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SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Farmworkers Bill Of Rights


By Karl Grossman

 Passage of the Farmworkers Bill of Rights by the New York State Legislature at its recent session was among its most notable achievements this year. Governor Andrew Cuomo says he will sign the measure into law.

The treatment of farmworkers has been a huge scandal in the United States. Suffolk, which has been and continues as a leading agricultural county in New York, has been involved.

Farmworkers—many of them migrant farmworkers lured by phony promises—have been excluded from basic laws in the U.S. among them those on housing and work. The New York legislation would give them rights including overtime pay, voting to unionize, having at least one day off a week and receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

“Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: that farmworkers deserve fairness, equality and justice,” said New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. 

Every semester in my four decades of teaching an Environmental Journalism class at SUNY/College at Old Westbury I show the students Edward R. Murrow’s TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame” about the plight of farmworkers broadcast on CBS in 1960.

“We present this report on Thanksgiving because were it not for the labor of the people you are going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essential,” declared Mr. Murrow, the preeminent U.S. broadcast journalist of his era, standing in a farm field. “They are the migrants, workers in the sweatshops of the soil—the harvest of shame,” says Murrow. They are “the forgotten people.”

The documentary—which you can view on YouTube—leaves students shocked. Their jaws drop as they hear farmworkers who believed the promises of crew leaders who recruited them to harvest crops, are charged for all sorts of things and become indebted, trapped in migrant farmwork. The housing and work conditions shown are outrageous. 

Shown, too, are the terrible journeys. “Produce en route to the tables of America by trailer is refrigerated to prevent bruising,” says Murrow. “Cattle carried to market, by federal regulation, must be watered, fed and rested for five hours every 24 hours. People—men, women and children—are carried to the fields…in journeys as long as four days and three nights. They often ride ten hours without stopping for food or facilities.”

A minister, Rev. Michael Cassidy, who travels with migrant farmworkers trying to help them, says: “Only in name they are not a slave. But in the way they are treated, they are worse than slaves.”

My students are appalled to hear a farmer declare: “I guess they got a little gypsy in their blood. They just like it. Lot of ‘em wouldn’t do anything else. Lot of ‘em don’t know anything different. They don’t have a worry in the world. They’re happier than we are. Today they eat. Tomorrow they don’t worry about. They’re the happiest race of people on Earth.”

Suffolk County figures in “Harvest of Shame.” As a journalist based here since 1962, I’ve gotten my lumps on the farmworker story. Then State Assemblyman Andrew Stein of Manhattan inspected migrant farmworker camps in Suffolk in 1971. He was pressing for protections for them under state law. “The conditions here are feudal,” said Mr. Stein as noted in an article in The New York Times. “People live like indentured servants. This is not the kind of thing we want to have in New York State.”

The article continued: “At the first camp Mr. Stein visited here, the assemblyman, his party and accompanying newsmen were driven from the camp by a man the police said was the owner, William Chudiak. Mr. Stein was speaking with a migrant worker when Mr. Chudiak drove up in a pick-up truck. He grabbed a camera belonging to Karl H. Grossman, a reporter for the Long Island Press, and pushed and struck him.” (The Cutchogue camp was featured in “Harvest of Shame.”)

My students find it hard to believe that the outrageous conditions in “Harvest of Shame” continue. I present more recent journalism. On the 50th anniversary of “Harvest of Shame,” CBS correspondent Byron Pitts did a follow-up and, as The Atlantic noted, what he saw “was the same ugly dynamic that had existed during Murrow’s visits, the same cycle of brutal work, deplorable conditions…”

Murrow’s broadcast ended with his saying: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruits and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”

I moderated a TV program with Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union, in Suffolk in 1992. He emphasized the need for broad action to end the nightmare for farmworkers. 

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.   




SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Releasing Balloons Is Devastating To Environment


By Karl Grossman

“One balloon released is one too many,” says Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker.

Thus she is sponsoring a bill to amend current county law which allows the release of up to 25 helium filled balloons—and change that number to zero. There would be no release in Suffolk of helium-filled balloons or balloons otherwise filled with “lighter-than-air-gas.” 

