Town of North Hempstead Democrats voted to block appointments to the Town’s Board of Ethics and table resolutions on dates for public hearings on the town budget to discuss dates that work for all seven members during the Sept. 22 meeting.
The five-hour meeting saw a resolution to authorize the execution of an agreement with the law offices of Leventhal, Mullaney and Blinkoff, LLP for legal services tabled on a vote of 4-3 along party lines.
Resolutions to set public hearings in October on the tentative town budget were tabled to the Sept. 28 meeting to make sure all seven members can agree on dates.
Resolutions appointing Francisco Vazquez, Melissa Slobin and Derek Chan to the ethics board were voted down 4-3 by the Democrats, who hold a majority.
Without specific counsel to the Board of Ethics, the town attorney’s office will act in that capacity, which currently also serves the town board.
There was no discussion during the vote to table, except questioning by Republican Supervisor DeSena before her vote.
“Why are you moving to table this? This is something we have talked about for months. Mr. Leventhal would provide counsel to our ethics board, he’s very well-known and basically wrote the book on ethics,” DeSena said. “We are in a situation where our ethics board that’s supposed to be rendering decisions possibly on the town board is being advised by the town attorney, who also represents the town board.”
“The appointment of Mr. Leventhal as special counsel to the Board of Ethics is not being requested by the Board of Ethics. This is yet another instance of overreach by the Supervisor, and frankly a waste of taxpayer funds.
Democratic Councilwoman Veronica Lurvey said in a statement to Blank Slate Media outside counsel can be called when needed.
“The Board of Ethics can request the appointment of outside counsel as the need arises. Indeed, I’m told that they have appointed outside counsel – including Mr. Leventhal – in the past,” Lurvey said. “I see no need to change that arrangement just because the Supervisor wants it. ”
DeSena said in a statement the votes a tactic to prevent investigations.
“The Town attorney has a legal responsibility to represent his clients, Town officials. As the Board of Ethics is charged with oversight of Town officials, obtaining legal advice from the Town attorney is clearly a conflict of interest,” DeSena said. “Tabling the appointment of counsel and instead leaving legal guidance of our Board of Ethics in the hands of political appointees can only be seen as a tactic to prevent investigations into misdeeds and conflicts of interest.”
After the vote to appoint Slobin to the ethics board failed, Democratic Councilman Robert Troiano clarified that there are issues with the process DeSena followed rather than Slobin herself.
“I have been consistent since January that the process you followed was not beholden to the town code,” Troiano said. “It was the process, not the individual.”
DeSena disputed that it is her responsibility to make appointments for the ethics board and that everyone has known the names for months. But Troiano said it should be in consultation with the town board, saying there was no consultation before DeSena submitted her picks.
During the vote for Chan, Lurvey said it’s her position that appointments for the ethics board should be staggered.
“I have been consistent since these residents have been put on the agenda early this year, the Board of Ethics, regardless of the fact that they are in holdover terms that they should be staggered.”
Lurvey continued to contend that DeSena should not be able to fill the ethics board herself.
“If the terms were staggered, then there would have been two reappointed at the end of last year and there’ll be two we appointed at the end of this year,” Lurvey said. “What you are doing is trying to replace the entire board with your hand-picked people and I think it’s enough of implying that there’s some sort of collusion between the majority and the ethics board.”
In the Sept. 22 agenda, the resolutions to confirm Vazquez, Slobin and Chan said their respective terms were Vazquez to serve until Dec. 31, 2022, Slobin until Dec. 31, 2024 and Chan until Dec. 31, 2025.
The seven-member Board of Ethics is responsible for implementing the provisions of the Town’s Code of Ethics, according to the Town’s websites.
Upon DeSena taking office, the Board of Ethics at the time was completely made up of members who were in holdover status and could be removed at any time.
Its responsibilities include approving and reviewing financial statements, rendering advisory opinions to Town employees on the Code of Ethics and enforcing the code while determining penalties, among other things.
