By RONNY REYES
After stating that he had no confidence in her, Glen Cove Mayor Timothy Tenke fired Controller Sandra Clarson on Aug. 16, and the city was left without a controller.
Clarson said she was shocked when she came back from a vacation to find that she had been let go. She was not allowed to enter her office in City Hall. Clarson claims she was wrongly terminated, and has filed a petition with the Nassau County Supreme Court to reinstate her.
Tenke first tried to fire Clarson last December, but she remained in the position because, according to the city charter, she could be fired only after a replacement was found. Tenke is a Democrat, and the Republican-majority City Council has not approved any of his nominees to replace Clarson over the past eight months.
After documents from the controller’s office were leaked to Newsday on July 18, revealing that Tenke’s paychecks had not included the proper health care deductions since he took office on Jan. 1, 2018, Tenke asked Clarson to resign. He said he had not been made aware of the error, and was willing to pay the $4,795 in health care premiums he owed. A Freedom of Information Law request by the Herald revealed that the deductions were missing from the paychecks of Tenke and one other city employee.
“[Tenke] claims I went to the media before I let him know, and that’s not true,” Clarson said. “And he’s saying I incorrectly withheld his health insurance deductions, which is also wrong.”
According to Clarson, the problems began when Marks Paneth, a Manhattan accounting firm, audited the city in February. The audit revealed that the city had paid nearly $500,000 in health care premiums for six retirees who did not qualify for coverage. On July 2, as the city addressed the issue, the controller’s office received a request from City Councilwoman Pamela Panzenbeck to create a list of all city employees currently contributing to the health care fund. Clarson said that as soon as she got the request, she checked the mayor’s files and found that those deductions had not been made on his paychecks.
Clarson claims she contacted the mayor that day, and told him about the problem on July 16, two days before the Newsday story appeared.
The city’s public relations officer, Grant Newburger, said that the mayor was not notified about the issue until July 16, and that two days was not enough time to address it before the information was made public. In a statement about the paycheck error, Tenke said that the city’s Human Resources Department sends bimonthly reports to the controller’s office, advising it of all employee health care benefit deductions that should be made each pay period, and that the controller’s office failed to make those deductions. Clarson said the Human Resources Department was to blame for the errors.
“This is what happens when a duly elected mayor is forced to use a holdover political appointee to provide financial checks and balances for the city,” Tenke wrote in his statement. (Former Mayor Reggie Spinello, a Republican, hired Clarson in 2016.) “I am now forced to defend a baseless accusation designed to undermine me. This is pure obstructionist politics.”
Tenke requested that New York state Comptroller Tom DeNapoli conduct an audit of the city controller’s office, and later the H.R. Department, on July 23.
Clarson warned the city that without a controller, paychecks would be delayed and the proper deductions might not be made. She also said that a third employee, whom she did not name, also had an error on paycheck that “could be counted as Medicare fraud until it’s corrected.” Newburger said he was not aware of this third case.
While paychecks were delayed on Aug. 22, city officials said that everyone received them by the end of the day. The mayor’s office stated that the delay was caused by a Civil Service Employees Association representative who said that only the controller could distribute the checks.
Glen Cove CSEA President Maureen Pappachristou said she had given the mayor’s office two days’ notice about the potential payroll issue, and that the office had failed to act on time. In a statement, she wrote that the issue was that the city had no controller.
Marsha Silverman, the only other Democratic member of the City Council besides Tenke, said that not having a controller would not hurt the city’s management, as evidenced by the fact that paychecks were distributed on the day they usually are. Silverman added that everything the controller would normally do has been and can be done by other city officials.
“Controller is an important position, but not one that’s desperately needed to operate the city [in the short term],” Silverman said. “I think the mayor should be allowed to bring in people he can trust to work with. It should be about qualifications, not party affiliation.”
At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, former Councilman Ron Watson, who voted to hire Clarson under Spinello, said Tenke should allow Clarson to return until a replacement can be found. “How did we get to this point, to have Glen Cove without its controller?” Watson asked a room full of residents. Then he addressed Tenke, saying, “Let Sandra do her job for her now until you can bring your own person in.”
The City Council voted to temporarily authorize Deputy Mayor Maureen Basdavanos to certify payroll.