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Thursday
Nov162017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Women Breakthrough In 2017 Elections

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

In Suffolk County, as all over the United States, last week’s election saw great victories for women, and let me note—highly qualified women, to enter government. There were many breakthroughs.

Laura Jens-Smith, for example, was elected supervisor of the Town of Riverhead—the first woman to be elected supervisor of Riverhead since the town was founded 225 years ago! 

Through the centuries, only six women have ever been elected to the Riverhead Town Board. Winning with Ms. Jens-Smith last week to take a seat on the Town Board was Catherine Kent.  Ms. Jen-Smith is president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education and a project director with the North Fork Alliance which combats substance abuse among area youngsters.  Ms. Kent for 31 years was a teacher in Riverhead.

In the Town of Southampton, Ann Welker was elected to the Southampton Board of Trustees—the first woman to become a Southampton Trustee since establishment of the panel in 1686. Yes, 331 years ago!

The Southampton Trustees predates the United States and was created by the royal Dongan Patent. It is one of the oldest governing bodies in North America. The Trustees serve as stewards for the more than 25,000 acres of bay bottoms, shorelines, waterways and marshes for the “freeholders and commonality” of the Town of Southampton.

Ms. Welker studied animal science at Cornell, has a graduate degree in business from Adelphi and has spent years teaching swimming including ocean swimming, paddleboarding and water safety to youngsters and adults.  

“I share my love for, respect of, and appreciation for our fragile marine environments and therefore create awareness and hopefully engagement with the environment on behalf of my students,” she noted during the campaign. She’s also a volunteer with the Eastern Long Island Chapter of Surfrider and involved with its water testing program.

Ms. Welker’s dad, John “Ral” Welker, with whom I taught for many years at Southampton College, would be so proud of his daughter’s election as a Trustee. Dr. Welker, who died in 2012 at 84, was a marine biologist and a founding member of the Southampton College marine science program.

In neighboring Nassau County, Laura Curran was elected the first female county executive in the history of that county. 

Women still have far to go on Long Island and in the nation in achieving government office. Here in Suffolk, for instance, there has never been a female county executive or a woman representing Suffolk in the U.S. House of Representatives or New York State Senate. There’s now only one female town supervisor among Suffolk’s 10 towns (with Ms. Jens-Smith there’ll be two).

Still, as a story last week in The Washington Post was headlined: “Women Racked Up Victories Across the Country Tuesday. It May Be Only the Beginning.” 

The first woman to become a town supervisor on Long Island was Judith Hope when she was elected to the helm of East Hampton town government in 1973. It was a time when at all levels of government were a virtual men’s club.

Looking at the results of last week’s election, I smiled when I saw the name Lynne. Nowick and her being re-elected with the most votes of any candidate for Smithtown Town Board. I first got to know Ms. Nowick 50 years ago, She was then Lynne Cannataro, the daughter of Eugene Cannataro, a farmer who for 24 years was a member of the Smithtown Town Board. I was covering Suffolk cops-and-courts for the daily Long Island Press and Lynne was the secretary of the late Al Mauceri of Hauppauge, chief of the District Court Bureau of the Suffolk DA’s Office. All the assistant DA’s working in the bureau in the then Commack-based District Court were, as I recall, men, all the secretaries women—a gender division widely existing in government and business then.

There would be change—fortunately for Lynne and us—in her time.  She ran for Smithtown receiver of taxes and then for the Suffolk Legislature on which she did a superb job focusing on environmental preservation, consumer issues and fighting drug use by youth. Term-limited after 12 years on the legislature, she first ran for the Smithtown Town Board. 

The Washington Post story began by noting that “until yesterday, only 17 of the 100 members of the Virginia House of Representatives were women. Now the number will surge to nearly 30.” There has been an “explosion of women candidates who have entered the political stage since Donald Trump was elected president one year ago. The wave is likely to continue. In 2018, 40 women are already planning to run for governor. Dozens more are considering congressional and other statewide office bids. And Tuesday’s results have already become a rallying cry for activists seeking to draw even more women into the public square.”

Thursday
Nov092017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - H.Lee Dennison "Too Much Local Government"

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

Election Day this week in Suffolk County was dominated by contests for county and town offices including district attorney, sheriff, all 18 seats on the Suffolk Legislature and various posts in the county’s 10 towns.

