Judge Upholds ‘Stop LIPA Tax’ Line
A Huntington man with ties to the town Republican Party filed a lawsuit claiming that Democratic candidates’ Stop The LIPA Tax Hike ballot line is nothing more than an attempt to mislead voters. But a judge on Tuesday dismissed the man’s claim and ruled that the independent line is a legitimate one.
Walter Long, treasurer of the Huntington Republican Committee, filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Supreme Court asking that a judge deem “invalid, null and void” the nominating petition to get Democratic candidates Supervisor Frank Petrone, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson and Tracey Edwards on a new Stop The LIPA Tax Hike voting line.
According to Lawrence Silverman, who is representing the three candidates on the Stop The LIPA Tax Hike line, a judge dismissed Long’s claims in court on Tuesday, saying their petitions were neither confusing nor fraudulent.
Long, a Huntington-based attorney and Dix Hills resident, alleged their petitions were inexcusably misleading and fraudulent, confusing constituents into thinking they were actually signing a citizens’ campaign petition that the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport School District are promoting on their respective websites urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to protect residents from possible tax hikes looming upon resolution of a tax certiorari lawsuit involving LIPA and the Northport power plant.
Petrone said Wednesday that he and his running mates chose to form an official nominating body to assert their stance on the tax certiorari battle.
“We had to create that to show our position. This is serious enough that it should come to the electoral process,” Petrone said.
But Long said adding to the confusion is the fact that the nominating petitions used the same stop sign emblem as the citizens’ campaign, signed by 11,168 residents as of Tuesday.
Long’s lawsuit also initially attempted to throw out 1,429 of the 2,687 signatures collected, but, since it was not the central point of contention in filing the suit, he dropped that portion of the objections after the review process became “tedious.”
A group of residents have also launched a grassroots campaign, which Long said he is not affiliated with, claiming they were victims of fraud and a town-wide scam because they didn’t realize they signed a petition to endorse candidates rather than fight a tax hike.
The three Democratic candidates, who are running in November for various spots on the Huntington Town Board, filed the signatures with the Suffolk County Board of Elections in August.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Long and at least six other witnesses testified before a judge in Yaphank. The trial occurred at the Suffolk County Board of Elections office in front of Westchester-based Judge J. Emmett Murphy. Attorneys familiar with the case said all Suffolk judges recused themselves due to conflicting political and personal ties to the matter.
David Reilly, a Northport resident, practicing attorney, and vice chair of the Huntington GOP Committee, originally represented Long in the lawsuit, but renounced his duties after receiving a nomination to be a State Supreme Court judge.
According to Silverman, several witnesses at the trial claimed the petitions were misleading because certain parts of the page were “folded over” or covered the names of the candidates.
Long said those behind the formation of the new voting line exploited voters’ vulnerability on an issue of importance.
“It would be misleading to the public and create confusion… Speaking with people who had signed the petition, it came to my attention that it might be more serious and not just confusing but also fraudulent,” Long said.
Silverman, however, alleged that creating a line based on an issue-oriented campaign effort is exactly the point.
“It didn’t create confusion… They culminated as one with lobbying legislation to protect Huntington from a tax hike… and the court found there was nothing improper for that. I would argue it’s perfectly fitting and proper that a citizens’ campaign would evolve into a political campaign,” Silverman said.
Cuthbertson said on Tuesday that claims of confusion are “ridiculous,” and added that at least one person who testified in court is a friend or political ally of Councilman Gene Cook, who is running for supervisor against Petrone on the Republican line. Cook, a registered Independence Party member, also has backing from the Conservative Party.
“It’s ridiculous. They’re political machinations to deprive the people of having the LIPA tax hike issue as part of the political discussion this year,” Cuthbertson said. “We want this issue front and center.”
Cook did not respond to requests for comment.
Northport-East Northport Board of Education President Stephen Waldenburg said the district included a link to the citizens’ campaign petition on its website because it was in the best interest of the taxpayers, who may face a devastating tax hike in both property taxes and town taxes if they lose a tax certiorari battle in court.
Waldenburg said the petition on the district’s website does not endorse a political candidate or party, and, from the district’s point of view, there is no linkage between that one and the one for endorsing candidates on the new line.
“I would hope that people would understand the difference, and I haven’t seen any information that would confuse… but when it comes to politics, what else is new? It’s a big issue, and I would expect it to draw attention on both sides, whether you endorse the current town administration or you don’t – you could spin it either way,” Waldenburg said.
The school district filed its own breach of contract suit against LIPA, tandem to one filed by the Town of Huntington in response to LIPA’s tax certiorari requesting a 90-percent reduction on the $3-billion plant. A successful endeavor by LIPA in court would have dire consequences to the tax base.
According to the school district’s counsel, Hauppauge-based Ingerman Smith, taxes paid on the Northport power plant currently represent 37 percent of the school district’s budget. A current settlement offer on the table would result in the school’s annual tax base being reduced by $2.9 million starting in 2015-2016, and taxes paid by LIPA would reduce by over $4 million every year for 10 years leading to an overall loss of $43,618,531. LIPA’s annual real estate tax payments of $74,442,383 would diminish to an annual contribution of $30,823,852.
The settlement offer expires Oct. 20. The Town is appealing LIPA’s deadline.
Wayne Redlich, an election attorney formerly based in Albany and now in Palm Beach, Fla., who said he has no ties to the Huntington area or the case, said the Stop The LIPA Tax Hike line appears to him to be merely a political stunt. Had the petition wordage have used a less suggestive verb than “stop,” and instead used a party name such as the “Anti-LIPA Tax Hike” line, confusion could have been avoided, he said.
“It seems pretty obvious it would have a tendency to confuse the voters… These stunts are like something that the insiders live on – they thrive on this stuff – and regular voters don’t care,” Redlich said. “It sounds like voting for it is going cause something to happen.”
Long said he is working on an appeal pending approval from Supreme Court personnel.