During Tony Santino’s final meeting as Town of Hempstead supervisor in December, he couldn’t have looked more bored, with a dour expression, his chin half-folded into the palm of his hand. That was to be expected. Only a month earlier, after all, he had lost his post to a political neophyte, Democrat Laura Gillen, of Rockville Centre, who ran a flawless insurgent campaign that took Santino — and just about every political observer around — by surprise.
What no one before that gloomy session expected — despite Santino’s threats — was that the outgoing supervisor would actually cut a deal with Hempstead’s union workers to offer them unheard-of job protections, along with interdepartmental transfers for political appointees to ensure that they would keep their jobs under the new administration and that dozens of others would get big pay raises.
That day, the Town Board passed a contract amendment prohibiting termination of civil service employees, except in cases of misconduct. That is, no layoffs would be allowed. At the same time, more than 190 employees were transferred or given raises.
Effectively, Santino’s final act rendered Gillen powerless to cut workers in times of budget crisis, leaving her with no choice but to reduce services or raise taxes. It also saddled the new administration with a heavier payroll burden to meet.
Some might say Santino was just protecting the workers who had given the town exceptional service under the Republican administration. Others more cynical than that might say he moved to protect the ranks of GOP loyalists to maintain the political structure he would need to win back the supervisor’s seat in 2019.
Either way, Santino was just plain wrong.
The Town of Hempstead has long needed reform. Voters at last saw that in 2017, and they elected Gillen to effect systemic change that would lead to greater transparency and efficiency. That Santino would act, in tandem with the Town Board, to override the people’s vote was unconscionable.
So Gillen did what any high-powered attorney such as herself would do: She sued the Town Board. On April 11, she filed suit seeking to overturn the union protections that Santino added to the Civil Service Employees Association contract on his way out the door, along with the transfers and raises he was responsible for. She was right to do so.
In acting as he did in December, Santino set a terrible political precedent that would allow any outgoing supervisor to do pretty much as he or she pleased, as long as he or she mustered enough board support.
Erin King Sweeney and Bruce Blakeman, two Republican town council members, and Dorothy Goosby, a Democrat, voted against Santino’s plans to amend the CSEA contract and to transfer appointees, and Blakeman and Goosby voted against the raises. All three were, nevertheless, named in Gillen’s suit, and they took offense that they would be sued after they had supported the incoming supervisor — particularly King Sweeney, who took to Twitter to express her outrage.
Gillen, meanwhile, contends that it was nothing personal, but to overturn Santino’s plans, she was legally required to sue the entire board, not just the four members — Edward Ambrosino, Anthony D’Esposito, Dennis Dunne and Santino himself — who voted for the measures in question.
In her suit, Gillen contends that Santino and the board moved to “strip” her of her “lawful authority,” and that his action would “wreak havoc” on the town’s finances. Thus, she felt obligated to do all she could, legally, to undo the former supervisor’s plans.
In a memorandum to town workers, Gillen said that the lawsuit’s goal was not “to jeopardize the hardworking employees” of the town, “but to restore the rightful authority to this office to properly represent the taxpayers.”
We’re siding with Gillen on this one. She was elected to represent Hempstead residents. She must have the ability to do so, without being shackled by a previous administration, which is politics in its worst, most self-serving form.
Gillen’s lawsuit was a brave move. She had to know it was a political risk — that it would become fodder against her among the ranks of Santino loyalists throughout the town. She went ahead with it anyway. Hempstead residents should realize, in no uncertain terms, who is really on their side here.