After all the political mailings, ads and campaign signs (that now line much of the landscape) and charges and counter-charges, I thought it might be instructive to highlight the last interview I did, forty years ago, with among the most remarkable Suffolk County officials I’ve known—H. Lee Dennison—and some of the advice he gave. Mr. Dennison was Suffolk’s first and still longest-serving county executive.

Most people in Suffolk probably now only associate the name H. Lee Dennison with the office tower in Hauppauge named after him after he left office in 1973. The building houses the county executive and staff and other county government components.

Mr. Dennison was the quintessence of political independence. An engineer, he was born upstate, near Hornell, and came to Suffolk in 1927 to work in the then county Highway Department. But he was ousted after writing a a report saying Suffolk government was so mired in partisan politics that it was “doing nothing to encourage adequate county planning.” He retreated to running a private engineering practice. 

In the 1950s a series of special state prosecutors were sent to Suffolk, unearthed corruption and brought charges against and gained convictions of Suffolk Republican figures. What was called the “Suffolk Scandals” led to establishment of the position of Suffolk County executive. The Suffolk Democratic Party in 1960 ran Mr. Dennison, although an enrolled Republican, for the new position as a reformer. 

A key problem for Suffolk, said Mr. Dennison in that 1977 interview, was population. Steps need to be taken to “strongly limit” the county’s population through upzoning and clustering of residences to 1.5 million people, some 200,000 more than in Suffolk then. That’s the county’s population now. More would be “too many people for the resources we have…fresh water, air and space.”

He charged “the towns never did any planning at all, until we forced them to.” Much local zoning had provided for quarter-acre house lots and “five million people could have moved into the county.” He said of the population increase already where he lived and his engineering practice had been located: “Just look at Port Jefferson. You can’t even cross the street.”

About Suffolk County government 40 years ago, then far smaller than it is today, he said there was “no question, too much bureaucracy” in county government. “You can’t make efficient government by adding up numbers or piling up money. It takes leadership.”

There is “too much local government” as well. “There are 550 “separate, independent tax-imposing and tax-spending agencies of local home rule government.” He called for “streamlining” government.

Of the Nassau-Suffolk “Master Plan” designed to set orderly growth, its formulation coming under an initial Dennison appointment, Lee Koppelman, as Suffolk planning director, he said it wan’t being well-implemented. “The towns use it when it’s to their advantage; they haven’t really snagged on to it and pushed it.”

Of the Democratic Party, he said “I fully support its principles when the party does. I regard it as the party of the people.” The Republican Party is “in serious trouble. It’s always been a party of the status quo, do things as they are, don’t upset the boat, don’t disturb anything, patronage, power, perpetuity.”

He said he thought it too late to stop the then Long Island Lighting Company’s half-completed Shoreham nuclear power plant but said the county could use its powers of condemnation to acquire as a park the square-mile of land at Jamesport on which LILCO wanted to build four more nuclear plants—and thus “stop” them. A decade later, New York State created the Long Island Power Authority with the clout to use the state’s condemnation powers to seize LILCO’s assets or stock if it persisted with Shoreham. And Shoreham was blocked from operating. The Jamesport nuclear project was subsequently cancelled and the land along the Long Island Sound became state parkland. 

Mr. Dennison called Suffolk “the most exciting county in the world, the greatest place on earth.” He spoke of “the exciting four seasons of the year, the blessings of an island status, an endless supply of fresh water as long as we can save it, our wonderful location and marvelous shorefront…the potential we have for educational, cultural, recreational and economic development. We have everything we can ask for. It takes a little planning and cooperative effort and creative thinking.”

Six years later, Mr. Dennison died of a heart attack. He was 79.

His successor as county executive, Smithtown’s John V. N. Klein, said: “Politically, he rushed in where angels feared to tread. He was his own man.”

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.

Sunday
Nov052017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - "Captured" Government Agencies 

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

Good for democracy.

That’s the significance of the legislation authored by State Kenneth LaValle and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. signed into law last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo  providing that if any future East Hampton Town Board wants a Federal Aviation Administration grant running 10 years or more, it would need to be approved by voters in a town referendum.

