LI lawmakers propose path to remove special district officials

John Asbury for Newsday

December 20, 2020

Originally published in Newsday on December 20, 2020.

Long Island state representatives are introducing legislation to allow special districts to pursue a recall of elected officials.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre) said they will introduce a bill this week that could aid Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 in removing a commissioner accused of making racist, anti-Semitic and other offensive posts on Facebook.

The new legislation would allow special districts to recall elected officials with a petition of signatures from 10% of the electorate or 5,000 votes, whichever is less. The special district board would then have to vote on a recall and set a special election.

Oceanside Sanitation commissioners have been seeking the resignation of Commissioner Ryan Hemsley, who was elected in September, after board members discovered in October several posts on his Facebook page promoting Nazis and disparaging minorities, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

Hemsley admitted making several of the posts — some of which date back several years — but not others.

Board members said they are unable to remove him for the remainder of his two-year term and he has refused to resign.

The only course of removal under state law is if a district attorney or a resident takes the case to state supreme court, showing malfeasance in office.

"I think this incident exposes a serious loophole in the law for certain elected offices. If someone commits an act that’s clearly unbecoming of an elected official there’s no real recourse for the public," Kaminsky said. "This incident revolves around despicable acts of hate on social media, but also someone who did something not connected to their job. It’s unrealistic a citizen would litigate in supreme court and prove a case."

Hemsley refused to answer questions relating to the posts during last week’s sanitation board meeting, and the other commissioners did not pursue the matter further.

"I am not going to be investigated by the people I believe are responsible for this. I look forward to a full and thorough external investigation. I will not be answering questions about anything," Hemsley said during Thursday’s meeting.

Board chairman Austin Graff said he was trying to avoid spending district funds on an outside investigation, but board members will meet next month to discuss hiring an attorney to investigate Hemsley’s posts.

A recall in Oceanside would require a petition of about 2,000 signatures in a district that often only attracts a few hundred voters during an election, Graff said. Hemsley was the leading candidate in September’s election with more than 1,000 votes.

"There is nothing to investigate other than him answering questions. I’m not thrilled about hiring someone using taxpayer money but if it will resolve if these posts are real or fake I’m willing to do that," Graff said. "I welcome all legislation. Giving voters the right to recall voters in public bodies is one way of resolving issues that we don’t have right now."