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Firm reveals findings in Oceanside sanitation probe about alleged racist posts

Board seeks to move on

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The Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 board of commissioners is seeking to move forward and put controversy behind it after an independent law firm revealed the findings of its probe into Commissioner Ryan Hemsley at the board’s June 3 meeting.

Hemsley was accused of authoring racist, homophobic, misogynistic and intolerant Facebook posts after dozens of them were anonymously unearthed in October and sent to his fellow board members. Though they asked Hemsley to resign in light of the controversy, he had refused, and the board brought in the Valley Stream-based Chander Law Firm to investigate.

A representative of the firm, La Wanda Williams-Israel, noted that it attempted to contact Hemsley several times between January and May via phone, letters and emails to schedule a face-to-face meeting at sanitation headquarters, where a court reporter would have recorded the conversation. Hemsley refused, however, after the sanitation district’s insurance company declined to cover his legal fees.

“We were in a position where we had this material and were not able to inquire of the alleged originator,” Williams-Israel said at the meeting. “We were not able to say, ‘Did you post these messages?’     . . . We really were not able to ascertain the ideology or the origination of things without doing some sort of fact-finding mission.”

Williams-Israel said that most people who are accused of something they didn’t do would defend themselves, and Hemsley’s decision to stay silent and not meet with the firm could have been a sign that the allegations against him were true, but she also noted that most of the posts were made before he was appointed commissioner. She added that New York state has a Human Rights Law stating that people should be free from discrimination in public or at their jobs.

“In the case of an individual who represents everyone in the community, an individual who receives payment based on taxpayer money, one would believe that individual, because you represent everyone, should not make jokes about the Holocaust or people with Down syndrome or people in wheelchairs,” Williams-Israel said. “Because you represent those people, however, there is no policy at the sanitation commission that regulates what employees or what representatives can put on their social media accounts.”

While the firm could not request that Hemsley be removed from the board, because the commissioners and the Town of Hempstead board do not have the authority to do so, she recommended that a code of conduct be created to avoid future incidents.

Hemsley joined the board in January 2020, after Commissioner Matthew Horowitz stepped down. Because he took over in the middle of Horowitz’s term, Hemsley had to run in last September’s election, in which he defeated challenger Dawn Veit, garnering more than 1,000 votes. A month later, the scandal broke.

In response to the firm’s findings, Hemsley addressed the board and the public at the meeting and apologized to the community, the district and its workers, while also claiming that board Chairman Austin Graff, who is an attorney, vetted him before appointing him to the board. Hemsley added that Graff was also aware of the posts, because he asked Hemsley to delete them, which Graff has denied. Graff told the Herald that Hemsley had deleted some posts, but that he was uncertain what their nature was and didn’t ask him to do so. Hemsley also said that Graff was the reason the insurance company did not agree to represent him, which Graff also said was not true.

“So now I’m assumed guilty because I would not sit for an investigation,” Hemsley said. “As attorneys, I’m sure you wouldn’t recommend doing an investigation without proper representation.”

Additionally, Hemsley said that he asked for an investigation into who was responsible for sending the package of his Facebook posts to the board members, but was denied, and added that the Chander Law Firm was not independent, because it had worked with the district before. Graff told the Herald that the firm had responded to a request for proposals to represent the district in 2018, but was not hired, and that he knew the firm through his work with Hempstead schools and had disclosed that to the board.

“This is a smear campaign and a personal attack,” Hemsley said. “This report shows absolutely nothing, and is yet again a waste of taxpayer money. In no way was this what we agreed upon. As elected officials and attorneys, you should know better.”

Graff said that the board did not maliciously try to ruin Hemsley’s reputation. “It’s only a smear campaign if it was false,” Graff said, “but since he’s admitted to it and he’s apologized for it, I don’t think it’s a smear campaign. It was just uncovering the truth.”

After the meeting, Graff said that the district would likely create a new code of conduct in its employee handbook to prevent similar controversies in the future. Though he and the other board members asked Hemsley to resign, Graff said he was disappointed that other Oceanside community leaders didn’t follow suit, and noted that the board would look to move on now that the investigation was complete.

“The matter is behind us and it’s put to bed, and there’s nothing more to do,” Graff said. “The matter should be behind the board and the district, and I’m putting it behind me. If Ryan decides to run next year for re-election, he’ll answer to the Oceanside voters.”

After so much controversy, Graff said he didn’t anticipate any further issues with the board working together or with Hemsley.

“We’ve been working fine, other than this issue, throughout the process,” he said. “We do what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers and the residents and the workers. Not everyone’s going to agree on everything. That’s why we have five board members, and not one person in charge.”