Former town clerk approved for new job
Only in the Town of Hempstead, critics charged, would an elected official be voted out, but still be awarded a slot on the town’s payroll.
And at the same salary, no less.
On Jan. 9, the town board voted 6-1 to approve the transfer of Nasrin Ahmad to the Department of Parks and Recreation as deputy commissioner. New Supervisor Laura Gillen cast the lone no vote.
Ahmad, the Republican town clerk, lost her bid for reelection to Democrat Sylvia Cabana last November. At the Dec. 12 town board meeting, she and 191 other employees were given transfers, raises or promotions at the last meeting under outgoing Supervisor Anthony Santino. Opponents of the move called it a bid by the defeated Republican incumbent to protect his political allies.
Originally, Ahmad was supposed to move to the Department of Occupational Resources, known as DOOR. But that department’s acting commissioner, Gregory Becker, argued that DOOR could not absorb Ahmad’s $129,500 salary that she carried over from her office. On Jan. 2, Ahmad was reportedly moved to the parks department without board approval.
Presiding over her first town board meeting, Gillen earned a standing ovation and a stream of congratulations from speakers on the various resolutions. At her request, Ahmad’s move was severed from the resolution governing various personnel moves in order to vote on it separately.
Clerk To Commissioner
Discussion of Ahmad’s fate took up more than half of the regular meeting (outside the hour-plus public comment session that followed).
Felix Procacci of Franklin Square challenged trustees to justify their yes vote for Ahmad’s transfer.
“Please explain to the residents why they can’t afford to pay $75,000 for some playground equipment, but could afford $130,000 additional money for an employee. I’m not for or against Ms. Ahmad moving. I would like everybody who’s going to vote yes to stand up and say why. Have some courage (applause).”
Procacci was referring to the parks department declining to finance improvements at the town-owned Wynsum Avenue Park in Merrick, forcing park supporters to start a fundraising campaign.
Diane Madden of East Meadow also expressed disapproval, noting, “This has very little to do with securing her job and everything to do with securing the Republicans for their hopeful but doubtful comeback….The hard-working town employees, the heart and soul of this town—not the 192, not Nasrin—got you into office. And they are the ones watching. And they are the ones who don’t approve of this either.”
Richard Schurin of Island Park was inspired by Procacci’s example and directly asked several trustees how they planned to vote. All demurred, saying they were first waiting to hear what the public had to say.
Councilman Dennis Dunne Sr. pushed back, saying, “This is public comment. I’m here to listen to you, not to comment. I’ll listen to you and then I’ll make my vote.”
Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney took up Schurin’s challenge.
“I support Nasrin in this position,” she said. “I realize some of you disagree with me. Nasrin has a fine record of public service. I know her well and this is not a political decision but a professional decision.”
Lucille Defina of Merrick wondered if Ahmad’s skill set meshed with the needs of her new position.
“[Of] what value will she be to the parks department? What will she be doing there?” Defina asked, to applause.
Town Attorney Joseph Ra said that Ahmad “was filling a vacant position that’s already there. She’s going to be working on personnel issues and any other things that the commissioner decides.”
Defina questioned if perhaps Ahmad was overqualified for her new job, adding, “I mean, you’re putting her wherever you need her [just] to keep her. I guess that’s what’s upsetting. We’re coming off years of having been a place where people did favors and bribes and did whatever they have to do to keep their family and friends employed. And it will be disappointing if we go do this again.”
N. Scott Banks, a former town councilman, asked Ra how long the position had been available, and Ra called on William Sammon, the town’s director of human resources, to come forward. Sammon admitted that the position had opened up at the end of 2017. Jeers and sarcastic laughter ensued, and in further discussion Sammon said that many positions became available later in the year because of workers taking early retirement.
Sammon called Ahmad “a very impressive employee who started part-time in the town clerk’s office and worked her way up and took the civil service exams. She did a remarkable job and she possesses a lot of institutional knowledge of the town. She knows the operations and she knows the people. The parks department serves the residents and her skills and expertise would be a valuable addition to that department.”
Banks took issue with the way Ahmad had been transferred from one department to another, pointedly making note of her transfer’s financial burden on DOOR.
Sammon echoed what Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby had said about DOOR suffering significant cuts because of a drop in federal aid.
“We became aware of this [cut] several months ago,” Sammon said. “The feeling in the town was the town was going to subsidize the operations of the department because the services it provides are extremely valuable to the residents.”
DOOR serves as a career counseling center for both town employees and residents.
“Elections have consequences,” Banks attested. “I sat here on the town board in 2000. I had a great staff who worked hard for their constituents. When I was voted out, it had consequences. My chief of staff was a very able person who would have done a great job doing constituent services in the town. He was not offered the same opportunity that this political appointee [Ahmad] has been given. Quite frankly, this is why people are so upset by the process and want changes here.”
