So much for a smooth, quiet transition.
As the Anthony Santino era comes to a close in the Town of Hempstead, the outgoing supervisor initiated and his supporters on the town board controversially voted to place high-paid employees in other positions and amended the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the civil service union to include a no-layoff clause.
Adding to this recent hectic period, Supervisor-elect Laura Gillen called for Santino to immediately resign.
An overflowing, at times raucous crowd and heavy media presence characterized the last town board meeting of the year on Dec. 12. On the agenda were a number of items that had aroused opposition from board members and the public, and engendered several press conferences by Gillen that featured heavy criticism of the veteran politician she had upset on Election Day.
Gillen, at a Dec. 7 press conference, was asked if she would attend the Dec. 12 meeting.
“I have not attended in the past because I wanted Mr. Santino to enjoy his last couple of meetings as supervisor, but in light of recent developments, I feel like I will have to attend this meeting,” she said.
Cheers and applause greeted the supervisor-elect when she entered the pavilion. She greeted well wishers and posed for photographs before taking a seat. Gillen did not publicly comment on any of the resolutions up for debate and vote.
The most contentious item was a memorandum of agreement (MOA) amending the CBA with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 880. It stated that “no employee shall be terminated for reasons due to budgetary, economy, consolidation, abolition of functions, abolition of position or curtailment of activities but may be terminated only for misconduct or incompetence.”
Asked about how this resolution, if passed, would impact her ability to manage the budget and serve as the town’s chief financial officer, Gillen had responded, “It’s disastrous for the town board. It seizes all our authority to manage staff and consolidate departments.”
Councilman Bruce Blakeman asked Santino about the collective bargaining agreement MOA.
“What it does is provide further protection to our employees going forward. So, that’s my answer,” Santino replied.
“Protection for which employees?” Blakeman pressed.
“That’s my answer, councilman,” retorted Santino.
“I want to know who initiated this and what the taxpayers are getting in return,” Blakeman said after speaking at length against the provision. “I think that question needs to be answered.”
Santino thanked Blakeman and then called on the next speaker.
Many spoke out against the amendment before the vote.
Helen Manas of Merrick said, “I am a union member; I believe in union support. But this 11th-hour amendment to the collective bargaining agreement…is a backroom deal that hurts taxpayers. If the economy implodes, the town board will not be able to reevaluate staffing, which will force an increase in taxes, which residents cannot afford. No responsible elected official would agree to this.”
She accused Santino of sabotage, saying, “He’s trying to bankrupt the town so that Laura Gillen fails. The taxpayers will not stand for it. They made their choice known. And you can’t deal with it.”
Manas concluded, “Have you ever heard of any place that has made it where you can’t lay off a person because of budgetary issues? It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard of.
Blakeman argued that the resolution represented “a sad day for the Republican Party. It’s not in line with our principles and I would urge my Republican colleagues to reconsider.”
Councilman Ed Ambrosino expressed concern about the provision and said that he did not wish to tie the hands of the incoming supervisor. However, after consulting with labor attorneys, he believed that there was a way out of the main drawback mentioned by the critics.
“This clause as drafted does not in any way impede the town’s ability to budget,” he asserted. “If there is fiscal duress, the no-layoff clause is inoperable. The future supervisor and town board will be able to do whatever they need to do to ensure that taxes do not go up and they can make the necessary budget adjustments.”
Comptroller Gets Grilled
Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney quizzed Comptroller Kevin Conroy on the financial consequences of the amendment.
“I can’t quantify that at this point…though attrition might be able to neutralize the effects,” Conroy responded.
King Sweeney asked, “Mr. Conroy, if I’m not mistaken, there had to have been an approval by the comptroller’s office in order for this amendment to go forward. So why was it offered if there was no analysis done?
Conroy said that the comptroller’s office signed off on the approval as to “funds availability.”
King Sweeney observed, “I started out as a labor lawyer. I have the support of labor unions. I support labor. I have no problem with appropriate salary increases, and people should be paid an appropriate amount for their performance and responsibilities. The issue I have now and going forward is that there is no [provisions for] layoffs in the event of financial hardship.”
