was ultimately returned by former Commissioner of the Department of the Environment and Energy Carrie Meek-Gallagher.

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But when we will find out what Spota had on Levy? Looks like the hush hush is also a policy of the DA's office.
By V.Tomanoku (790), southampton on Jan 4, 12 5:23 PM
Pleae, this whole article is a pc of junk and fluff. Do we really think our Gov will become more transparent? The Police hold negotiations in private, the Town & Village Boards want their "Executive sessions" - nothing is transparent. To have little Skippy quoted is almost funny. Remember he had a "reporter" from this very paper who suddenly became his "secretary" after the election? She had the office locked up tight on his orders.

Nice try - but few will believe this drivel. The writer ...more
By G (342), Southampton on Jan 5, 12 8:25 AM