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Bob McMillanAn Opinion

By Bob McMillan
Presidents v. The Supreme Court

The recent political chatter about “Obamacare” before the Supreme Court of the United States got a great deal of media attention.  President Obama added fuel to the fire when he declared, “Ultimately, I am confident the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

For someone who was a law professor those words were absurd.  Even if a bill passed unanimously in the house and senate, it could still be overturned – if the law was in violation of the Constitution.

Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
1959: The Year The Music Stopped Playing

Nelson Rockefeller’s nomination for Governor in 1958 was partly an upstate revolt against the continued domination of party affairs by the Nassau Republican organization. Rockefeller was a man who always had bigger fish to fry, and throughout his almost 15 years as governor, he often went out of his way not to step on the toes of the touchy Nassau GOP. That’s why Nassau is the only large New York county without a state office building. Respect the turf.

Just before taking office, Rockefeller announced that State Senator William Hults would be Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, but not until the end of the 1959 legislative session, so that Glen Cove, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and a sliver of Hempstead wouldn’t lose their Senate representation until 1960.

Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
The Eccentric Heiress Of ‘Empty Mansions’

The Nassau County district attorney’s (DA) office makes a cameo appearance in Empty Mansions, an incredible book about Huguette Clark (1906-2011), the Manhattan-raised heiress whose generosity and eccentricities were legendary.

Now that Ryan Murphy, a creator of television’s “Glee,” has optioned Empty Mansions’ film rights, I imagine a scrum of top actresses are vying to play Clark.

Local Officials: The Pink Slip Is Possible

“While the majority may elect the officer, they are not entitled to insist upon the retention in office of one who fails to do his duty.” These are the words of Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, twice appointed to the Supreme Court and once nominated for President, when he removed Manhattan Borough President John Ahearn from office in 1907.

We don’t hear about it very often anymore, but the governor can fire many local elected officials, after formal charges are presented and the official is given the chance to answer them, usually in the form of a public hearing. The governor’s power to sack local officials comes from a mix of the State Constitution, the Public Officer’s Law and the scores of individual governing charters granted to cities and counties over the last 175 years.

Requests to sack mayors, sheriffs, district attorneys and other officials used to arrive at the governor’s office every year, sometimes in piles. When the subject comes up today, it’s almost always related to some kind of blatant corruption situation, but it used to be considered part of the landscape for governors to give the heave-ho to elected officials who stank at their jobs.

When Gov. Hughes canned Ahearn, he was careful to point out that there was no personal corruption involved, merely “breach of duty” because of Ahearn’s failure to keep streets repaired and expensive supply purchases. Several years before, Gov. Odell pink-slipped the Erie County Sheriff because his failure to close a poolroom showed “a lack of appreciation of the responsibilities devolving upon him” and just looked bad. In 1913, Gov. William Sulzer’s investigator cleared Suffolk County Sheriff Melville E. Brush of personal corruption, but the governor fired Brush anyway for “incompetency and inefficiency.”

In 1952, Newsday Publisher Alicia Patterson wired a formal request to Gov. Dewey that he remove Suffolk D.A. Lindsay Henry for his mishandling of a murder charge against a 13-year-old. She wrote: “His ignorance of the laws…constitutes a positive unfitness for office.”

The best remembered removal procedure involved New York City’s super popular, super fun, super soused, playboy mayor of the Jazz Age, “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, partly because Bob Hope starred in the movie (Beau James, 1957, Hope’s lone non-comedic role). During what used to be a traditional lull between his nomination for President in June 1932 and the start of actual campaigning in September, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt grilled Walker in formal hearings after widespread graft was exposed in the city government. Walker wasn’t being charged with taking money himself, though everyone kind of took it for granted, but merely with allowing so much to smell on his watch. Roosevelt gave Walker the chance to resign on the eve of his firing, and Walker did.

In 1940, the non-partisan Taxpayers League of Port Washington petitioned Gov. Lehman to fire the first Nassau County Executive, J. Russel Sprague, for violating the new County Charter’s clause that he “give his whole time to the duties of his office.” Sprague was a visionary who laid the groundwork for a lot of what we take for granted in Nassau County today, but was already a national and state political powerhouse who was busy trying to elect presidents and governors. He seemed to be spending the smallest part of his day actually running county government. The charges were taken seriously by the press and by Gov. Lehan. He left judgement in the hands of voters, who elected Sprague four more times. Sprague modified his governing style to appear more engaged and involved in daily affairs.

For a long time, the governor’s power to dismiss elected county officials was an important public tool of accountability, making elected county officials think about consequences of their actions, or inactions.

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