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'Chainsaw Massacre'

Sessions of the Nassau County Legislature were marked by heated public comment and debate in the month of April as environmentalists, good-government advocates and concerned residents appeared before lawmakers, urging Legislative oversight for millions of dollars in county contracts awarded in the wake Superstorm Sandy. 


Starting with the April 8 public session of Nassau’s Rules Committee, the seven-member group that approves contracts, various people stepped forward to address the committee on Sandy-related contracts. 


Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) had issued a statement before the meeting, calling for Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos to appear before the Legislature to discuss payments that Nassau County has already made on storm cleanup contracts, including about half of an approximately $70 million contract with Looks Great Services for debris management. 


DeRiggi-Whitton had requested Maragos discuss the payment process with the Finance Committee, on which she sits and Legislator Wayne Wink (D-Roslyn) also requested that the comptroller speak before the Rules Committee, on which he sits. Legislator David Denenberg (D-Merrick), “Ranking Member” of both Nassau’s Finance and Public Works Committees, also told media that he wanted Maragos to appear before legislative committees. 


The decision to allow Maragos to appear, however, rested with the chairs of the Rules and Finance Committees, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) and Deputy Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park). A letter was sent to Legislators DeRiggi-Whitton and Wink stating that it would be premature to have the comptroller in because he had only recently begun a review of Sandy spending. 


Maragos has repeatedly stated that he welcomes each legislator into his office to review the issue. 


However DeRiggi-Whitton continued to call for him to join a public meeting, saying in a statement, “…Norma Gonsalves is shielding a faulty comptroller’s office, which has in turn been hiding the Mangano administration’s mismanagement. If it is true that all records and invoices are being submitted correctly, which I truly hope it is, then why not have an open discussion to ensure that our residents are getting the most value for their tax dollars.”

At the April 8 Rules Committee session, Bruce Piel, chairman of the nature advocacy group PARCnassau spoke. After uproar over the work of tree crews in Nassau preserves like Welwyn and Garvies point, Piel issued a statement coining the term “chainsaw massacre” as a description of how the Nassau administration was performing tree cutting across the county. 


At the session he said his group was “very protective” of parks and preserves. Piel said he believed that tree cutting was neither supervised nor performed properly. He supported legislators’ call for oversight over the process, saying: “Add our voice to the call for this legislative body to get the Nassau comptroller here to explain what’s going on… tens of thousands of people, after hurricane Sandy, came out to help their relatives, friends and neighbors, but there’s always a few that crawl out from under a rock… [seeking] an opportunity to make money where money is not deserved, and that is also our concern.”    


David Stonehill, described himself before the Rules Committee as an activist attorney. He issued a passionate statement including: “a Legislator on this Rules Committee and a Legislator on the Finance Committee have asked that Nassau Comptroller George Maragos come before this body to discuss his review of post-Sandy clean-up contracts. It seems that this natural and logical request has been denied by the Legislature’s Presiding Officer, Norma Gonsalves… Presiding Officer Gonsalves, why did you see fit to stop the Comptroller from appearing here today to discuss Sandy expenditures? How do you feel that you have no responsibility as a Legislator to do anything other than rubber stamp the Mangano Administration’s every move?” 


Charlene Obernauer of the advocacy group Jobs With Justice has been vocally tracking Sandy related work across Long Island, including unfair pay allegations on Fire Island. Obernauer appeared at both public meetings of the Legislature in April. 


At the Rules session she said, “There is a lot of money coming into Nassau County related to superstorm Sandy and we need strong oversight of this process.” 


At the next session, the April 22 meeting of the full Legislature, Obernauer furthered her call for oversight, and discussed a bill that would create better transparency for Nassau County contracted work. DeRiggi-Whitton told media that she is supporting the concepts for that bill and after several meetings with Jobs With Justice is currently having the bill drafted. 


Also a speaker at both April meetings was Glen Cove’s Michael Miller, who has spoken to media at length about what he says he witnessed at Welwyn Preserve. He criticized what appeared to be partisanship regarding the issue saying at the April 22 meeting, “You guys spend money faster than we can pay tax for it… you cannot help being in the audience here and think that this is right along party lines and that’s the deal… You hold these [meetings] during the day when no one who votes can come witness you guys doing business…”


Miller continued by urging the Legislature to join his legislator in seeking oversight so that the same destruction does not occur next hurricane season. He said, “My legislator really gave me hope for government. When I called… [seeking] somebody to try to get them to stop cutting down trees in the middle of a preserve, when county roads still weren’t cleared, she came. She did the job I expect when I go in that voting booth… You’ve got to figure out a way to work together… look at the past... the only way to prevent the past from happening in the future is to change what you did the first time.”


