State lawmakers are pushing for new legislation that would enable special districts to unseat elected officials for inappropriate conduct after an Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 commissioner made alleged racially charged Facebook posts.
The new legislation would give special districts the power to recall elected officials with a petition of signatures from 10 percent of the electorate or 5,000 votes, whichever number is smaller. The board representing the district would then vote to approve the recall and set a special election to do so.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, proposed the measure. The legislation was in response to Oceanside Sanitation Commissioner Ryan Hemsley’s alleged posts, which surfaced in October, some dating back several years.
“It is crucial that we give residents the ability to oust local elected officials who prove they are unfit to hold office — and that is exactly what this bill” would do, Kaminsky said. “By putting the power back into the hands of local taxpayers to hold special district commissioners accountable, we can ensure elected officials are held to the highest standard. Racism and bigotry will not be tolerated — especially from those in positions of power — and this legislation says that loudly and clearly.”
The bills in the Senate and Assembly will be brought to their respective floors for a vote on a date yet to be determined. If passed, the measure would go to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature. The Senate and Assembly were set to return to session on Wedneday, after the Herald went to press.
Hemsley has denied making many of the posts, and did not answer questions at the Dec. 17 board meeting, the first one he had attended since the posts came to light. He said he believed his fellow commissioners doctored the posts for the purpose of removing him from the board. He added that an independent investigator, not the board, should look into them.
“I am not going to be investigated by the people I believe are responsible for this,” he said. “I look forward to a full and thorough external investigation. I will not be answering questions about anything.”
Hemsley, a sheet metal worker in Queens and a member of Local Union 28, joined the board last January after Commissioner Matthew Horowitz stepped down. Because he took over in the middle of Horowitz’s term, Hemsley had to run in the September election, in which he defeated challenger Dawn Veit by garnering more than 1,000 votes.
In mid-October, the posts were uncovered, and the board asked him to resign in response, but he has refused. The board and the Town of Hempstead have no authority to force Hemsley to resign, and the only course for removal would be for a district attorney or resident to take the case to State Supreme Court, arguing malfeasance in office.
On Oct. 15, Hemsley told the Herald that the posts were “doctored or completely made up” to discredit him. Days later, in a series of text messages to a Herald reporter, he wrote that he had been aware of the posts for many months, but other people had posted them on his page. The posts promoted Nazis and disparaged minorities, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.
Hemsley did not appear at the Nov. 4 meeting — the first public gathering of the board after the posts surfaced — saying he feared for his safety.
Board Chairman Austin Graff declined to comment on the proposed legislation, but said at last month’s meeting that the board could hire an attorney to investigate the posts and determine whether Hemsley was behind them.
If Hemsley were to resign, the sanitation board could appoint a new commissioner, pending approval by the Town Board. That person would then have to run in June to finish the final year of Hemsley’s term, and then again in June 2022 for a full five-year term, if he or she wished to stay on. If Hemsley stays on the board, his term will expire in June 2022.
Assemblywoman Griffin said she hoped the legislation would be approved so that similar issues in special districts could be resolved quickly in the future.
“Racist, anti-Semitic and sickening remarks have no place on Long Island, especially from a public official elected into office,” she said. “Following Ocean-side Sanitation Commissioner Ryan Hemsley’s history of deplorable remarks, it is vital that New York state provide a way to hold officials accountable. I am proud to be the Assembly sponsor of important legislation that allows the public to recall a special district official.”