After praising the town’s workforce she added, “The issue is we have no flexibility in regards to the workforce. There’s got to be some sort of financial impact. This can’t be a good thing. This can’t be a good thing for a bond rating. Wall Street can’t like this.”
Blakeman interjected, “Mr. Conroy, truthfully, you would never recommend this to any town board, whether it’s the people sitting here or Martians, would you?”
Conroy: “Mr. Blakeman, I’m always honest.” (There were snorts and derisive laughter from the audience)
Blakeman: “Mr. Conroy, this is not the time to get your back up and talk about your honesty. I have a great deal of respect for you. I’m asking you a question right now that I think the people of the town need to hear, and this is a moment of truth. This would have a deleterious effect—potentially—on the town that is unnecessary at this time. Would you agree with that?”
Conroy: “If the economy goes south, this probably would have an adverse effect (applause). I think we need to consider [the effects of] attrition on this as well.”
Anton Media Group asked Gillen, “Do you accept Comptroller Conroy’s explanation?”
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” she replied. “He hasn’t even had a chance to examine the financial impact of this amendment. He was on vacation. He didn’t even look at it. But the whole board voted on it. The whole board voted on a series of promotions and salary changes and new hires and new positions without any discussion whatsoever. That’s what we found out today. This is the way things have always operated under Santino. And that’s not the way they’ll operate when I take over.”
William Sammon, director of human resources, was asked by Blakeman when he had become aware of the amendment to the CBA.
Sammon noted that, “It was several weeks ago that I began to hear about the dialogue with the unions.”
Blakeman then asked, “You’re the head of HR and you were not involved in any of these negotiations whatsoever?”
Sammon replied, “On this particular item I was not terribly involved.”
Blakeman thanked him as derisive laughter and an exclamation of “Oh my God!” was heard from the audience.
“Were you surprised that the human resources director didn’t even weigh in on the amendment?” Gillen was asked.
“You can’t make up the stuff that happens at these town board meetings,” Gillen replied. “Everything operates in secret. Santino has his cronies do whatever he wants. And there’s no discussion with the town board. It’s all to keep everything undercover.”
Speakers warned the only Democrat on the board, Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, to vote against it. In the end she did, joined by Blakeman and King Sweeney.
Voting “aye,” in addition to Santino, were Ed Ambrosino, Anthony D’Esposito and Dennis Dunne Sr.
At the conclusion of the vote a man stood up in the audience holding a sign reading “Stop Stealing Our Money,” and he began shouting while others joined in loudly echoing his sentiment while public safety officers struggled to restore order.
Blakeman gave the media a dramatic moment when he noisily dropped onto the dais a thick sheaf of papers representing all the personnel changes that Santino had proposed.
The trustee claimed that these resolutions, covering 192 employees who were slated to be transferred, promoted and/or receive salary increases, “were dropped on our laps…without any consultation with this board, without the courtesy of providing us a résumé, an explanation, an evaluation—nothing.”
He went on to say that the vast majority were “very fine public servants and deserved to be retained.”
Instead, he charged, “This is protecting those people who’ve been incompetent and been bullies and haven’t served the public. It’s a blatant power grab and it’s wrong.”
Later, he drew cheers when he attested, “This is Christmas for the well-connected and a lump of coal for the taxpayers.”
The personnel resolutions were divided in several groups to be voted on.
A legal agreement dictated the promotion of 30 part-time employees to full-time status.
Current spokesman Mike Deery will be transferred to the office of Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin, where he will serve as confidential assistant. Deery will retain his $205,000 salary. Blakeman and King Sweeney were the only no votes against this move.
Two other members of what was called Santino’s “inner circle,” his senior policy advisor/campaign spokesman Matt Coleman, and executive assistant Theresa Gaffney, were denied transfers to community research assistant positions in the Department of Conservation and Waterways and Department of General Services, Buildings and Grounds Division, respectively.
D’Esposito abstained from voting on the promotion of his brother Timothy to a supervisor position in the Department of Conservation and Waterways.
