By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — Mayor Peter Panarites defies identification as a laconic Spartan when it comes to speaking truth to power. While respecting civil service regulations, he speaks his mind about the outcome last week of a civil service hearing in Northport, the Long Island village where he presides as chief executive.
Since last September, Panarites and village Police Chief Ric Bruckenthal have been the subject of Newsday and Long Island Press articles and, according to one of them, contributed to polarizing the community as the result of a probe Panarites and the village Board of Trustees began of Bruckenthal’s suspect activities over the last two years. But this week, the probe ended and the mayor couldn’t be more disappointed.
“When I took my oath of office, I swore to uphold the U. S. Constitution and the laws of this state,” Panarites told GreekNews. “I take that responsibility seriously. I don’t worry about the impact of my decisions on my getting reelected; I’d rather do the right thing and not get reelected than do the wrong thing and get reelected.”
The responsibilities to which he was referring were being sure the citizens of Northport were being served efficiently and cost-effectively. He had run on the promise that village officials would be held accountable for their actions. When he looked into one police officer’s suspect activities, he gradually found “a ball of string unraveling.” After calling the activities to the attention of the Village Board of Trustees, he asked them whether they wanted to proceed with an investigation. “They said, ‘We can’t turn our backs on this,'” he recalled, noting that they had all wanted to have open government.
When he called in the second highest in command deputy inspector of Nassau and Suffolk counties to investigate the allegations, he was told, “Mayor, you have a problem.”
Under civil service law, the Village Board began what is known as a Section 75 proceeding, which calls for an impartial hearing officer to be appointed and usually takes a week or two in private for the proceeding. But the police chief and those who supported him wanted the proceedings to be public, effectively turning what would have been quickly resolved into a “circus,” according to Panarites.
“Even though Section 75 proceeding had a 100-year history, they challenged our authority and took it to the State Supreme Court for a ruling, which ended in our favor but delayed the case to the end of December,” Panarites said.
According to Newsday, the investigation “uncovered allegations that [Bruckenthal] rewarded police officers with unearned comp time, including from his accumulated days off, handed out honorary titles of “police surgeon” and badges to neighborhood doctors without the village’s consent, and helped officers destroy documents from personnel files.” Bruckenthal had said the charges were exaggerated and that the practices had been commonplace for years.
But Panarites was determined, he said, to fight for “ethical village government.” He was up against a Police Benevolent Association (“the blue wall”), which by itself, he said, is not popular to take on and which had taken out a full-page ad against him when he ran for mayor two years ago; a community of people who, even though they may disapprove of police activities, remain silent because they are afraid that they will not be protected if they speak out; and a police chief who was also a member of the volunteer fire department and the Catholic church in a village where people are interrelated.
The defining moment in the hearing process, however, had little to do with any of those things; it rested on a tragedy in the Bruckenthal family: Nathan Bruckenthal, the police chief’s son, was killed in a suicide boat-bombing attack near Iraq last month. As a result, Panarites lost the support for the case of one of the Board trustees, Ann Stevens, who took the tragedy and the cost to taxpayers ($200,000 by Panarites’ estimate) into consideration and changed her mind about going ahead with the case, voting last week with two other trustees to drop the charges against Ric Bruckenthal.
“What were we putting the village through? To what end?” Stevens is quoted to have said in Newsday. But Panarites recalls something more troubling she said to him in a personal conversation.
“When I asked her whether she was willing to put having peace ahead of having justice, she replied ‘yes.'”
Panarites recognized that Stevens, who resigned her post for “health reasons” the day after the vote, had been placed under a lot of pressure.
“Bruckenthal’s supporters went after her like piranha, and everyone has a breaking point,” he remarked. He and another trustee, Deputy Mayor Victor Howard, had abstained in hopes of eventually (after a mourning period was allowed for the top cop and his family) coming to a settlement that would have allowed the hearing officer to find Bruckenthal either not guilty or guilty and, after a reprimand if he was found guilty, would have allowed him to return to his post.
Two other trustees had criticized Panarites’ handling of the case all along. They thought he should simply “talk to the gentleman, but it doesn’t go that way with civil service proceedings,” Panarites said. “These were serious allegations. If they had been minor, I would have spoken with him and asked him to take care of the problem.”
Panarites called the trustees’ decision “outrageous” and an “emotional reaction.”
“They made a political decision, not an ethical one,” he said, noting the perceived public support for the police chief and how, in a small village, “500-600 votes can turn an election around.”
“It doesn’t do justice to the chief of police because he loses the opportunity to remove suspicion; it does a disservice to the citizens of the community who have spent $200,000 on the case and will never know the facts,” the mayor said. [He is not allowed to reveal anything relating to the charges against the police chief, including what Bruckenthal’s alleged actions cost the taxpayers, because the charges were dropped.]
Asked whether Bruckenthal had otherwise been an effective police chief, the mayor didn’t mince words.
“When I first became mayor, there were many complaints about speeding in the village and the use of hand-held cell phones in cars. I asked the police department to clamp down on those activities but, with a 16-officer police force, one year later only 21 speeding tickets and 2 cell phone tickets had been issued. By comparison, in nearby Asharoken a 4-man police force had issued 1,000 speeding tickets,” he said. “I had told the police chief that I wanted to see productivity and 80 summons were issued in 3 months.” He adds that when Bruckenthal was asked what was behind the low numbers, he had replied that the police ‘disliked the mayor.’
“If he knew that and productivity was down, he was putting public safety at risk here,” said Panarites, a retired teacher who was a trustee for six years before running for the top village office (“because no one else would run”) and who also runs the village “sweet shop” at 55 Main Street.
The ordeal has left the mayor “very disappointed in a lot of people. Something like this brings out the true character of people and the values they have. What are they teaching their children? That you can come to judgment before fact finding?
As to whether he plans to run again for mayor, with that concern more two years away, Panarites said it’s too early to tell: “Anything can happen. Who knows, I might retire in Greece.”