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Editorial

State must provide greater municipal oversight

Posted

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman announced last week that he would not run for re-election — a wise move, given the tenuous nature of any candidacy he might have tried to mount and the lack of support from his own party that he likely would have encountered.

The Long Beach Democrat was once a rising star who ran for county executive only to bow out in favor of the current executive, Laura Curran. Schnirman, the Long Beach city manager from 2012 to 2018, lost his shine in 2018, when it was revealed that he had taken more than $50,000 in a separation payment that he shouldn’t have when he left the city’s employ, and that he had allowed millions of dollars in such improper payments during his tenure, according to a two-year investigation by the Nassau district attorney’s office, which concluded last September.

Separation payments, granted for unused sick and vacation days, are common practice among local municipalities, but there are limits to them. Schnirman and many other Long Beach officials exceeded those limits — big time.

A Schnirman candidacy for re-election as comptroller would have threatened to drag down Curran, a Baldwin Democrat who is up for re-election herself this year, and who, because of her brave stance on property-tax reassessment, will likely face a tough battle to keep her job. There can be no hint of impropriety this year, and a Schnirman candidacy would have reeked of it.

But Schnirman wasn’t alone in what is clearly a longstanding pattern of improper payments. The practice in Long Beach, a Democratic stronghold, dates back to at least the 1990s, when the state comptroller audited the city, found payments that violated its charter and then did nothing — so the practice carried on for years, passed down from one generation of city officials to the next.

How, we wonder, could this have been allowed to carry on for so long? And, for that matter, is Long Beach the only city where officials have been taking such improper separation payments? All of this is scandalous — but, far worse, it has cost Long Beach taxpayers dearly over the years.

Current State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli was not in the post 25 years ago, when the practice first surfaced. The question is, what will he do now to ensure that it doesn’ t happen again — and isn’t happening in municipalities elsewhere in the state? DiNapoli investigated the Long Beach scandal and issued a scathing report in 2019. That was an excellent starting point, but more needs to be done.

We call on DiNapoli to provide greater oversight and follow-up in Long Beach to ensure that there’s no repeat of such a sorry episode, and to examine separation-payment practices across New York, if he isn’t already doing so. Are local governments following the rules?

At the same time, we call on state lawmakers to look into potential legislation to require such oversight. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach who made his political career fighting corruption as a U.S. attorney, is a logical choice to lead such an effort.

We must offer high praise to Long Beach City Council President John Bendo. In 2018, he bucked the city’s entrenched political culture and, as a councilman, spoke out about the separation payments. He was joined by then Councilwoman Anissa Moore.

Finally, we must note our own role in all of this. In the spring of 2018, the Herald began its own investigation into the separation payments, exposing them in an April 25 report, “Questions swirl over Long Beach payouts to non-union employees,” by then Long Beach Editor Anthony Rifilato. That led to a series of investigative stories over the subsequent months and years. Newsday also reported extensively on the scandal.

That is to say, the press did its job. Even when faced with the threat of a lawsuit by one city official caught up in the mess, who was vainly attempting to stop the Herald from reporting this story ahead of the June 2019 City Council primary, we did not back down. Nor would we if faced with a similar situation in the future.

It’s been painful in recent years to hear the press labeled “the enemy of the people.” We know who we are, however. We take only one side — that of the truth. In this case, the truth prevailed, thanks to a handful of elected officials with integrity and the power of the press to expose government malfeasance.