Banks claimed that in his experience, the staff of Democratic councilmembers were not offered the opportunity to serve.
”Why? I suspect because of their political affiliation and not because of their skills,” Banks asserted. “We should be hiring people because of their skills (applause).”
He added, “Ms. Sweeney, I believe you did this because you believe it’s right. You’re not doing it out of politics. But I think this move was made because of politics. We should take a step back and reconsider this position. If this position is going to be filled, it should be filled by somebody who has experience in the parks department, who knows the personnel in the department and is not a former elected official.”
Audrey Ciuffo of Merrick argued that Gillen should be given a free hand in making personnel decisions and not have people foisted upon her. She urged board members to work cooperatively with the new supervisor.
Both Gillen and King Sweeney revealed that there had been a lot of back-and-forth that day about the personnel decisions.
“Sometimes we are going to agree, sometimes we’ll disagree,” Gillen said. “I’m very optimistic that I will be able to work cooperatively with [the trustees]. I hope we can come together in a bipartisan manner to work for the [town].”
Aubrey Phillips of Elmont wanted to know if the job to which Ahmad was transferred to was posted.
After being greeted by silence, Phillips said, “If no one could answer where this job was posted, I would suggest that since this is a public body, and this job was not intended to be appointed to anyone, I want it posted with its requirements and qualifications so people could apply for it—and a reasonable discussion could be had about the candidates that apply for the job.”
He added, “Let’s post this job in a way that the community could have access to it. And if Nasrin Ahmad is the best candidate, then she should get it. The way you’re doing it tonight is nothing more than a vulgar political move.”
Kevin McKenna of Syosset, a regular attendee at Town of Oyster Bay board meetings, journeyed to Hempstead to be present at Gillen’s first meeting. After listening, he wanted to have his say. Saying that he had a lot of experience in the private sector, he noted that a private firm’s human resources department would have handled the situation differently.
“This is a major precedent that you’re all going to set right here,” he said. “Because I’m listening and thinking if I could’ve known that somebody could just be moved over—it doesn’t happen in the business world—then why would I have voted for another clerk? You’re setting a precedent where somebody could lose [an election] but still be assured of getting a job somewhere else [in the government]. Then why have a vote in the first place (applause)?”
He went on, “Who is she reporting to in the parks department? I’d like to hear the supervisor come here and tell all these people behind me, who are paying her salary. I like to hear supervisor say what she’s going to be doing, and more importantly, hear the supervisor tell us if he really wants her [in his department].”
McKenna asked King Sweeney why she believed Ahmad was best qualified if she didn’t have a job description.
“I don’t have a job description in front of me,” King Sweeney said.
“So how can you say she’s going to be good at it?” responded McKenna.
King Sweeney said, “We were discussing the new position. What is it? Deputy commissioner of parks. What is she handling? Personnel. I have in front of me [Ahmad’s work history] since 1998. The amount of tests this woman took… Listen, you may not like her. You might not think she’s the best person for the job—”
McKenna: “I don’t know her.”
King Sweeney: “I’m not aware of a single problem that’s in her file. She’s done an amazing job from everyone’s account. This person was presented to me by human resources. I knew what the job was and I think she fits it perfectly.”
Casting The Votes
Councilman Bruce Blakeman explained his vote when Cabana polled the board.
“At the last meeting, I actually voted against [Ahmad’s] appointment…and I voted against everyone of [the 192 personnel resolutions] because I thought we should go through them one by one and not rush to judgment,” Blakeman observed. “However, in this particular circumstance, I have had time to consider her appointment as deputy commissioner…. I did struggle with this because, being a fiscal conservative, I want to make sure that we are appointing people that are important and necessary to the administration of government and be mindful of the taxpayers’ burden.”
Blakeman went on to describe Ahmad as “capable, well-experienced in town government” and suited for the position. Further, she was a positive role model for the Muslim American community.
Anthony D’Esposito said Ahmad’s two decades of experience and institutional knowledge will be an asset to the department.
Dunne praised the parks department as a great asset for residents and said Ahmad “has proven herself an incredible administrator.”
Gillen agreed that “Ms. Ahmad is a leader in the Muslim community and I applaud her for that. But I cannot support the way this personnel decision was made and I vote no (applause).”
The personnel resolution included Gillen’s top staffers, as well as deputy clerks to assist Cabana. They were approved unanimously.
The board also voted to terminate the employment of two aides from Santino’s inner circle.
Matt Coleman served the former supervisor as senior policy adviser and campaign spokesman, while Theresa Gaffney was Santino’s executive assistant. At the Dec. 12 meeting the board unanimously declined to grant them transfers that would have given them posts as community research assistants in other town departments.
The decisions on Coleman and Gaffney were separated from the rest of the personnel resolutions on Jan. 9, and only D’Esposito voted in favor of their retention. Goosby abstained, while the five others voted to terminate them.