Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen said she’s proposing good government initiatives.
Her Republican-majority board can either join her – or answer to constituents, she said.
“It’s been a learning process. There’s never been a Democratic supervisor in 112 years, a lot of people were quite surprised to see me here…” Gillen told Blank Slate Media in an interview Tuesday. “I think it’s good to have a bipartisan mix always, and to have checks and balances in any government, however, you have to make sure the people who have the checks are checking for the right reasons, not for political partisan reasons.”
Six months into her first term, Gillen said she’s proud of the efforts her administration has made in bringing more transparency to the town — but there’s still a long way to go.
Gillen said some of her proudest accomplishments involve reforming the town’s finances and transparency.
Under her leadership, the town rolled out it’s first five-year capital plan. It will serve as a roadmap to help the town prioritize projects, and figure out how to pay for them, Gillen said.
The town also received a bond upgrade from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service from an A+ to an AA- with a positive outlook in June.
“I’d like to point out very clearly, in past administrations there’s been consistent bond downgrades. I got elected to office and there was a bond upgrade,” Gillen said. “And one of the things that the rating agency noticed was the internal controls I had put into place in terms of spending.”
Gillen became the first member of her party to take the reins in Hempstead in more than a century when she beat Republican incumbent Anthony Santino in November.
She said when her administration came in they noticed some departments were purchasing “through buddies” and there wasn’t a transparent process.
The town is now keeping an eye on all purchasing and departments have to be accountable for how budgeted funds are being spent, Gillen said.
Under Gillen the board also formed a new policy regarding request for proposals.
Gillen’s resolution, which the board passed, requires all professional services contracts over $10,000 to go through a competitive bidding process.
“That is a huge advantage for the taxpayers because it will be an open and fair process, this is also a great thing for local businesses because they will have a chance to compete and maybe get legal work or consulting work for the Town of Hempstead even though they don’t have any friends in Town Hall,” Gillen said. “Which is the way it should be.”
Gillen’s first 200 days in office has also faced its challenges.
She’s currently suing the town board, following through on a promise she made just weeks before she was swore in when Santino led the board to vote in a no-layoff clause that prevents her administration from terminating employees even during a financial crisis.
Gillen removed the individual names of town board members from the suit in May, following Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney’s public dispute with her over whether or not the suit sued the board members as private citizens.
Gillen said she stands by her view that the suit was not against board members as private citizens, but against them as board members.
“What I’m trying to do is undo the dastardly deed of perhaps the greatest villain in local politics who is Tony Santino,” Gillen said, calling her predecessor’s move “unconscionable.”
Gillen also noted that most of the board agrees with her that the no-layoff clause isn’t just.
Sweeney, Councilman Bruce Blakeman and Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby all voted against it at the time.
Councilman Edward Ambrosino voted for the measure, but only because he believed it wasn’t enforceable, Gillen said
“With me, that’s five members, a majority of Town Board as it exists today that think this shouldn’t be an enforceable agreement,” Gillen said. “So there really should be no dispute, and actually the board should support me in doing what’s right for the taxpayers.”
On Gillen’s horizon for the future are several green initiatives.
The town was recently named a climate-smart community, and has taken on programs to protect the town’s shoreline.
One priority for Gillen going forward is to reopen the Point Lookout water testing lab, which the prior administration had planned to close.
Her plan is to re-open the lab by mid-2019, she said.
Coming from the private sector, Gillen said, she was initially shocked that the town was comprised almost entirely of paper.
“When I got into office I wanted to immediately put all contracts online, but I couldn’t do that because there’s no digital database I could easily upload to our website,” Gillen said. “Almost everything is a paper file, including all documents in the Town Attorney’s office.”
She said she’s in the process of working with the IT commissioner, as well as the town attorney and clerk’s offices, to start moving Hempstead into the “digital age.”
In another push for more transparency in the town, Gillen has been pushing to get special elections held in Hempstead.
Gillen is one of only two members of the town board to be elected in her first term. The other is sole fellow Democrat Goosby.
“Every other person that sits on the town board has been selected by their party, not elected,” Gillen said. “…That’s wrong and should be changed.:
Gillen added that it’s “even more egregious” because historically people outside the district with the vacancy have decided who should represent it.
Gillen has put the bill up multiple times for a public hearing, and the majority has continued to table it.
“I am going to keep putting it up because it’s the right thing to do for the residents and voters of this town,” Gillen said.
Despite the uphill battle she’s faced, overall, Gillen said, her first 200 days in office have been great.
“I love my job, because every day I have the opportunity to do great things for the residents and taxpayers of the Town of Hempstead,” Gillen said. “I ran because I wanted to make this township better for my children and everybody else’s, and I feel like that is the mission that my staff and I share, and we are doing that.”