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Glen Cove City Controller returns after termination

Nassau County Supreme Court judge temporarily blocks firing

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The City of Glen Cove controller is returning to her post only a month after she was fired.

Sandra Clarson returned to her job Sept. 9, after Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Sharon Gianelli temporarily barred the city from firing her. The decision came after three days of oral arguments in court in which Clarson urged Gianelli to reinstate her as acting controller to work on the city’s finances while the case continues.

“Justice has prevailed,” Clarson said. “I’m glad to be back to doing my job.” 

On Aug. 16, Mayor Timothy Tenke, a Democrat, fired Clarson, who was originally appointed in 2016 by then Republican Mayor Reggie Spinello. Tenke said he had lost confidence in her after a leak from her office revealed that the proper health care deductions had not been taken from the mayor’s check since he took office on Jan. 1, 2018. A Freedom of Information Law request from the Herald Gazette found that Tenke was not alone in receiving erroneous paychecks. Clarson contended that the errors originated with the Human Resources Department.

Tenke declined to comment on Clarson’s return.

Clarson’s attorney, Tip Henderson, argued that she needed to return to the controller’s job to oversee the city’s finances. Without an acting controller, the city would normally be unable to certify payroll, complete assessment rolls, transfer money or earmark payments. Problems became apparent when the City Council could not transfer funds for city projects during a pre-council meeting on Aug. 20, and could not distribute employee paychecks on time two days later. The issues were addressed within hours, but Henderson said it was evident that the city could not carry on without Clarson.

“To not have her brings chaos,” he said. Tenke “could’ve waited until after the upcoming election to replace Sandra. If he wins, he’ll probably have a Democratic council, and he can replace her then. If he loses, his opponent” — Spinello — “would probably keep her. He should just wait until the budget is done and let the electorate decide this issue.” 

At a City Council meeting on Aug. 27, the council approved, in a 6-1 vote, allowing Deputy Mayor Maureen Basdavanos to certify payroll and complete certain budget transfers for the city. Clarson said she didn’t believe Basdavanos was qualified to handle the work.

Henderson added that terminating Clarson without a successor went against the city’s charter, which states that the controller can be fired only when the City Council finds and votes for a replacement. The council, with a Republican majority, has interviewed four candidates for the post, but Councilman Kevin Maccarone said that all of the candidates who Tenke had introduced to the council were “his own people,” meaning Democrats. Maccarone added that he had reached out to the mayor, seeking a compromise on city appointments after Tenke replaced the directors of the Department of Public Works and the Information Technology Department.

Councilwoman Marsha Silverman, the only Democrat on the council besides the mayor, said she was worried about how party politics could affect city operations. She noted that City Attorney Charles McQuair, who represents the City Council in court and argued for bringing Clarson back, collected statements from all of the council members except Silverman.

“When one member of the City Council is excluded based on partisan politics,” Silverman said, “the entire city is not being represented.”

As Clarson returned to City Hall, she said she felt a sense of joy and satisfaction, especially given the circumstances surrounding her abrupt departure. After being fired, she tried to enter her office on Aug. 19 only to find that all the locks had been changed. Grant Newburger, the city’s public relations officer, said that because Clarson was no longer an employee that day, she was treated as a civilian and not allowed to enter a city office. She was eventually allowed in to collect her belongings, with a police escort.

“After that,” Clarson said, “it does put an extra pep in my step to be back.”

She added that she was confident that she and Tenke could finish the city’s budget on time, by October. The mayor has until Oct. 10 to submit his Supreme Court arguments, after which Gianelli will make her decision.