“The beaches in my legislative district, that includes the coastline from Mount Sinai to Wading River, are greatly impacted by environmental pollution, in particular plastics and balloons. It’s time we take responsibility for keeping our oceans clean and become better stewards of our environment,” says Ms. Anker, among the strong environmentalists on the 18-member Suffolk Legislature.

A Mount Sinai resident, she cites findings documenting released balloons having “devastating effects on sea life.” Her resolution notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that “balloon debris can be easily mistaken for food and ingested by animals, and balloons with ribbons can entangle wildlife. Balloon debris can also have an economic impact on communities by contributing to dirty beaches, and can cause power outages when entangled with power lines.”

The bill will come before the legislature next week. If it passes and is then signed by County Executive Steve Bellone, fines for releasing a balloon in Suffolk would start at $500 for the first violation, $750 for the second and $1,000 for the third and any additional violations.

The move to flatly prohibit the release of balloons began in Suffolk in February with the East Hampton Town Board voting 5-to-0 to bar any balloon releases. “Balloons waste natural resources, litter our communities, pollute our waterways and kill wildlife,” says the East Hampton ban. 

The Southampton Town Board followed last month with all members present passing a complete ban “intended to reduce the negative impact that balloons have on the environment by discouraging the intentional release of balloons in the Town of Southampton.”

A spark plug behind the East Hampton, Southampton and Suffolk County actions is Susan Faith McGraw Keber, a dedicated environmentalist and member of the East Hampton Town Trustees. The Trustees have been, as their website notes, “stewards of public lands and waterways since 1661. We are one of the oldest bodies of government in our country.” The elected panel created in colonial times predates balloons—but not concern for the environment.

Ms. Keber of Northwest Woods spoke to other East Hampton officials about the need for a town measure—Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc sponsored East Hampton’s resolution—and then went to Southampton and conferred with officials there and also met with county officials.

The Suffolk County law on balloons which would be amended took form in 2005 when

Legislator Lynne Nowick of St. James received a letter from some elementary school students about helium-filled balloons falling into waterways and being mistaken for jellyfish by sea animals which ingested the balloons and died. They noted that Connecticut, because of this issue, banned mass balloon releases and they suggested the same sort of thing be done in Suffolk. 

Ms. Nowick studied the issue, found that balloons represented the most common form of floating garbage within 200 miles from shore and, indeed, regularly kill marine life, especially turtles. She introduced the bill that became current county law which would continue as law although zeroing out any balloon releases if the Anker bill is enacted. Ms. Nowick was term-limited as a Suffolk legislator and is now a Smithtown Town councilwoman.

An entity called The Balloon Council, a balloon industry group based in New Jersey, tried to stop the Suffolk measure but the legislature stood up to it. The Balloon Council has described itself as “Affirming America’s Ongoing Love Affair with Balloons.” It is now in retreat stating conspicuously on its website (www.theballoon council.org) that “balloons should not be released.” This is keeping, it says, with what it labels “Smart Balloon Practices.” Between 2012 and 2017, the Associated Press has reported, The Balloon Council spent more than $1 million “lobbying against balloon regulations nationwide.”

             The website (www.balloonsblow.org) of the organization Balloons Blow, based in Florida, is loaded with suggestions as substitutes for releasing balloons. “There are many safe, fun, and eye-catching alternatives to balloons for parties, memorials, fundraisers, and more!” it says. “As we become more aware of our personal impacts on the environment, people are ditching single-use, wasteful products for earth-friendly, reusable and exciting alternatives.”

Considering how deadly a balloon released into the environment can be, “one released balloon” is indeed “one too many.”

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.   


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - NYS Comptroller's LI Economic Snapshot 


By Karl Grossman

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is just out with a report that describes itself as an “economic snapshot” of this area. Some of the information we know of but a lot we don’t.

Who, for example, is familiar with the fact that the village with the smallest population in New York State is “the tiny village of Dering Harbor [on Shelter Island] with 11 residents.” Or who knew that Hempstead “with nearly 56,000” is the state’s “most populated village?” 