Horticulturalist John Capobianco also addressed the full Legislature on April 22. He lists among his credentials being a member of the Nassau/Suffolk Landscape Gardeners Association, former President of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York, president of the Long Island Chrysanthemum Society, a curator at Locust Valley’s Humes Japanese Strolling Garden and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. 

Capobianco said the “chainsaw massacre” included Chelsea Mansion in Muttontown as well as other preserves that have been mentioned in the press. 


“It certainly appears as though a large amount of unnecessary tree removal has occurred… Fragile ecosystems have been damaged and may have been changed forever,” said Capobianco. “I know the district attorney is investigating the Sandy tree removal contracts… I would implore you, Presiding Officer Gonsalves to call a hearing… to find out how much damage has been done and to rectify it.” 


Gerard Rizzuto of Glen Cove also called for a hearing during the same public comment session, citing the fact that various levels of investigations were underway on the issue. He said, “If [either party] comes up with a good idea, it’s a good idea… you’re playing politics with our people not to have a hearing… forget about the party politics, let’s start working on the people of Nassau County and bring the county back to where we don’t have to have federal people looking at us.” 


During public comment, Legislator Denise Ford (D-Long Beach), a member of the Republican caucus, said that the criticism of Nassau’s emergency response was one-sided. 


“I have homeowners that are still not living in their homes,” she said. “I have seniors that are living elsewhere… people with young families living in hotel rooms.” 


She said that in areas like Long Beach, debris removal was essential to getting people’s lives back in order, as the area was devastated and all their belongings were piled in the streets.


Speaking to this point, resident Todd Tilton, who said he owns property in Glen Cove and Glen Head told legislators that he witnessed Nassau-contracted crews cutting down trees inside two locked sump or “stormwater basin areas.” He said, “The trucks you wanted [in more negatively affected areas like Long Beach] were in my neighborhood cutting trees in sumps… It gets down to supervision. That’s an investigation you should come up with: to know why Long Beach was screwed and Glen Cove was screwed in the other direction. I was a Marine. You put your assets where they’re going to do the most good. You don’t rub your hands together and say ‘let’s get the most we can.’”


Supporting Tilton’s argument that resources went to the wrong places, Legislator Bosworth told him, “I would be remiss if I didn’t add in what happened on Searingtown Road and Shelter Rock Road… where someone came… and cut down every tree… they’re all gone, every single one of them. Certainly our money and our time would have been much better spent dealing with issues that needed to be dealt with as an emergency basis. This wasn’t it.” 

Glen Cove attorney Terry Difilippo called what went on in Welwyn “carnage,” telling legislators, “I wonder why there isn’t more motivation by the county government to find out how this could have happened under your authority.

Shouldn’t there be a sense of responsibility for seeing that it doesn’t happen again, and whatever damage there is can be repaired? It is especially urgent in view of the fact that we are coming to hurricane season again… for those reasons I support the efforts of Legislator DeRiggi-Whitton and the others who have supported the idea of a hearing or some kind of investigation into what happened, and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.” 


Between public speakers, a heated argument erupted between legislators who want hearings on post-Sandy operations and those who say they are not necessary. 


Legislator Denenberg said, “Both Legislator DeRiggi-Whitton and myself have sent multiple letters at this point to request hearings not just on tree removal contracts but on all Sandy related contracts, as well as the back up and accounting on it. It’s all well and good that the comptroller is now looking into this issue. But it would seem incumbent upon the Legislature to look at it as well… Legislators DeRiggi-Whitton, [Judi] Bosworth (D-Great Neck) and myself tried to ask [questions] at Finance Committee meetings… and we were told… it was inappropriate to ask questions about finance in Finance.”


Denenberg said that he wants to ensure that money is being spent appropriately, work is getting actually done as it is supposed to and that there is back-up. He said that payments are going out quickly for tree removal while they seem to be belated for sewage plants. 


He also asserted that he has proposed two laws related to improving county processes after Sandy which have been ignored. 


Presiding Officer Gonsavles responded, “When you have information regarding the work that has been done during this crisis, I think you owe it to us to share it… you did not submit all the evidence you have [in order to warrant a hearing]… There are claims that have been made by members of this body, whether or not they are founded or unfounded remains to be seen. Until we get that evidence we can not go forward with a hearing.” 


Denenberg retorted, “That is the purpose of a hearing.” 


Deputy Presiding Officer Nicolello echoed the fact that a hearing was not necessary at the moment, saying “the comptroller is doing [review] now.” 


He told DeRiggi-Whitton, “You’re calling the comptroller incompetent… but the DA’s jumped in six months later the attorney general jumped in six months later, the federal government jumped in six months later. Are they all incompetent too?”


“They didn’t ok the payments, which is what the comptroller did,” replied DeRiggi-Whitton.