Comptroller Race Takes ‘Personnel’ Turn

TOWN OF HUNTINGTON, New York, October 16

BY: Andrew Wroblewski

Despite its candidates seemingly agreeing on most issues, there have been plenty of talking points leading up to Election Day in the race for Suffolk County Comptroller.

John M. Kennedy Jr., left, and James Gaughran
John M. Kennedy Jr., left, and James Gaughran

The winner of the election – which pits Suffolk County Legislator John M. Kennedy, Jr. (R-Nesconset) against Democrat James Gaughran, Suffolk County Water Authority chairman and resident of Eaton’s Neck – replaces longtime Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, Jr., who is term-limited, in a time when the county has struggled financially.

“I really feel that we need to totally redefine the County Comptroller office, to expand the watch-dog philosophy,” said Gaughran, a former Huntington Town Board member, who is running on a platform of “[improving] accountability; [rooting] out waste, fraud and abuse; and [saving] taxpayer dollars.”

Both candidates agree that more audits and stronger policies against spending will help Suffolk cut down what Kennedy said is $2.2 billion worth of debt that the comptroller office is expected to handle.

“That is a massive amount of debt… We have to constrict now, peel it down and roll it back,” Kennedy said, running on a platform of “more audits, less debt and better service.”

Where the two disagree becomes a bit more personal.

Gaughran, in his campaign, has accused his opponent of nepotism. In automated telephone calls and mailings, Gaughran said that Kennedy violated the county’s nepotism law by failing to file documentation to show that he had hired a relative, his wife Leslie Kennedy, as a part-time legislative aide in 2007. Kennedy has also been signing his wife’s timesheets, Gaughran said, and raised her salary by $50,000.

“Everyone must comply with the law,” Gaughran, 57, said on Tuesday. “[Kennedy] admits he violated the law, but then he says that it’s not important. I think that is absolutely wrong. Nobody is above the law, and I find it ironic how he does not want to follow a law that the comptroller is supposed to enforce.”

On Monday, Kennedy, 58, said he was “outraged at the negative campaign his opponent is running against [him].”

“It’s an absolutely heinous distortion of the truth,” Kennedy said on Monday. “I did not give my wife a $50,000 raise; she made the change from part time to full time, and it was approved 16-0-1. This demonstrates how truly little [Gaughran] knows about county government.”

Campaigning aside, politically there has been one glaring difference between the candidates’ philosophies.

On Election Day, Suffolk County will vote on a proposition that, if approved, would merge the offices of the Suffolk County comptroller and treasurer – effective January 2018 – and the department would be overseen by the county comptroller.

“I’ve considered the merging for two reasons: 1) To save money; 2) To streamline the financial process into one strong financial unit,” said Gaughran, who noted that he originally did not agree with the merger as it had been proposed in the past, but now, as it stands to become effective following the conclusion of current Treasurer Angie Carpenter’s term, he supports it. “[As Comptroller] this will give me three years to work with [Carpenter] to implement the merger and streamline both departments.”

Gaughran said that through a potential “early retirement program” and the retraining of employees, cutbacks in staff could be reduced.

Kennedy, though, disagrees with the merger, but is prepared to handle it should he be elected and it be approved.

“[The merger] would eliminate a critical system of checks and balances and put taxpayer funds at greater risk,” Kennedy said. “It is dangerous, but if the electorate goes ahead and votes to do this… I would absolutely be able handle it. I’ve dealt with the treasurer’s office, I know the functions inside and out, I know the processing and I know the management and investment strategy… Even there I’m better suited as my opponent performs no day-to-day operations.”

Originally published: Long Islander News: The Record
(Thursday, October 16, 2014;  A7)

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