County clerk candidates frame selves as fighters against fee hikes

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Dean Bennett, left, is challenging Maureen O'Connell for her county clerk seat. (Photos by Janelle Clausen)

Democratic clerk hopeful Dean Bennett and Republican County Clerk Maureen O’Connell framed themselves as ideal fee fighters in interviews last week, but questioned each other’s qualifications.

Bennett, the CEO of corporate consulting firm J.K. Bennett & Associates, noted his experience managing budgets and people in the Empire State Development agency, as well as his work in the county’s Office of Minority Affairs under Tom Suozzi.

When asked about the likelihood of dealing with a majority Republican County Legislature, which sets the fees for the clerk’s office, Bennett said he could be a “fresh face” and “make the case for common sense.”

“The fees are hurting people unnecessarily and I don’t think anybody’s bringing that to the forefront,” Bennett said in an interview with Blank Slate Media. “Nobody’s being the advocate for that.”

But O’Connell, a nurse turned lawyer who has served for 12 years as clerk and nearly 10 years as a state assemblywoman, debated that point. She said she has raised issues about fees in news conferences, before the Legislature, in letters and private conversations with legislators.

“They’re very afraid of my objections to this,” O’Connell said.

“I have not even seen my opponent in a public forum,” O’Connell added, noting that she is not sure he understands the depth of the office.

O’Connell, when asked about what could happen if there is a split ticket victory with Laura Curran elected county executive, described her office as politically neutral. She said she was elected when Suozzi, a Democrat, was county executive.

“I call myself Switzerland,” O’Connell said, adding that the only major difference since then has been that the “fiscal challenges are greater now.”

As for County Executive Edward Mangano, O’Connell said, “He’s not in charge of me.”

Bennett, noting his five-point plan, said the clerk’s office has problems with accountability, professionalism, service, innovation and integrity.

Bennett said he would review why service is slow, try transforming the office into a paperless agency and adopt uniform standards. He also said that he would prepare annual reports in a more timely manner.

The county clerk is one of only two positions mandated by the state constitution, O’Connell noted, because of the office’s management of county documents and court documents.

There is no typical day, she said, but the office can be process from 150 to 500 documents a day, each with a varying number of pages.

“Experience counts in this job,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said that under her tenure, the clerk’s office “modernized and created” a database that allows the public to access public documents ranging from deeds and mortgages to civil suit files.

O’Connell also said that she added night hours for people who work all day.

If re-elected to a fourth term, O’Connell said that she would move forward with redoing the internal infrastructure of the building to reflect a modern office.

Mangano’s proposed $2.9 billion budget calls for raising three county fees, increasing the property lax levy by 0.8 percent and growing spending by $28 million, according to the deputy county executive for finance.

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