Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen is looking to upend the way most people make it onto the Republican-majority Town Board.
In a statement Tuesday, Gillen said that she would push for new legislation taking away the board’s power to fill vacant seats with appointments, and instead require special elections.
Five of the board’s seven members were appointed rather than elected, which made it easier for them to win as incumbents during regular elections, Gillen said. All of the five are Republicans.
"It's disgraceful that whenever there is a vacancy in the Town, voters are robbed of an opportunity to make their voices heard," said Gillen, a Democrat, who ousted Republican former Supervisor Tony Santino last year. "It's a protection program for party politicians, where candidates are unfairly given the power of incumbency through selection, when it should be by an election."
The most recent appointee was Dennis Dunne, of Levittown. Dunne was picked last year to succeed fellow Levittown Republican Gary Hudes, who stepped down for personal reasons.
Sue Moller, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Dunne last year protested his appointment at the time, calling it “a backroom deal” that allowed Dunne to run against her as an incumbent.
Dunne said in a statement on Thursday that he was concerned about the cost of special elections.
“Laura Gillen has not spoken to the board about her proposed legislation so I do not know the details," Dunne said. "I do know that special elections are extremely costly and certainly need to see what the cost will be to taxpayers before I make any decision.”
Mike Deery, the town’s director of communications at the time, told the Herald after Dunne’s appointment that state law allows the board to appoint a councilmember to fill a vacant town council seat for the unexpired term, but does not provide for a special election. “It would be irresponsible to leave the residents of the 6th Councilmanic District without representation for six months,” he said.
If Gillen’s legislation passes the board, however, the town board would be required to hold a special election between 60 and 90 days after a vacancy. If there is a vacancy within 60 to 90 days of a general election, the office will have to stay vacant until the election.
The proposed law applies to every elected office, including the Office of the Supervisor, Town Clerk, Receiver of Taxes and Town Board.
"This law would put an end to these back-room deals and restore the democratic process to the largest township in America," said Gillen.
Dorothy Goosby, Gillen’s only fellow Democrat on the board, has traditionally voted with the Republican majority, but has on several occasions made it clear that she does not approve of appointments.
In 2015, when Council members Erin King Sweeney and Bruce Blakeman were appointed, Goosby asked the board to table their appointments and call a special election.
“Consider what we are doing here,” Goosby said. “Those voting tonight do not represent the people of the 3rd or 5th Councilmatic Districts. This is a very undemocratic process.”
Gillen’s chances of getting her legislation approved by the board may have become slimmer, however, even if Goosby were on-board.
Last month, Gillen filed a suit against Santino, the town’s civil service union and every member of the board, seeking to overturn a series of labor contract changes and personnel moves that she claimed placed Santino’s political allies in protected positions, and tied her hands when it came to lay-offs and managing the town’s budget.
King Sweeney and Goosby went after Gillen vocally at the last town board meeting, with King Sweeney insisting that the way the lawsuit is worded, she and the rest of the board members appear to be sued individually, and thus will need to hire expensive attorneys — at taxpayer expense.
Councilman Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that he plans to represent himself.
King Sweeney further complained that she had voted against the union contract changes, and did not understand why Gillen had named her in the suit.
Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, at the last meeting, also put a roadblock in front of Gillen as she tried to hire a receptionist for her office, insisting that the town comptroller confirm that there was enough money in the budget for the position before a vote.
When Gillen asked D’Esposito why he hadn’t expressed similar concerns about hiring in the past, he said, “I wasn’t being sued then.”
Still, Gillen said she hopes to schedule a public hearing on May 22, at which taxpayers can weigh in on the issue.