The FAA is an example of what these days is termed a “captured” government agency. Established with an obvious conflict-of-interest—to promote and at the same time somehow regulate aviation activity—it is thoroughly under the influence of the aviation industry, under the thumb of aviation interests.

Because the Town of East Hampton has received grants from the FAA for its town-owned airport, it has had difficulty exercising local control over what has in the past two decades become the biggest noisemaker on Long Island. Helicopters shuttling well-heeled passengers between Manhattan and the Hamptons—flying loud and low—have been creating a racket the length of Long Island. The north shore of the Town of Smithtown has been among the areas  affected by the Hamptons-bound and returning helicopters flying overhead.

The website “Aviation Impact Reform” (http://aireform.com/) asks the question, “What is Regulatory Capture?’ The explanation: “Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure; it creates an opening for firms to behave in ways injurious to the public…”

The website—which says it “seeks to empower citizens who see the need for FAA reform, citizens who want an accountable FAA”—declares: “The FAA is a captured agency. Indeed, a careful study of FAA’s regulatory history suggests that this agency has nearly always been serving aviation interests first, frequently with complete indifference to the negative impacts upon the general public.”

A municipality with financial grants from the FAA is especially handcuffed from exercising local control—even if it owns the airport it’s trying to manage. The FAA grant program is for “development” of airports. The last of the FAA grants East Hampton received expired in 2014. If there are no more FAA grants, the town has a far better chance to get out from under the yoke of the FAA and control its field—to the relief of people all over Long Island.   

Commented Senator LaValle of Port Jefferson about the governor signing the measure:

“I fully support East Hampton’s efforts to make decisions concerning their own airport…The new decision-making ability would enable the community of East Hampton to chart their own course.”

Said Mr. Thiele of Sag Harbor: “I am pleased the governor signed this measure which puts the decision-making power regarding FAA funds back into the hands of the community. Town board members have terms that last only four years. Therefore, it’s important that voters also have a say on these agreements that will impact them for years to come”

Charles A. Ehren, Jr., vice chairman of the organization Quiet Skies Coalition, said: that “all areas affected by noise caused by East Hampton Airport owe a great debt of gratitude to Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele for their persistence and hard work on our behalf.” 

The FAA is not alone, of course, in being a “captured” government agency. Another one—which a former Long Island official had a big role in eliminating—was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Witnessing the way the AEC handled whether a construction license should be granted to the Long Island Lighting Company to build the Shoreham nuclear power plant, Congressman Lester Wolff of Kensington was aghast.

The AEC hearings between 1971 and 1972 were a nuclear kangaroo court—with the AEC “judges” refusing to consider issue after issue, including the impossibility of evacuation from Long Island in the event of a major Shoreham accident. That, decades later, became a key factor in Suffolk County’s efforts to stop Shoreham from operating.

In 1974, with the late Mr. Wolff instrumental, the U.S. Congress abolished the AEC and, in its place founded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate nuclear technology and, later, a Department of Energy to get the promotional role. Shoreham was ultimately stopped, but meanwhile, $7.5 billion—largely our ratepayer money—that LILCO spent to build it was wasted, and the Shoreham debacle caused LILCO’s dissolution.

Hooray for democracy—and the power of people over “captured” government agencies.

 

Wednesday
Oct252017

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - On A Clear Day You Can See The Future

SUFFOLK CLOSEUP

By Karl Grossman

“ON A CLEAR DAY, YOU CAN SEE THE FUTURE,” is the heading of the full-page ad that’s been running in major magazines featuring a color photo of the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

Two weeks ago I visited this wind farm just east of Long Island off Block Island, on a trip organized by Deepwater Wind, its builder, and Renewable Energy Long Island, a group that has long urged the utilization of the wind that blows off our shores.

The day wasn’t clear—it was hazy—but it was clear upon seeing this first offshore U.S. wind farm that this is a major part of the energy future.

The use of offshore wind is especially important for the East Coast of the U.S. with its big cities and well-populated stretches between them, thus problematic for siting on-land wind turbines. 

The five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm is proposed to be followed by a 15-turbine South Fork Wind Farm 30 miles southeast of Montauk also constructed by Deepwater Wind—and the Town of East Hampton is already planning to have 100 percent of its electricity coming from this offshore wind source and solar energy by 2020. 

It’s a goal widely possible in this area: harvesting the wind and the sunlight that shines plentifully upon us—and achieve, as East Hampton intends in just three short years, a 100 percent renewable energy goal.

I’m more a lover of the beauty and grandeur of nature than most things people make—with exceptions like most sailboats and jet planes, certain sports cars, great architecture and, of course, very much so, great art. It took an hour on the boat to travel where the five turbines stood—their 240-foot long blades revolving slowly, silently, gracefully. 

“Awesome!” exclaimed one passenger on the boatload of local officials and environmentalists. “Impressive,” said another. “I’m struck by their silence and certainly those blades have a really elegant appearance,” said Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming of Noyac.

“Beautiful,” declared another onlooker.

Indeed, the wind turbines were beautiful. And, I daresay, if they could be reduced in size and were able to fit into the Museum of Modern Art, they would have an honored place. 

“The U.S. needs more renewable energy, a problem felt on Block Island, RI, where residents paid some of the highest electricity prices in the country while burning a million gallons of diesel fuel each year,” says the Citibank ad. “Citi provided long-term financing to help Deepwater Wind build the first offshore wind farm in the U.S.—part of Citi’s $100 billion commitment to finance sustainable energy projects. The Block Island Wind Farm can help lower electric bills by up to 40 percent and reduce carbon emissions by 40,000 tons a year, ushering in a new era of American renewables.”

The Block Island Wind Farm is providing all the island’s energy needs and sending much of the electricity on to mainland Rhode Island. 

Each turbine generates six megawatts of electricity—significantly more electricity than on-land wind turbines which have to be trucked to where they are placed, going on highways, fitting under bridges, and this limits their size. Offshore wind turbines are assembled in coastal areas and barged out to be placed at sea—so they can be larger and harvest more electricity.

Europeans have been constructing offshore wind farms for decades. There are thousands of turbines in the waters off the United Kingdom, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Denmark—and on the other side of the planet, China is building them. At long last, the U.S. is doing it.

New York State has identified more than one million acres of offshore waters south of Long Island as possible wind energy areas, according to a report issued at the start of this month. The sites present, it said, the “fewest conflicts with ocean users, natural resources, infrastructure and wildlife, and the greatest potential for the cost-effective development of offshore wind energy to meet the state’s goals.” 

The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority is the key state agency and emphasizes, “Offshore wind turbines will be located far offshore and will not be noticeable from the shoreline”—an objection raised in earlier efforts to develop offshore wind both off Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard. A technological achievement of Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind was to figure out how wind turbines can be placed in deep water—thus its name Deepwater Wind—and avoid these concerns.

As the boat neared Montauk on its return, Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, said: “We just saw the future of energy right off our shores.”

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.

Tuesday
Oct242017

Lawsuit Challenges County's Practice Of Fees For Revenue 


Lawsuit Challenges Illegal County Fees on Long Island


NEW YORK (10/24/17) — For several years, Long Island’s Suffolk County has avoided raising general fund taxes by imposing new or increased fees on certain residents. Today, the Government Justice Center, an Albany-based public interest legal center, filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court to put an end to the illegal practice of raising general revenue through such fees.

Faced with the tough choice between raising taxes and cutting spending, Suffolk County has skirted the law by increasing fees far beyond their legal limit. Under state law, fees charged must not exceed the cost of service. Excess fees used for general revenue purposes are unauthorized taxes. Further, these fees unfairly target a subset of the population—new homebuyers, for example—to raise revenue for everyone.

The most egregious category is fees for filing real estate documents. For example, in Suffolk County, tax map verifications were projected to bring in $65 million in 2017—from an agency that costs just over $1 million per year to run.

“When government oversteps, the Government Justice Center exists to stand up for taxpayers and ensure that government plays by the rules,” said Cameron Macdonald, executive director of the Government Justice Center. “That is exactly what this case is about—if Suffolk County wants to raise revenue, it needs to do it legally, not by levying unauthorized taxes through excessive fees on a subset of residents.”