I knew property taxes in neighboring Nassau County were high but the report terms the “median property tax bill in Nassau…particularly high: $14,872” in contrast with the “state median tax bill of $8,081.” Meanwhile, the median property tax bill in Suffolk is $8,556.

Why is the Nassau tax bill sky-high? Some 70% of property taxes go for schools, but the number of schoolchildren all over Long Island has declined. Does it have to do with corruption in Nassau government as exemplified by the recent convictions of ex-Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, his wife, his former top aide, and other Nassau officials?

Exacerbating the tax bite now is the big cut in deductibility of local and state taxes on federal tax returns. “Long Islanders face some of the highest tax burdens in the state. The recent federal tax law caps the deductibility of state and local taxes, making the burden even higher for many taxpayers,” the report notes. 

Then there’s the “fiscal stress” for governments. “Long Island has higher levels of fiscal stress compared with other regions in the state. Both Nassau and Suffolk Counties are in significant fiscal stress,” it says. The term “significant fiscal stress” is the most extreme level given by the comptroller for governments and school districts in financial difficulty.

A main issue in the contest for county executive this year in Suffolk between incumbent Steve Bellone and County Comptroller John M. Kennedy, Jr. is the charge leveled by Mr. Kennedy that Mr. Bellone is guilty of fiscal mismanagement which Bellone spokespeople deny.

As for Suffolk’s population, the African-American percentage is reported as 8% and the Latino population is now very substantial, 19%, which is “equal to the state percentage.” 

“Long Island is generally prosperous,” says the report, with the “median household income in 2017” $105,744 in Nassau and $92,838 in Suffolk, “both significantly higher than the state median of $62,765.” But “disparity of income is fairly wide” with “the villages of Hempstead and Greenport having median incomes below $60,000.”

The “median value” of a home in Suffolk is $379,400 compared to $293,000 for the state. In the Town of East Hampton, it’s a whopping $807,500, “highest for any of Long Island’s towns.” Despite the high cost of housing, the “homeownership rate” for Nassau and Suffolk is 72%, “much higher than the 48% statewide rate.” It’s further noted that the “high home prices can prove a source of financial strain.” Oh, yes. 

Despite development in the population boom of the last several decades that has given “much of the region…urban and suburban characteristics, agriculture remains an important part of Long Island’s economy and its culture. In fact, Suffolk County has the highest value for agricultural crops of any county in New York State…with production centered on nursery, greenhouse and sod products; vegetables; fruits; poultry and eggs and aquaculture, e.g., fish, clams. Since its start in 1973, Long Island’s wine industry has grown dramatically.”

“Health care is the largest private sector employer on Long Island,” says the report, “accounting for nearly 17% of private-sector jobs, 193,000.” Treating illness has become Long Island’s biggest industry. What does this signify?

There are issues regarding the “network of aquifers beneath the island”—its sole source of potable water. “Concerns have been raised about their recharge rates and contamination from pollution sources” says the report about the aquifers. Instead of treating and then recharging wastewater back into them to replenish the underground water table, most wastewater is sent (all of it in Nassau) through outfall pipes out to bays, the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean.

The drive for development is continuing. The report cites “the Ronkonkoma Hub” project in which “1,450 apartments and 545,000 square feet of retail space” is to be built. There are also plans for a project “nearby…in the Town of Islip” to feature “a 7,500-seat arena and 6,000-seat soccer stadium as part of a $1.1 billion development” which will also include “offices, a convention center and medical facilities.” Although these projects “and many others may add to Long Island’s economic opportunities, they could also contribute to heavy traffic congestion and may put more pressure on already high housing costs.”

The report concludes: “Despite these challenges, Long Island continues to be a desirable place to live, work and raise a family…”

Comptroller DiNapoli, a Long Islander from the village of Great Neck Plaza, comments that the report is “meant to provide useful information.” This it does.

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.   


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - LaValle's Defeat "Localized Issue" Or Anti Trump Sentiment


By Karl Grossman

 Does the defeat of former Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle last week in a race for Port Jefferson mayor—in which Mr. LaValle’s close linkage with President Trump was a main issue—mean trouble for Mr. Trump in 2020 in running in Suffolk? Does it also mean trouble for another staunch backer of Mr. Trump, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, running for re-election this year?

