As I am sure you know by now, Sheldon Silver, the powerful and longtime Speaker of the New York State Assembly, is in a heap of trouble.
The FBI has arrested him and accused him of accepting about $4 million in “referral fees” from two law firms with which they claim he had unethical relationships. One firm represented real estate developers, the other represented clients involved in asbestos claims. But Silver does not list these fees on his annual financial disclosure forms. And the reason is, some say, that a “referral fee” can also be construed as a kickback. The charges that have been thrown at Silver include mail and wire fraud, extortion, and extortion conspiracy. Silver, just re-elected to the post of Speaker in January, has stepped down, though he remains, for now, a member of the Assembly.
But there is a good side to all of this that very much concerns the eastern end of Long Island. Now, finally, we could have a Peconic County.
For more than 20 years, residents of the North and South Forks have supported a plan to create a new county out here to be called Peconic County. It would consist of the five rural eastern towns—Riverhead, Southold, Shelter Island, Southampton and East Hampton. And if it were created it would result in the secession of this new county from Suffolk County, to which these five towns currently belong.
There is a very clear reason to make this separation. For nearly 250 years, since the founding of Suffolk County in 1683, almost all of Suffolk County was rural, with the population largely divided evenly west of the county seat in Riverhead and east of it all the way to Montauk. Riverhead was also approximately the geographic center of the county as well.
Until 1960, the County was run by a board composed of each town supervisor. There were 10 of them and since they each had one vote, that meant that as suburban sprawl began to bring vast numbers of people to the five most westerly towns, the five eastern towns, when joined by a sixth rural community, Brookhaven, could control the doings of Suffolk County .
This was seen as unfair by the residents of the five western towns in Suffolk County, and rightfully so. The population in the west was now 600,000; the population in the east 65,000. No one here complained.
But then, the county formed the new county legislature with proportional representation. By 1990, the whole thing was turned upside down—no, even more than upside down. The county legislature today consists of 18 members. Sixteen represent the west end of the county. Two represent the five eastern towns. So the five East End towns have no say. This is a no-brainer.
Riverhead remains the county seat of Suffolk County. But it really is in name only. The county Legislature sits on a campus in Hauppauge, 20 minutes from the western border of the county and an hour-and-a-half from the eastern border. Also in Hauppauge is the executive branch.
Leaving Riverhead was a huge hit to the economy of that town. Today an estimated 40,000 people are employed by the county. Today the population of Riverhead is 33,500. Imagine what that mean for the town when, during 1970s and 1980s when the population was approximately half that. This loss of jobs almost drove Riverhead to the brink of dereliction, a state from which it has only recently rallied as a tourist destination.
Worse was the matter of taxation. Most of the wealth is on the largely unpopulated east end (about 135,000 people). Most of the need for the taxes was on the west end (about 1,300,000 people ). But study after study shows that the taxes paid by the east end are far out of proportion. What the west end wants it gets from the East End. What the East End gets is the leftovers.
I recall a request made by East End legislator Schneiderman asking that a change be made in the balance of how the taxes going to police forces was divided up. What he got was a new way to divide it up that made it even worse for the East End. Punishment for even asking. (A few years later, I admit they did rectify this situation, but you get the picture.).
In any case, it was clear that the East End wanted to be separated from Suffolk County. A straw vote was held in the late 1990s. More than two out of three voters wanted it. What was needed now was approval from the State of New York to hold a referendum on this matter. After that, a referendum could take place, and if the East End still wanted to be its own county, they could have it happen by majority vote.
The paperwork was drawn up. The Senate was ready to approve it. But then we were told it would never get to the governor’s desk. Ever.
Silver was not going to let it get through to the floor of the State Assembly. He would hold it bottled up in committee. Forever, if need be. He gave some lame excuse about if he did this for the East End, then he’d have to do it for Staten Island, which at that time wanted to consider separating itself from the City of New York.
There are many people around today who remember the march by East Enders up in Albany in 1998, with residents and officials carrying around the green and blue flags of Peconic County. A rally accompanied serving of a summons on the State of New York for holding up the will of the people in violation of the New York State Constitution. Among the participants were Larry Cantwell, now East Hampton Town Supervisor; attorney Steve Grossman from Sag Harbor; Fred Thiele, the state assemblyman from our district; John Rusch of Shelter Island, who designed the flag; James Drew, a then-Southampton Town councilman; and Linda Riley, a former Southampton Town attorney.
But the state constitution was no match for Sheldon Silver. The State of New York, at that time—this was common knowledge written about extensively—was run by three people: Sheldon Silver, Governor George Pataki and Joe Bruno, the Leader of the Senate. Albany back then was called “broken” by many. And some still refer to it that way. To get anything done involved getting to what was termed the “three men in a room.” Bruno was subsequently convicted of mail fraud, sentenced to two years in jail, though later he had that overturned and was acquitted. Governor Pataki is out of office.
And then in July 2013, our current governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced the formation of the Moreland Commission to investigate wrongdoing in New York State government, a commission that he disbanded a year later for reasons not yet clear, a decision which may effectively ruin his chances of having a run for President in 2016.
Who could possibly have gotten him to go to this level of political suicide?
Peconic County, lower taxes, better services, here we come.