Pilip, Strauss questioned about Blakeman’s special sheriff program

Pilip, Strauss questioned about Blakeman’s special sheriff program
Legislators Mazi Melesa Pilip and Scott Strauss answering questions at a Lakeville Estates Civic meeting Wednesday night. (Photo by Taylor Herzlich)

Legislators Mazi Melesa Pilip and Scott Strauss responded to resident concerns at a Lakeville Estates civic meeting Wednesday night, including a barrage of questions about their support of Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman’s special deputy sheriff program and a Las Vegas Sands proposal to build a casino at the Nassau Hub.

While the legislators discussed community issues they have addressed, such as installing new street medians and creating more signage at dangerous intersections, most of the conversation was dominated by discussion of county-wide news, especially the executive’s special deputy sheriff program.

“The militia is not very well-defined. It’s very concerning,” Sabine Margolis, a resident, said. “I mean, I have at least 10 questions here.”

Margolis is behind the digital petition demanding that Blakeman halt the creation of the citizen sheriff program.

The petition, which has amassed nearly 2,300 signatures, calls on Blakeman to instead direct his attention to “protecting Long island’s precious natural resources, revitalizing our downtowns, fixing the county’s broken assessment system, finding a solution to the Nassau University Medical Center’s financial problems, lowering our taxes, etc.”

Margolis walked to the table at which Pilip and Strauss sat, said she knows Pilip is a “woman of [her] word” and handed the legislator a paper with her list of questions.

“A very similar program is run successfully up in Westchester County,” said Strauss, who replaced long-serving legislator Richard Nicolello and represents District 9. “The applicants are being vetted very thoroughly by the Nassau County Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department, which is going to be conducting the training of the program. We’ll take it step by step as it comes to us, but we’re interested as well. We’re residents here.”

The exact Westchester program Strauss was referring to is unclear. One possibility is the Public Safety Emergency Force, a specialized reserve unit made up of part-time deputy sheriffs.

All members of the PSEF are “duly sworn peace officers” who often assist with traffic and crowd control at special events, like street fairs and fireworks celebrations, and have worked with the Westchester County Police in the past during the Sept. 11 attacks, hurricanes, power outages and presidential, vice-presidential and papal visits, according to the Westchester government website.

Members of the PSEF have “full police powers” while on duty and all volunteer members are provided with a county-issued firearm, according to the website.

Margolis argued that before Strauss and Pilip voice their support of the program, they should have answers to vital questions, such as under what circumstances the deputy sheriffs will be deployed, what the deputy sheriffs have the authority to do, how the police officers and deputy sheriffs will work together, what training will be guaranteed and how much the program will cost taxpayers.

Margolis questioned what ensures the special deputy sheriffs will not be posted on Election Day.

Strauss emphasized that the special deputy sheriffs are undergoing thorough, strict background checks conducted by the county police department.

“Certainly, anybody who is a private citizen and has a licensed firearm, you know what you go through,” Strauss said. “Now they’re going to have peace officer status…so that’s even stricter. They have to be even more thorough.”

The legislators and residents bounced back and forth on the topic, with Margolis yelling to ask the legislators more questions.

A longtime Nassau County resident named Janet said the program requires more community input.

“Without haranguing and harassing, I want you to take this back to the table and really understand the community wants a lot more discussion on this…and on a lot of different levels object to deputized people who are not professional police,” Janet said to Pilip and Strauss.

Janet said she understands there are political motivations behind legislators’ support of the special deputy sheriff program.

“We have no political agenda. The only agenda that I have and Mazi has is to do the very best we can for everybody in this audience and the people watching this at home and our residents who are not here,” Strauss said. “That’s my only agenda.”

One resident, Mike, spoke out against the Las Vegas Sands proposal to build a luxury resort-casino at the Nassau Hub, near the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Supporters of the proposal argue that the casino will turn a dead zone into a moneymaker, providing ample job opportunities for residents.

But other Nassau County residents strongly oppose the casino plan. The Say No to the Casino Civic Association called the casino “predatory” and a harm to the community, claiming that it has little support outside of the Nassau County Legislature.

Mike said he has a problem with a casino being built so close to Hofstra University.

“It is my position that it should never happen. We don’t need a large gambling outlet in the middle of a college campus,” Mike said. “That’s a very, very bad thing to do.”

But Pilip said the casino could benefit the local economy.

“The casino thing came to the floor and I can tell you 18 of the legislators supported this idea because the casino part is maybe 10% of this, but if you really look into the entire plan, it’s really going to help develop and bring our economy in a better place for Nassau County,” said Pilip, who represents District 10. “The amount of opportunities for new jobs was really big.”

Strauss chimed in, arguing that gambling addiction is a possible problem despite a physical casino.

“I was at a hockey game the other night and the person two seats next to me was gambling on the game on his cellphone,” Strauss said. “I don’t think that having a casino in place, a physical mortar casino in place, is going to affect any gambling addictions when you can sit in the comfort of your home and not even leave the house and gamble away your life savings.”

The Las Vegas Sands proposal is competing for one downstate casino gaming license against other bids, including a plan by Hard Rock and New York Mets owner Steve Cohen to build a casino on the Citi Field parking lot. A winning bid has not yet been announced.

On another issue, Bill Cutrone, president of the Lakeville Estates civic, announced that the trade company suspected of illegally storing building materials at 2024 Hillside Ave. has vacated the property.

Cutrone said pushing out the trade company was the result of a “joint effort” between the civic, the fire marshal, the Garden City Park Fire Department, the Town of North Hempstead and the county. He said he does not yet know of any plans for the property.

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