Unabbreviated terms for the board are four years.
As of now, the Town’s Board of Ethics is made up of Chair Joseph Sciame, Robin Bolling, Isma Chaudry, Rabbi Anchelle Perl, Rabbi Robert Widom, Justice Richard Kestenbaum and Betty Leong.
Of those seven, only Bolling, Chaudry and Perl are serving on defined terms after being appointed earlier this year. The remaining four are serving unexpired terms and can be removed at any time.
Chaudry, a current holdover from the previous administration, will finish her term on Dec. 31, 2023, after being confirmed in May. Westbury/New Cassel NAACP President Robin Bolling and Chabad of Mineola Rabbi Anchelle Perl were also confirmed in May and will serve until Dec. 31, 2025, and 2024, respectively.
If confirmed, Vazquez would replace Kestenbaum, Slobin would replace Leong and Chan would replace Widom.
Professionally, Vazquez is senior counsel to Norton Rose Fullbright, Slobin is a speech-language pathologist for Manhasset Public Schools and Chan is president of Greater Hudson Financial.
Steven Leventhal, of Roslyn, has professional experience, including Nassau’s ethics board counsel, Town of Hempstead ethics counsel, president of the Nassau County Bar Association and consultant to the United Nations Ethics Office.
Leventhal has served multiple municipalities in different legal roles, including Manorhaven, Flower Hill, Massapequa Park and Lattingtow.
During the vote to set budget hearings, Lurvey said four working days between receipt of the tentative budget on Sept. 28 to the first hearing on Oct. 6 were not enough time.
“I think it will be an embarrassment for those of us who have not been part of the budget process to be in a public hearing after only four working days,” Lurvey said.
DeSena said she submitted dates she believes are consistent with schedules from previous administrations and that she insists on one hearing a week to increase transparency.
“I’m trying to be transparent with our budget. I’m trying to give everyone time to look at the budget and make it better and ask questions,” DeSena said. “I’m not trying to hide.”
Rabbi Osher Kravitsky of Chabad of Great Neck said the dates of the public hearings, Oct. 6, 11 and 18, needed to be moved to not conflict with Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
“These are biblical holidays. Sukkot and Simchat Torah are celebrated around the world since the time of Moses,” Kravitsky said. “Being that we are an inclusive town, it might seem insensitive to not invite people who are observant and I know that’s not the aim of the council here.”
The Town Council convened Friday to pick dates that are appropriate for everyone and can set them as early as the Sept. 28 meeting.
Budget hearings are not mandated by law and the Town Board has consistently voted on the budget ahead of Election Day, although there is no law that requires it.
In a statement sent to Blank Slate Media, DeSena was critical of the town Democrats, and specifically Lurvey, in the ethics board votes.
“To protect our residents’ wallets, I’ve nominated professional people to serve in this oversight capacity, only to be obstructed by majority councilmembers for over six months. Councilwoman Lurvey and the majority must explain to taxpayers why they have allowed this important oversight board to fail in their obligations to protect taxpayers,” Supervisor DeSena said.
Lurvey responded by calling the appointment attempts a waste of time.
“The Supervisor is wasting everyone’s time by trying to replace the entire Board of Ethics at one once with her handpicked people. You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that a Board of Ethics – which may investigate anyone including the Supervisor – should not be replaced all at once by one Supervisor!”
Lurvey continued by saying by questioning where the ethics board as failed.
“If you watch closely, the Supervisor has a history of making unsubstantiated allegations, this time against the Board of Ethics. She claims the Board of Ethics has failed the taxpayers. If nobody is going to ask the necessary follow-up questions, then I will. Supervisor DeSena, to what failure by the Board of Ethics are you referring? I hope she gives me a better answer than the one she did when I asked for information about her “thorough and complete review” of the Building Department. The answer to my July request has been SILENCE.”
The next town board meetings are scheduled for Sept. 28, Oct. 13 and Oct. 27.