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Oceanside sanitation commissioner no-shows hearing

Firm tasked with probe to release findings on alleged controversial posts without cooperation

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A law firm that is investigating an Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 commissioner who allegedly made racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic social media posts was unable to interview him May 4 after he failed to attend a scheduled hearing.

At the district’s meeting May 6, Board of Commissioners Chairman Austin Graff said Commissioner Ryan Hemsley failed to show up to speak with representatives of the Valley Stream-based Chandler Law Firm as part of a probe into the posts that Hemsley allegedly made before he became a commissioner.

“Commissioner Hemsley was supposed to meet with the investigators this week . . .,” Graff said at the meeting. “They’re going to make a report to the board in the next two weeks regarding their investigation.”

Graff declined to comment further. Hemsley was offered a chance to address the issue at the meeting but opted not to. He told the Herald afterward that his reason for not showing was insurance-based.

“Insurance for the district has not provided representation to me yet to talk to investigators,” he said.

At the board’s April meeting, Graff announced that the district’s insurance carrier, Travelers, had declined coverage to defend Hemsley amid a district investigation into the posts, which were unearthed last October. Hemsley, who was initially appointed to the board and then elected before the controversy broke, said he believed the company should represent sitting commissioners. Graff noted, however, that because there is no claim against Hemsley, there is no risk of liability to Hemsley or the district, so there is no need for defense costs to be incurred. Still, Hemsley said he planned to fight the insurance carrier’s decision.

Hemsley’s request for insurance has delayed the probe against him. The Chandler Law Firm has attempted to schedule a meeting with him several times in order to conduct its investigation, but Hemsley has not complied. Despite being unable to meet with him, firm representatives plan to release their findings within the next two weeks, with or without Hemsley’s cooperation.

“There has been a tremendous amount of effort to afford Hemsley the opportunity to be heard,” said Monte Chandler, special counsel representing the district and a partner at Chandler Law Firm. “There were a number of correspondences back and forth over almost a two-month span, literally seven to 10 emails or written letters by certified mail . . . sharing with him that we don’t want to prejudice you, we want to give you the opportunity to be heard. Everyone should have their day and an opportunity to be heard. He chose not to.”

Chandler said Hemsley was made aware that the probe would continue with or without his cooperation, and that findings would be reported to the other commissioners in two to three weeks. He said it was “disturbing” to sift through the posts in question, and said he would recommend what the board should do next. Possible actions include implementing a social media policy, developing a character evaluation to use before appointing future unelected commissioners and applying a code of conduct going forward.

In the past, Hemsley has called the allegations a “one-sided smear campaign” against him by his fellow board members. He joined the board in January 2020 in the place of Matthew Horowitz and then was re-elected in September, garnering more than 1,000 votes. The following month, the scandal broke, and the board repeatedly asked him to resign, but Hemsley refused and accused the commissioners of setting him up. Elected officials, including State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, and Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, also called for his resignation.

After failed attempts to persuade him to resign, the board conducted an internal investigation, but Hemsley refused to cooperate, saying he did not want the same people accusing him of misconduct to be the ones investigating him. In response, the commissioners hired a law firm to carry out an independent investigation.

Graff said the board did not want to spend taxpayer money on the investigation, but Hemsley was unwilling to have his peers scrutinize him.

Hemsley’s term is to end in June 2022. If he were to resign, the sanitation board could appoint a new commissioner, pending approval by the Hempstead Town Board. If the new commissioner were appointed after the June 17 election, he or she would not have to run until Hemsley’s term was up, at which point the appointee could vie for a five-year term.

The sanitation board and the Town of Hempstead, by law, 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 by Hemsley while in office.