Nassau County Legislator Joseph Scannell, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, said he believes that the death last week of Peter Schmitt, the Legislature’s presiding officer and majority leader, has created a need for bipartisan action that the previous Republican majority did not require.
Schmitt died on Oct. 3 after suffering a heart attack in the offices of County Executive Ed Mangano.
“It’s a devastating loss for his family and the Legislature,” Scannell said. “He was extremely smart, both governmentally and politically, and he was an amazing advocate for his district.”
Schmitt’s death temporarily shifts the balance of power in the Legislature away from Republicans just before a crucial vote on the county budget. Republicans had outnumbered Democrats 10-9. On Election Day, voters in the 12th Legislative District, which Schmitt represented, will choose his replacement.
According to Scannell, the county charter requires that the budget be passed by Oct. 29, a date chosen because of its proximity to the general election. Legislative committees are scheduled to meet on Oct. 15, and the full Legislature will meet on Oct. 29 to vote on the budget. If it is not approved, the Legislature will have to adopt the county’s 2012-13 budget as a contingency spending plan.
“The people who formed the Nassau County Legislature were smart,” Scannell said. “This way the budget is always passed a week or two before the general election. The voters get a chance to evaluate the budget and their legislators.”
Scannell said he expects there to be a flurry of negotiations in the coming weeks to arrive at a budget that satisfies members of both parties. “Now the people want both parties working together, and certainly in this instance, with [Schmitt’s] passing, we need to come together,” he said. “It’s tough. We govern on a majority, and now there is no majority in the Nassau County government.”
One area Scannell predicts negotiations will focus on is funding for area youth groups, like the Rockville Centre-based Hispanic Brotherhood, many of which have lost much of their county funding. “The Republican budget completely zeroed out the youth groups in the county,” Scannell said. “Magarita Grasing does a great job, but her budget was zeroed out too,” he added, referring to the Hispanic Brotherhood’s executive director. “That’s one of the places we’ll be looking to negotiate with the Republicans.”
According to the county charter, Mangano had 60 days after Schmitt’s death to declare a special election to replace him, and was required to give 30 days’ notice. Though Scannell said on Oct. 5 that he didn’t believe there was enough time to prepare for a special election on Nov. 6, Mangano issued an executive order to do so last weekend.
“In light of the person he was, the amazing advocate he was, it’s important that we don’t rush the process,” Scannell said last Friday, before Mangano issued the order.
But there are obvious advantages to expediting the vote. Since voting machines will already be prepared and county workers will be deployed at polling places, the county will not incur the cost of holding a separate special election.
The Democratic and Republican committees will choose candidates for it.
Schmitt was first elected to the Legislature in 1995. The 12th District encompasses Massapequa and Massapequa Park as well as parts of Seaford and North Massapequa.
“Nassau County has lost a dedicated public servant,” Mangano said on Twitter. “My wife Linda and I lost a friend of over 20 years. Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt served the residents of Nassau County with great integrity and pride. I had the privilege of serving closely with Peter in the Legislature since its creation in 1996, where he distinguished himself as an outspoken advocate for the residents of the 12th Legislative District.
“Peter was a loving husband, father and most recently a doting grandfather,” Mangano continued. “My deepest sympathies go out to his wife Lois, his daughter Samantha and his entire family. Nassau County is a better place because of Peter’s leadership, commitment and compassion and he will be greatly missed.”
He had been the Legislature’s presiding officer since the Republicans took over the majority in 2010. He will be succeeded on an interim basis by Norma Gonsalves, a Republican from East Meadow. According to Legislator Denise Ford (R-Long Beach), Gonsalves will most likely serve as presiding officer until the end of next year.