Outgoing Town Clerk Nasrin Ahmad was approved to the position of deputy commissioner in the Department of Occupational Resources at a base salary of $129,500.
Cathy Capuano of Wantagh wanted to know about Deery’s new position.
“Is that a newly-appointed job?” she asked.
Town Attorney Joseph Ra replied, “It was an existing position in the Office of the Receiver of Taxes.”
Capuano: “Who had that job before him?”
Ra: “I think it’s been vacant for a while.” (laughter)
Capuano: “Because I never heard of that job, and I was [in the office] yesterday. How did he get that job? How many other people have applied for it?”
Silence greeted her question, and Capuano exclaimed, “I can’t stand the corruption.”
King Sweeney followed up Capuano’s comments to ask why Deery was keeping his $205,000 salary in his new position while, under what she called “a fake ethics law,” she was not allowed, as an elected official, to make more than $125,000 in outside income.
It was at this time that she asked for Santino’s “insiders”—Deery, Coleman and Gaffney—to be voted on separately and claimed that “they have personally tried to hurt me, and other people on the town board.”
Votes And Well Wishes
The board also approved the creation of a compliance officer to “review town contracts, receive complaints and allegations regarding misconduct on town contracts and procurements, provide greater oversight over compliance with procurement guidelines and legal requirements, as well as an independent voice to recommend policies to promote greater efficiency and operations in town government.”
Blakeman was the sole “nay” vote.
The board also voted unanimously to pass legislation on mass mailings sponsored by King Sweeney. It restricts sending out what King Sweeney labeled as “self-promotional taxpayer-funded mailers…within 45 days of a general election in which a town elected official is a candidate.”
The last board meeting of the year provided occasions for some good wishes, as well.
Blakeman said, “To the supervisor, we’ve had sharp disagreements, but I do appreciate your many years of service to the Town of Hempstead, and I wish you luck.”
D’Esposito also thanked Santino, and his words were drowned out by jeers and catcalls by Gillen’s supporters, while town employees and Santino backers cheered and gave him a standing ovation.
King Sweeney said, “I would also like to thank Supervisor Saladino for his years of service, and I hope we can start working together again. We have a lot of pieces to pick up and a lot of potholes to fill and economic development to make happen. I look forward to working with Supervisor-elect Laura Gillen and all the town board members.”
King Sweeney also singled out outgoing Town Clerk Nasrin Ahmad for her many years of service.
The outgoing clerk said, “It’s truly been the honor and privilege of my life to serve the great people of the Town of Hempstead. May I congratulate incoming Town Clerk Sylvia Cabana on inheriting the greatest workforce in United States. The staff of the clerk’s office will work hard for you and will make you look good—the way they make me look good.”
Gillen Weighs In
The day before the meeting, Gillen publicly called for Santino to step down in light of the recent proposed resolutions.
“He’s betrayed his oath to the people of Hempstead,” Gillen said outside Town Hall.
“They did a great disservice to the taxpayers,” Gillen said after the Dec. 12 meeting. “And I’m going to work really hard—hopefully with some colleagues on the town board—to undo all the damage that was done today.”
Regarding the CSEA amendment, Gillen said, “I don’t think this amendment is enforceable. I don’t think it was voted on properly and we’re exploring our options.”
She declined to say whether she’ll file a lawsuit to challenge the amendment.
Asked about the promotions and transfers, Gillen said, “Again, millions of dollars thrust upon the taxpayers of the [town]. As Councilman Blakeman noted, there’s been a wholesale abandonment of anything that approaches Republican values by every Republican member on this town board, except for Councilman Blakeman and Councilwoman King Sweeney.”
In a statement, the Gillen transition team noted, “Outgoing Supervisor Santino, in his final days in office, just released his sweetheart deal to dish out over $4 million in last minute taxpayer funded raises to nearly 200 employees, and move all of his top political allies to privileged and permanent positions of power in the next administration, where they will enjoy lifetime job security.”
Summing up, Gillen said, “There’s a new day coming. This is his [Santino’s] exit. I’m very glad—and so are a lot of people.”