There were some dramatic moments at the Feb. 20 Town of Hempstead Town Board meeting.
After a disagreement with Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney over auditing the animal shelter, Supervisor Laura Gillen announced, “At the next meeting, we will have my resolution, which was tabled [today] to have outsider investigators investigate matters…within our town attorney’s office.”
Applause partially drowned out the words of King Sweeney, who expressed opposition to the investigation.
“I’m not making any allegations,” Gillen responded. “It’s actually on the recommendation of our town attorney [Joseph Ra].”
King Sweeney asked Ra to confirm Gillen’s assertion.
“Do I have a written memo from you, Mr. Ra?” Gillen asked.
Ra, looking slightly uncomfortable, softly replied, “Yes, you do, supervisor. It’s desirous to hire a firm for certain limited purposes when surveillance is necessary. And for limited purposes—not for the everyday run-of-the-mill things—an outside investigator will be useful.”
King Sweeney rejoined, “Right, and I helped you (Ra) draft that memo and I’m in full agreement with [it]. And I think you need the full contest of what was written in the memo and why [it] was written.”
According to the resolutions, the original intent was to hire Kroll, Inc. at $275 per hour. The revised resolution, unanimously passed at the March 6 meeting, gave the contract to Babylon-based LMGI, Ltd at $125 per hour. Kroll is a Manhattan-based firm with a global scope, and claims expertise in sensitive investigations.
King Sweeney told Anton Media Group that her memo proscribed the very limited circumstances when outside investigators would be needed.
“There is no massive drama going on, we don’t have a massive problem in the town attorney’s office,” she said. “And if there is, let’s follow the processes.”
The councilwoman felt that the original firm, in addition to its higher fees, was too “high-powered” for the situation it was tasked to investigate.
King Sweeney also disagreed with Gillen’s “suggestion that something nefarious was going on with the investigative process….we need to be reasonable and measured. I’m trying to tone down the rhetoric.”
Residents who seek town documents can now visit hempsteadtown.com/foilrequest.aspx and request on a fillable form and send it with a click of the button.
This came at the initiative of Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, who was joined at the Town Hall on March 5 by Supervisor Gillen, Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, and councilmembers Ed Ambrosino, Bruce Blakeman, Anthony D’Esposito and Dennis Dunne, and Town Clerk Sylvia Cabana and Receiver of Taxes Don Clavin.
“An open government is exactly what the residents of Hempstead deserve to have,” said King Sweeney. “By making it easier for people to submit their freedom of information requests without ever leaving their home, we are becoming even more accessible, transparent and responsive to our constituents.”
The way it works now, a FOIL request to view and/or obtain selected government records has to be either sent via e-mail or regular mail to the town’s FOIL officer.
According to a press release, “Once all the proper information is provided, the person can hit SUBMIT at the bottom of the page and the form will be directly transmitted to the proper person to handle the request.”
“Making government more accessible and transparent is key to restoring the taxpayer’s trust in the [town],” said Gillen. “I am greatly encouraged by this initiative, and look forward to working cooperatively with the town board as we continue to advance common sense—good government.”
“We are always looking for ways to make our government more user friendly for constituents and this will do that,” noted Goosby.
“There are only a couple of other towns on Long Island who provide this easy access to their records,” stated King Sweeney. “I am proud to help lead the way in an effort that I hope all towns will follow.”
Felix Procacci of Franklin Square is a regular attendee at town board meetings and is often critical of the FOIL process.
“I’ve been having trouble getting information about closed investigations on the animal shelter,” he told Anton Media Group. “As I said [at the March 6 meeting], they wouldn’t even provide me with the dates of the investigations. How could the public be assured a proper investigation is conducted if the records are not released?”
He added, “Many employees and volunteers, according to their testimony before the town board, have not even been interviewed during the course of any of these numerous investigations that allegedly consumed thousands of pages. [The town claims] that would take eight months to properly go through before they could be released to the public. And in the end, they would not even release the titles of the investigations or their dates.”
He also noted that the town asserts that there have been no invoices from outside counsel for several cases under litigation in the last year, “even though court documents show a lot of work was done by the outside counsel.”
Asked about the new law, Procacci replied, “It is always good to see a government making it easier for residents to obtain information. Still more needs to be done. The next step should be to archive FOILed data electronically so it can be shared with others without having them go through the FOIL process.”
Rori Gordon lives in Hauppauge, but has extensive dealings with the town on account of her business. In a statement she said, “I really appreciate the commitment Supervisor Gillen and the town board is providing to the constituents for greater transparency in government. I remain optimistic I will no longer need to use a third party to make FOIL inquires; many of my requests have been scrutinized and unobtainable due to current litigation I have against the town.”
Gordon also wanted to see an end to “receiving documents later than the 20 days FOIL law requires as a response time. Hopefully, the town will educate each department to implement proper procedure and not charge unknowing individuals for documents which are emailed legal size and smaller.”