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Split decision in Gillen’s suit against Santino, Town Board

Judge strikes down no-layoff deal but upholds employee transfers after 2017 election


A State Supreme Court judge on Tuesday issued a split decision in Democratic Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen’s lawsuit against former Supervisor Anthony Santino and the Republican-majority Town Board.

Judge Randy Sue Marber found that Santino and Republican Councilman Anthony D’Esposito violated the “spirit and intent” of the town’s ethics code when they voted for a controversial amendment to the town’s labor contract that protected many employees — including Santino’s mother and D’Esposito’s mother, brother and sister-in-law — from termination.

The resolution wouldn’t have passed without Santino and D’Esposito’s votes, Marber noted, and it “lacked any semblance of rationality, and constituted an abuse of power.”

“The vote that took away my authority to manage the town’s workforce and fiscal health was not legal, and violated the town’s ethics code,” Gillen said at a news conference Wednesday.

Marber upheld 197 controversial transfers of employees from the supervisor and town clerk’s office to other areas of town government, however, including 14 that Gillen challenged specifically, because they were political allies of Santino, and were moved to other departments with their salaries intact, despite some of the departments not having the budgets to cover their salaries (see document on left).

In remarks on Wednesday, Gillen noted that Mike Deery, Santino’s communications director, was moved to the office of the tax collector, Republican Don Clavin, after the election with the new title “confidential assistant to the receiver of taxes,” and his $203,000 salary intact. The position in Clavin’s office was only budgeted for $90,000, Gillen added.

Clavin is now running against Gillen for supervisor, while Deery has moved on to doing communications for the Nassau Republican Committee.

The former Town Clerk, Nasrin Ahmad, was also to be transferred to the Department of Occupational Resources, along with her $129,000 salary, after the election. The department was cash-strapped, however, and its directors warned human resources officials that the department could not afford to take her on. Ahmad was later transferred to the parks department as a deputy commissioner.

Marber said in her decision that she did not “condone” the last-minute transfers, calling them “far-reaching.” However, she said, Gillen and her finance director, Averill Smith, had not been able to prove that they had negatively impacted the 2018 budget enough to be annulled.

Both resolutions were last-minute additions to the town board’s business at Santino’s last meeting as supervisor after Gillen’s surprise 2017 victory in the longtime Republican stronghold. Gillen and residents at the time described them as a power grab that was designed to tie Gillen’s hands and blow a hole in the town’s budget, ensuring her failure.

When she filed the suit in April of last year, Gillen accused Santino of “bullying” and trying to “set up a shadow government” in her administration, by embedding officials who were loyal to him in new positions and taking away Gillen’s ability to fire them.

Republican Councilman Bruce Blakeman, who bucked his party to endorse Gillen over Santino, voted against both resolutions. After Gillen filed the suit, Blakeman called Santino’s move “politically crass, and done with disdain for the taxpayers.”

“It’s going to jeopardize the fiscal integrity of this town,” he said, voicing his opposition at the Dec. 17, 2017, meeting. “It is against every principle of good government. There is no reason for this other than a blatant power grab that benefits no one but the ruling class.”

Marber, in her decision, pointed to an email from Deputy Town Attorney Alvina Kataeva to outside counsel for the town, which attorneys for Santino and the Town Board initially tried to keep from evidence.

In the email, sent about a week after Santino was defeated in the election, Kataeva expressed concern that the no-layoff clause “may not provide the protection [the commissioners] need from being eliminated.”

Marber said that the email made it clear that the “sole motive behind the [amendment] was aimed at preventing the incoming Supervisor from eliminating certain employees and commissioners the outgoing supervisor sought to protect.”

The judge minced no words in evaluating Santino’s behavior after he lost the election, either, and Marber said that despite Santino’s claim that the no-layoff clause was “negotiated in good faith” for “many months,” there was no proof of any negotiation at all.
“Santino’s final weeks in office were spent rushing to undo the comprehensive layoff procedure and related employee severance rights provision,” she said, adding that there was no change in circumstance that would have made it necessary for Santino to change the collective bargaining agreement — “except the election.”

“Simply put, the former supervisor and board members put their party before our residents,” Gillen said on Wednesday. “It was a shameful move, and I’m glad justice prevailed.”

Santino told the Herald he had “no comment on pending litigation” on Thursday.

Members of the Town Board had not responded to a request for comment by press time Thursday.

However, the firm that represented the Town Board, Rosenberg Calica & Birney LLP, said in a statement, “The court correctly recognized the rule of law as it relates to the lawful transfer of town employees, but ignored and misapplied the same statutes and law in the other elements of the court’s decision. While we are closely studying the decision to determine what available courses of action should be undertaken, the important fact is that the supervisor’s lawsuit was frivolous and a waste of taxpayer’s money from the start, and these issues should have been resolved legislatively, among legislative colleagues.”

This story will be updated, should D’Esposito or other members of the board comment on the decision.