DA’s contract reforms a smart place to start: Schnirman

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Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman, a Democratic candidate for Nassau County comptroller, in Blank Slate Media's office on Thursday, Aug. 17. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

Jack Schnirman has his own ideas for fixing Nassau County’s contracting process, but he also wants to tackle a list of reforms that he says have gone untouched for two years.

The Long Beach city manager and Democratic candidate for Nassau County comptroller pledged to implement the procedural changes District Attorney Madeline Singas proposed to streamline the beleaguered system and give it better oversight.

The fixes are not “politically sexy,” Schnirman said, but they would supplement the comptroller’s audits and the work of an independent inspector general, a position Democrats want to create.

Voters should not trust Steve Labriola, the Republican comptroller candidate, to do the same, Schnirman said, given that he’s failed to make changes as part of County Executive Edward Mangano’s administration.

“He is literally the antithesis of reform when it comes to these things,” Schnirman said of Labriola last Thursday in a sit-down interview with Blank Slate Media.

Before Schnirman can face off with Labriola, the chief compliance officer in Nassau’s Office of Management and Budget, he must win a Democratic primary against Ama Yawson, a small-business owner and corporate finance veteran.

Yawson is running on an “independent” ticket led by sitting Comptroller George Maragos, who is challenging county Legislator Laura Curran for the Democratic county executive nomination.

Schnirman did not mention Yawson by name once in the 75-minute interview. He and Curran are backed by the Nassau County Democratic Committee.

Singas’ 2015 report recommended eight substantive fixes to Nassau’s contracting process, which she said lacked oversight and left room for error in a paper-based system. The report, released after the indictments of former state Sen. Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre and his son, Adam, called the system a “recipe for corruption.”

Mangano — who is facing federal corruption charges himself — and his Republican administration have implemented some of Singas’ reforms.

An electronic database was rolled out early this year to track contract approvals and vendors’ potential conflicts of interest, Newsday reported in January. The county also now advertises bids for 15 days instead of the previous five; requires officials to detail how each winning bidder is chosen; and announces no-bid contracts online and in newspapers, Newsday reported.

But other fixes have been left on the shelf, Schnirman said. The proposal for an independent inspector general has prompted much public debate, but as comptroller, Schnirman could work with Singas to implement other fixes that don’t require changing the law.

They include annual training for each department’s procurement official; using technology and extra staff to address procedural bottlenecks; and closer review of unsolicited project proposals the county receives.

“Regardless of whether there is or is not an independent inspector general, I see my job as comptroller … to go down that list of recommendations and make as many of them happen as we can,” Schnirman said.

He said Singas’ report lays out 26 “process improvements,” but it only lists the 24 approvals required for every contract. His campaign later clarified that he was referring to Singas’ review of those steps, which her report called “onerous.”

Schnirman would couple Singas’ reforms with his own. He plans to conduct audits and studies of problems in the county, based on feedback from the public and an independent audit committee, he said.

Schnirman also wants to make the county’s finances more accessible by creating interactive online platforms to display spending and budgeting.

Labriola, on the other hand, has done nothing to reform the county despite his influence as the Office of Management and Budget’s chief compliance officer and the previous chief deputy comptroller, Schnirman said.

In a statement, Labriola said Schnirman “lies” about the Republican’s record, adding that Labriola proposed creating Singas’ recommended electronic database for vendor disclosures.

“Schnirman is error-prone and inexperienced and the people deserve better,” Labriola said.

Schnirman also differs with Labriola on the question of whether Nassau has a budget deficit, to which Schnirman gave an emphatic “yes.”

He said he agrees with the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s state-appointed financial control board, that money borrowed for operating expenses should not count as revenue. Anyone who thinks otherwise is “supremely unqualified” to run the county, he said.

“You cannot improve the county’s finances if you cannot admit the reality of where they’re at,” Schnirman said. “It should not be a political issue whether we’re in deficit or surplus.”

Maragos and the Mangano administration disagree. Maragos has said accounting rules allow municipalities to count such borrowing as revenue. His office has reported county budget surpluses in recent years.

Labriola has said NIFA, created in 2000 to save Nassau from bankruptcy, holds the county to an unfairly high fiscal standard that other municipalities do not have to follow. He and Jack Martins, the Republican county executive candidate, want to get rid of NIFA in two years.

Schnirman said his municipal management record makes him the best choice for Democrats over Yawson, who is making her first run for public office.

In fewer than six years, Schnirman has eliminated Long Beach’s $14 million budget deficit by cutting spending and shrinking the city workforce by 12 percent, he said. Making those changes required explaining the city’s problems to the City Council and the public, he said, which he said are important duties for the county comptroller.

But Labriola and Yawson said Schnirman’s record is no reason to back him.

Labriola panned Schnirman for getting removed from a city managers group after launching his comptroller campaign. He also charged that Schnirman’s “failure to act” led to a judgment against Long Beach in a $50 million lawsuit.

In a statement, Yawson said Schnirman has “failed” to represent Long Beach residents’ interests. She pledged to increase county contracts with minority- and women-owned businesses and work to reform Nassau’s property assessment system.

“Jack Schnirman lacks the vision and plan to give residents what they need,” Yawson said in a statement.

Schnirman said he resigned from the International City and County Management Association six months before the group expelled him in June because its members are not allowed to run for office.

A judge in July rejected Long Beach’s appeal in a lawsuit the real estate firm Sinclair Haberman filed in 2003 over a rejected application for a condominium complex, the Long Beach Herald reported.

A judge ruled in the firm’s favor in 2015 after the city missed the deadline to answer a new complaint in the $50 million suit. The city was trying to negotiate a settlement in the case, but the City Council rejected it, Newsday reported.

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