Time To Can The County Legislature

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Miller_weekly_121815_678They all knew what they were running for, and knew the pay.

Weeks after offering Nassau County voters so little that fully four out of five registered voters felt no reason to waste time and vote, County Legislators are poised to raise their base pay from $39,500 to $75,000.

Many officials misunderstand that all the political things they do to get re-elected isn’t their actual job, which is legislating and which doesn’t happen much in Mineola. The sneakiness and cynicism in pushing this through is just tiring. The raise takes effect after the next election in 2017, but the wildly gerrymandered districts are practically voter-proof. This is for life.

The $39,500 salary has never been raised because few ever wanted the salary to be that high, and every attempt to raise it was met with public and media opposition.

A 2007 attempt ($70,000), also made after Election Day, was based on recommendations by a “commission” made up mostly of lobbyists and legislative advisors.

Originally, $39,500 was picked for political reasons to appease political players.

In 1993, the county’s board of supervisors was found by a federal court to be in violation of the principal of One Person-One Vote. The judge allowed the county to put together a charter reform plan for his approval instead of appointing a court special master. Two Democrats on the board cut a deal for their own Reasons-Which-Seemed-Important-At-The-Time, allowing Republicans to appoint 14 of 18 members and the entire staff of a commission that would draw up specifics.

That $39,500 salary was announced by the commission in February 1994 even before it held any public hearings, before it picked a districting plan or made a lot of other important decisions.

A salary of $39,500 was what the town and city supervisors were paid by the county in 1994 for spending one or two days a week in Mineola on county business. That figure more than doubled since 1979, despite much criticism. It was also close to what the council members in Hempstead ($45,000) and Oyster Bay ($40,500) received, so nobody would have to take a big cut if they were moved over to run for the new legislature.

The replacement legislature was designed to extend the farm system of a political machine that mostly no longer exists and is no longer representative of much of Nassau County.

Immediately, people hated that $39,500 salary.

A string of well-attended hearings was held around the county. Citizens representing civic associations, good government groups, villages or just themselves stood up at microphones in front of crowds and described what they wanted and did not want in a new county legislature. Over and over they said they did not want exactly what we have now.

People wanted part-time legislators from districts small enough that someone without one of the political parties behind them, just someone from the neighborhood, could mount a serious campaign for a seat. They didn’t want permanent, career legislators. Some groups wanted a non-partisan legislature without party labels. Some of the Democrats who helped initiate the federal lawsuit in the first place proposed 50 districts with no salary or personal staff.

At the deadline, Democratic supervisors gave in on most things in order to save a handful of important reforms which weren’t part of the court’s mission and would have been lost if it took back control.

Supervisor May Newburger (North Hempstead) refused to back down until some of those reforms were secured, making her a public target of the political establishment and perhaps the only heroic figure in the charter fiasco.

Designed behind closed doors, our county legislature has, with only an occasional exception, been a simmering, partisan, dysfunctional zero. The salary sneak tears it.

It’s time to hit the drawing board again. We need to create something better that can work in this century.

Michael Miller ColumnistMichael Miller (mmillercolumn@gmail.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

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