File photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County government — what ails it? More importantly, have its bureaucracies drifted away from accountability? Is there a lesson to be learned from the tragedy of a child who lost his life, or the disgrace of a police chief who went to jail, or the shame of a district attorney convicted of covering up crime, or the fear among county workers — even dedicated, rank-and-file police officers or sheriff deputies, corrections officers and others — to point out wrongdoing or corruption?

For too long, the new normal for Suffolk County is made up of misconduct, mismanagement, and uncorrected errors of judgment. Does it ever stop in Suffolk with special grand juries, court trials of high-ranking officials, and the loss of life of at least one innocent child left unprotected even with court-ordered supervision of that child’s home? Are we finally fed up with rumors, circulating as always, even now, of more imminent arrests.

Bureaucracies at any level – village, town, county, state and federal – have one thing in common: they assume a life of their own, protect their power structures, and strive to grow.

But sometimes, and especially in the case of Suffolk County, it’s time to push back with reform – real reform – by creating an independent office of a county inspector general. It’s a reform we deserve, and it’s a reform worth fighting for.

An inspector general (IG) has been proposed by two Suffolk County lawmakers, legislators Rob Trotta and Anthony Piccirillo. If approved by their colleagues, their bill would provide Suffolk with a new pair of probing eyes: an IG who can delve into all the county’s sprawling departments, agencies, commissions and boards. And all of them would be mandated to cooperate fully or be penalized.

This IG proposal wisely seeks to enable Suffolk County to take a more preventative role in all county operations. The IG would be independent, with a five-year term, equipped with all kinds of effective tools to get at the bottom of things, including subpoena power.

And quick to kill the proposal are the self-serving special interests in county government, buoyed by some elected “leaders” eager to drown it. They are the usual suspects, who will have no part of an independent anything, particularly one with subpoena power. We’ll get back to them in a moment.

The IG would also protect whistleblowers from being punished by bosses or supervisors when their workers report inefficiencies, corruption or crime in their workplace. That’s the only way CPS workers, or police officers, or DA staff people (even ADAs) and any county worker will be sure things stay confidential. The IG would have the legal authority to prosecute whoever retaliates against a whistleblower.

And then there are the IG’s other tasks, as this legislative proposal lists them:

  • Act on allegations of wrongdoing;
  • Act on complaints against the county
  • Conduct hearings
  • Refer cases to law enforcement, board of ethics, human rights commission, etc.;
  • Prosecute or bring legal action further to the IG law.

Another essential feature that gives horsepower to the IG is the prohibition by anyone to interfere, hinder or obstruct the IG’s work – all county officials shall fully cooperate.

Also vital to the IG’s role in Suffolk would be the IG’s annual report. This annual report will contain recommendations, themselves the result of the investigations the IG performed over the preceding year. Each year’s published IG report will refer to recommendations of previous reports, and here’s what’s even better: the report will explain what action, if any, was taken on previous recommendations, and what recommendations were ignored.

When these reports are so structured, they are the equivalent of a report card on county operations, where shortcomings are highlighted, and what has been accomplished or dumped in the round file. So it’s a continuing report card with continuing follow-up: a crucial reform mechanism.

The IG will be entitled to a mandatory reply to each IG recommendation from the county official or agency head who is the subject of that recommendation. Such replies would be attached to the annual report for all to see.

Unlike here in Suffolk, creating an office of inspector general has eagerly been embraced elsewhere. Many state and local agencies have their own IG: the NYS Comptroller’s office, the NYPD, the State Gaming Commission, the Office of Medicaid, and the City of Yonkers, to name a few. Yonkers’ IG has jurisdiction over not only its city government, but also its school district. Imagine how it would turn the tables in the taxpayers’ favor to have an IG for the out-of-control school districts of Long Island! But one step at a time – the current Suffolk proposal, still a huge reform, doesn’t go that far.

Speaking of Long Island, Nassau County as well has an IG. In fact, the Nassau DA and county legislature worked together in 2017 to create an inspector general, giving her the same powers and duties as what is proposed now for Suffolk.

Would our own Suffolk DA and county legislature likewise join in supporting an IG here? Not a chance. The current Suffolk DA has already shown a dislike for transparency when he was the current administration’s county police commissioner.

Just before he announced he was running for DA (to replace his predecessor, who had just resigned after a federal indictment and now seeks a new trial), he dismissed, as police commissioner, 84 complaints filed against various police officers (some lodged by other police officers) because he felt they were too old — when actually, the department’s own Internal Affairs unit sat on them.) And right after those dismissals, the police unions backed the commissioner’s campaign for district attorney. He’s their man, just as the convicted ex-chief was. And the police union leadership — who also oppose the IG bill — knows all too well that a Suffolk IG might look into those dismissed complaints, and a lot else.

Our county executive, who had not a word to say about those appalling 84 dismissals (the police commissioner was his appointment, as was the police department chief, who also was convicted of federal felonies) has voiced his strong opposition to this IG bill. The county exec takes an odd position: he wants an investigation into what happened to young Thomas Valva, to learn if any county agency is responsible. The Suffolk County executive, however, opposes an IG for Suffolk because he insists it would have done nothing to prevent the tragedy. But if you don’t know the cause of the problem, how do you know what might be a solution — or how to prevent its recurrence?

In any event, the county executive has made a point of announcing he won’t sign the bill if it passes. That’s a clear signal to his fellow Democrats on the legislature. Why couldn’t he hold his announcement until after the investigations on the Valva tragedy are done, and after the public hearings on the IG bill itself? Why this “count me against” so soon?

An IG would be an open door for future whistleblowers in CPS. A Suffolk IG, who will also have auditing responsibilities, would also scrutinize the strange things that happen with budget priorities, where CPS workers are too few and overloaded. While funding is always short for them, contracts negotiated by the politically powerful police unions are remarkably excessive, with no real oversight, certainly not by the county legislators whose campaigns depend on these unions’ largesse with money, robocalls, mailings, TV ads, etc. Now we’re getting at the heart of IG reform for Suffolk County.

To their credit, several Suffolk legislative Democrats crafted an IG bill last year, but there are reports that the Suffolk PBA made sure that the bill was suddenly withdrawn before it could even be assigned to a committee. The Republican legislative sponsors, named above, picked up where they left off, but without success. And now to their credit, they are trying again.

With real support at a public hearing for the bill, set for 2 p.m. at the county legislature’s March 17 meeting in Hauppauge, it just might pass, and a new era of honesty and efficiency for Suffolk County government could become a reality.

We can stand up to inefficiency, incompetence and corruption, and the self-absorbed special interests and power elites who cause it. Pass the law for the sake of those who serve in county government, and for the sake of us whom they serve, including those of our children who suffer, and for the sake of a system of county law enforcement that will be above reproach. This proposed IG law may at long last be the path for Suffolk County to live up to its fullest potential.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg