Two candidates have announced their intention to run in the June 21 Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 board of commissioners election. Former Commissioner Joe Cibellis and local attorney Austin Graff are vying for the open seat of Commissioner Ed Scharfberg, who said he was not seeking re-election.
Still looming are the issues of fiscal mismanagement and payments made to former sanitation supervisors Michael Scarlata and his son Charles during portions of Cibellis’s tenure on the board, from 2008 to 2016; low workers’ pay relative to surrounding districts; and lawsuits against the district, which Graff helped orchestrate.
The controversy surrounding the Scarlatas involves assertions made in two audit reports — one by Nassau County and another by the state — that they were being grossly overpaid for their services. Annual garbage tax payments for the average Oceanside homeowner were $676, while the average for the entire Hempstead town was $420, according to a 2009 county audit report prepared by former Comptroller Howard Weitzman. The report pointed to payments and benefits packages for the two men as the main drivers, equaling more than $1 million between 2006 and 2008.
Additionally, a 2015 state audit by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office alleged that more than $800,000 in deferred retirement payments made to the two men violated New York finance law, which is separate from criminal law, and recommended that the district do everything in its power to recoup the costs.
Out of that report came a 2016 lawsuit, filed by former sanitation workers Joseph Samoles and Dennis Rockefeller against members of the board, including Cibellis, alleging that they had blocked efforts to reclaim the payments. Graff served as the attorney for the two men. Shortly afterward, the board voted to review the audit and its contract with Assistance Corp., a consultancy firm run by Scarlata, that the district had retained for $48,000 a year starting in 2014. The board subsequently suspended the contract.
Ultimately, the suit was thrown out last march by a Westchester County judge. In the decision, Judge Lewis Lubell described the plaintiffs’ efforts as “laudable,” but dismissed the case on grounds that Sanitation No. 7 — an independent district under the Town of Hempstead’s umbrella — is not categorized as a county, town, village or municipal corporation. Graff had sought to designate it as such.
Another lawsuit against the district is pending, filed last July by current sanitation worker Richard Zappa, in which Graff is also the attorney. It alleges that Zappa was the victim of retaliation after he publicly supported the campaign of current Sanitation Chairman John Mannone.
Additionally, the district is in the midst of contract negotiations with its sanitation workers, which, according to 2016 public payroll figures, were paid, on average, nearly $26,000 less than employees of several other districts.
Learning from experience
Joe Cibellis admitted that he had made errors during his previous tenure, particularly when it came to the district’s labor contract. “I made mistakes,” he said. “I definitely made mistakes.”
But, he added, “I see the same mistakes are being repeated.”
He maintained that the previous contract, signed in 2013, was made at a time when the district was under great financial pressure, after the 2012 implementation of the state tax-cap legislation, which limits the year-over-year increase in a municipal budget’s tax levy, or the portion of the budget collected through property taxes, to 2 percent or the rate of inflation. But, he said now, “The men are absolutely due their contract, and they’re due raises.” He added that better communication is needed between Local 553, the union that represents non-administrative workers, and the board.
Cibellis contested the 2016 lawsuit, and the news reports that came from it, saying that he had initially voted against a measure to have outside counsel review the state audit because he and other members were unaware of it until shortly before the vote, and that he had concerns about competitive pricing for the services — not, as the suit alleged, because he was protecting the Scarlatas. He added that the board had been reviewing the report, but that “it was a sensitive issue,” noting, “You don’t want your in-house counsel to look into something that may have been their mistake.”
He questioned how Graff, who has helped file multiple lawsuits against the district, could consider running when he has cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. According to the district’s budget, legal fees jumped from roughly $71,000 in 2015 to $142,000 in 2017.
A clean break
Austin Graff said he would like to make a clean break with Sanitation No. 7’s past financial mismanagement and alleged corruption. “We need to bring a fresh set of eyes to the district’s books,” he said, suggesting the district hire new accountants and auditors, “and make sure the records are what they should be and that there are no links to the past.”
His first priority, if elected, would be to continue the process of getting sanitation workers a raise, he said. “We’ve got to get our drivers and loaders a wage increase,” he said, and additionally floated the idea that large-scale garbage producers such as Airstream — a local industrial food delivery service — be charged more for removal, and said that the additional revenue could be used to fund the raise. Graff specified, however, that the proposal would not target mom-and-pop establishments, but only those that produce unusually large amounts of garbage.
He countered Cibellis’s assertion that he wasted taxpayer money through the lawsuits he helped bring against the district saying, “I think getting rid of Scarlata was a much more valuable result.” The contract with Scarlata’s Assistance Corp. would have cost the district $240,000.
Additional candidates have until June 13 to file petitions to be on the ballot. Residents can vote on June 21 at the district’s Mott Street headquarters.