Mr. LaValle left as Suffolk GOP leader in March. As Newsday described him recently, he has “been President Donald Trump’s prime local cheerleader for the past three years.” Mr. LaValle regularly appeared on television as a surrogate supporting Mr. Trump. A former Brookhaven Town supervisor and cousin of long-time State Senator Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson, he held the GOP chairmanship for a decade.

He indicated when he stepped down that he was interested in being “out there advancing the president and if I end up in a formal role, that would be O.K., too.”

But he decided to run for mayor of Port Jefferson against five-term incumbent Margot Garant, a lawyer who not only had the strength of incumbency but also the incumbency of her mother, herself a former Port Jefferson mayor.

And the LaValle-Trump tie became very important. As one Port Jefferson voter, Arnold (Arnie) Tropper was quoted on the website Greater Port Jefferson as saying: “No way can I support LaValle. My biggest issue is that he is a huge Trump supporter and it’s one of the few anti-Trump statements I can make that actually has some results. My vote is more of an anti-Trump vote, even though I think she’s done a good job.”

Ms. Garant defeated Mr. LaValle 1,454 to 992.

Mr. LaValle told Newsday after losing: “The mayor ran an effective campaign making this a referendum on Donald Trump. That was the result.”

What will this mean for Mr. Trump who in 2016 carried Suffolk with 328,403 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 276,953? That was a hefty 8 percent margin in a county which Barack Obama carried with a nearly 4 percent margin in 2012 and 6 percent in 2008.

And what will it mean for Republican Zeldin of Shirley who is running this year for his third term representing the lst Congressional District which includes all of Brookhaven Town—in which Patchogue is located—along with most of Smithtown, a slice of Islip and all five East End towns: Southampton, East Hampton, Southold, Riverhead and Shelter Island?

“I would hope it is a trend,” commented Southampton Town Democratic Chairman Gordon Herr last week. “We’ll see.”

Mr. LaValle’s successor as Suffolk GOP chairman, Jesse Garcia, told me he regarded Mr. LaValle’s defeat as a “localized issue.” As for Mr. Zeldin encountering trouble this year for his support of Mr. Trump, Mr. Garcia said “Lee Zeldin stands on his own and he has a wide breadth of support for his actions on Long Island issues.” And regarding President Trump, Mr. Garcia said “our polling has shown he’s strong in Suffolk County and in Brookhaven Town [Mr. Garcia has also remained Brookhaven GOP leader.] His detractors may go after his candor, approach and outspokenness, but middle-class Suffolk taxpayers are responding to his policies and his stand on national security issues which I think will carry him—and we want to extend that 8% margin in 2016 even further in 2020.” 

Former Suffolk County Legislator Jim Morgo, who has been Suffolk County chief deputy county executive, like fellow Democrat Herr would “like to think” that the LaValle defeat with his Trump allegiance playing a major part “portends the future.”

The question, said Mr. Morgo, is whether what happened in Port Jefferson, among Brookhaven communities including Patchogue and Stony Brook that are places of Democratic strength in the largely GOP town, the most populated in Suffolk, will carry over to much of the rest of Brookhaven and Suffolk. He believes broad opposition to Mr. Trump, his behavior and actions, will do this. Mr. Morgo of Bayport is active in the group Taking Action Suffolk County (TASC) started along with many similar organizations around the nation after Mr. Trump’s election to challenge him. 

The founder of TASC, Bryan Erwin of Mattituck, said in an email blast last week: “We did it. Margot Garant was re-elected Port Jefferson Village mayor. TASC is proud to have helped see Mayor Garant awarded another term. But aside from Margot clearly being the better candidate, TASC was drawn to action by her opponent, John Jay LaValle….LaValle represents the hateful rhetoric and disgraceful cronyism that should have no place in our political system.”

The big political change these days in Suffolk, once heavily Republican, is that enrolled Democrats now outnumber Republicans—358,296 to 329,689. And there are 281,489 voters in the “blank” category, enrolled in no party, enabling political surprises to easily happen here.

 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.   


