Town Board puts playground proposal on hold

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Editor's note: In the original story published on Oct 12., it was incorrectly reported that Santino would not sign an agreement in approval of the playground unless all residents approve of construction, according to his attorney William Muller. Sanitno will not sign an agreement until there is a consensus among residents, he said. He did not elaborate on the specifics of this consensus.   

Plans to build a playground in south Merrick, on the Hewlett Peninsula, were put on hold indefinitely by the Town of Hempstead last week. That led some Merrick residents and Town Board members to criticize Supervisor Anthony Santino, saying he misrepresented facts when deciding to halt the debate over the proposal.

At an Oct. 3 Town Board meeting, the playground, which has been proposed at the corner of Wynsum and Illona avenues in Merrick, was added to the agenda following a contentious civic association meeting the week before.

A majority of residents who spoke on the issue supported the project, while several others, who live near or around property, once again raised the concerns about safety, before the board voted 4-2-1 to “reserve decision” on the project, essentially tabling it indefinitely. Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby abstained from the vote.

According to Santino, the vote was made in the hope that residents could reach a compromise over the playground.

Republican council members Bruce Blakeman and Erin King Sweeney, who consistently showed support for the playground, which would be built in King Sweeney’s district, voted against the majority.

“We’re talking about a children’s playground,” Blakeman said. “Why should it be controversial, and why should we not vote on it?”

Santino told the Herald that after he initially supported the project, which was proposed by residents Jay Rogoff and Shawn Fields, of the Let’sPlay11566 committee, he began to hear opposition from residents on Wynsum and Illona avenues.

According to Santino, his initial exchange with LetsPlay11566 was “clearly not reflective” of all residents’ opinions.

Rogoff, however, said that Santino’s claim was a “manipulation of facts.” He pointed to a March 2016 poll the town conducted of residents living nearby who supported the playground by a margin of 2 to 1.

That July, Santino wrote a letter to County Legislator Steve Rhoads, a Republican from Bellmore, requesting a grant of $75,000 from the county to cover construction costs. Let’sPlay11566 received an additional $100,000 from New York state and raised over $25,000 through community fundraisers.

But Santino has maintained that he will not support the construction until all residents are on board. “What do we do about the people who purchased a house near Wynsum and don’t want a [playground]?” said William Muller, Santino’s attorney, at a meeting of the South Merrick Civic Association, noting that the supervisor has an obligation to those residents as well.

After that meeting, however, King Sweeney said that Santino “showed a complete lack of leadership” and “was doing his best to pander to people.”

She also said that Muller contacted those who said they opposed the playground and invited them to the board meeting.

As the board voted, Blakeman tried to explain his decision but was interrupted by Town Clerk Nasrin Ahmad, who asked him to simply vote for or against the motion.

“I did not appreciate the interruption,” Blakeman later said. “I felt it was improper and against the rules.”

He went on to tell the Herald that the board has a “longstanding tradition” of supporting council members’ district projects, so he was concerned by the vote to table the playground.

“I believe that ever since Councilwoman King Sweeney proposed an inspector general, the supervisor has opposed virtually everything she does,” Blakeman said. Earlier this year, King Sweeney had called for an inspector general to oversee town contracts as part of a sweeping ethics-reform package.

An agreement between the county and town must be signed in order to fund the playground, and Santino will not do so unless residents come to a consensus about the playground, he said.  

The supervisor “gave us the OK to build. He gave us the OK to fund this, and now he’s going against his word,” Rogoff said.

The Sunday before the board meeting, several residents on both sides of the debate met at King Sweeney’s house to work on a compromise. “The last thing I wanted to do was put a park in a community that didn’t want it,” King Sweeney said, adding that negotiations could include adding cautionary street signs, improving law enforcement at the intersection and fixing the fence around the property.

Rogoff said that he wanted negotiations to continue, but “the only problem is, we do need to hear from the supervisor and find out what he needs us to do next.”

Mike Deery, the town’s communications director, said in a statement that Santino voted to reserve decision “in order to give the residents, both opposed and in favor of a playground, an opportunity to reach some degree of consensus.”