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - After A Decade Dr. Stanley And Dr.McKay Are Leaving


By Karl Grossman

The two top figures in higher education in Suffolk County—Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., president of Stony Brook University and Dr. Shaun McKay, president of Suffolk County Community College—are leaving.

Dr. Stanley was for a decade at the helm at Stony Brook, one of SUNY’s four university centers (the others are at Albany, Buffalo and Binghamton) with 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Stanley will on August 1 be taking a post as president of Michigan State University in Lansing. It has 50,000 students and its president resigned last year after a sex-abuse scandal involving the campus doctor Larry Nassar’s molestation of female university athletes for which he was convicted and sentenced to from 40 to (a whopping) 175 years in prison.

Dr. McKay, at the top of Suffolk County Community College also for a decade, tendered his resignation in May. Suffolk Community has three campuses (in Selden, Riverhead and Brentwood) and 26,000 full and part-time students. On its website, it describes itself as the “largest community college in the State University of New York system. SCCC is a comprehensive publicly-supported, two-year, open enrollment institution.” Dr. McKay and the college are not revealing his reasons for leaving but, it was learned, they involve personal issues.

Dr. Stanley in his tenure picked up on the early focus of Stony Brook presidents having the school stress science and research, although the state’s original plan under then Governor Nelson Rockefeller—a pivotal figure in developing the SUNY system—was for Stony Brook to be “the Berkeley of the East.” It was to become a counterpart of the University of California, Berkeley, a well-rounded university center. 

But under its early presidents, Dr. John S. Toll, a nuclear physicist; his successor, acting president T. Alexander Pond, also a nuclear physicist; and then Dr. John H. Marburger, III, a theoretical physicist, the overwhelming emphasis was on science and research. 

Stony Brook ended up looking in many respects more like Caltech — the private California Institute of Technology — rather than a well-rounded institution like Berkeley.

A humanities-focused period came when Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny was Stony Brook’s president. Starting out as an English professor, she became chair of the English department, then provost of the University of Maryland’s College of Arts & Humanities, and then president of Queens College. During her tenure at Stony Brook from 1994 to 2009, Dr. Kenny tried to change Stony Brook’s culture and have it emphasize far more teaching and the needs of students. She had no choice. She told me that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education threatened to lift Stony Brook’s accreditation unless it paid greater attention to teaching and students rather than its activities dominated by research.

Dr. Kenny was succeeded by Dr. Stanley, who had been vice chancellor for research at Washington University in St. Louis. An M.D. long involved in research, he returned Stony Brook to focusing on science and research. 

A most destructive act by Dr. Stanley, one of his first actions when he became president of Stony Brook, was ordering the virtual closing of the Stony Brook Southampton campus, founded as a teaching institution emphasizing the environment and sustainability. 

In recent years under Dr. Stanley, Stony Brook suspended student admissions into its theatre arts, comparative literature and cinema arts departments, part of a series of cuts in liberal arts. In 2017, hundreds of students joined in a demonstration on campus — a “March for the Humanities” — that culminated with a sit-in. 

Meanwhile, there has been, slowly, some more use made of the Stony Brook Southampton campus and plans are underway for the now Stony Brook-affiliated Southampton Hospital to move to the campus with linked health sciences programs.

Stony Brook University was established in 1962.

Suffolk County Community College was established in 1959. At the start of 2019, the trustees of the college directed Dr. McKay to take a paid leave of absence from his post. This came after Dr. McKay spent 77 days on medical leave in 2018 and when he returned sought a 10-year contract extension. In announcing Dr. McKay’s “voluntary resignation” as president, Suffolk Community in a statement quoted Theresa Sanders, chair of its board of trustees, as saying “there were no findings of wrongdoing, incapacity, or misconduct on the part of Dr. McKay.”

According to Newsday, “potential successors” to Dr. McKay include former Congressman Tim Bishop of Southampton who since losing a re-election bid became a professor and is now also the head of the Center for Community Solutions at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, and State Senator Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson. Mr. LaValle, an educator who subsequently received a law degree, was first elected to the Senate in 1976 to represent a district that encompasses most of eastern Suffolk. When Republicans controlled the Senate, he was chairman of its Higher Education Committee.

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.