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Editorial: Newsday endorses James Gaughran for Suffolk comptroller

Newsday Editorial Board

The race for Suffolk County comptroller matches two candidates with years of government experience and similar thoughts about the role of the office, but dramatically different styles.
Democrat James Gaughran, 57, of Eatons Neck, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, and Republican John M. Kennedy Jr., 58, of Nesconset, the minority leader in the county legislature, are running to succeed incumbent Joseph Sawicki, who is term-limited and unable to seek re-election.
Gaughran and Kennedy agree Suffolk is in a fiscal crisis. Each correctly says the comptroller as the county's financial watchdog must be a strong and independent check on the county executive and legislature. And both say they are ready to exercise the bully pulpit potential of the office. That's where their contrasting styles come into play.Kennedy -- a constant burr in the side of Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone, in particular -- is loud and blustery, and seems likely to express his concerns as comptroller by railing publicly and frequently. Gaughran -- an effective lawmaker on the Huntington Town Board and Suffolk legislature in the 1980s and 1990s -- is extremely even-tempered, and seems more likely to offer quiet advice. A healthy dose of passion would complement his competency.
The candidates disagree on this fall's ballot referendum to eliminate the post of treasurer and add those duties to the comptroller's office. Kennedy opposes it as narrow-sighted with nebulous savings and deplores the loss of an independent elected position. We side here with Gaughran, who touts the savings from a more efficient financial management office and says such consolidations could be done across county government.
It's good that both candidates plan to be more aggressive in using audits to cut wasteful county spending and increase efficiency. Kennedy would reduce the number of outside auditors, increase in-house staff and do quarterly accounting to discourage adding debt throughout the year. He would target homeless shelter finances, which he says are rife with fraud, and put a 20 percent cap on administrative costs in contracts.
Gaughran has more ambitious plans. He'd create a "waste, fraud and abuse division," and a Medicaid fraud unit to be assisted by auditors supplied by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Gaughran would audit county perks, provide financial guidance to nonprofits and hire a local economist to give the office its own projection of sales tax revenue, the county's principal funding stream. Kennedy's response -- that the legislature already employs a local economist to make that projection -- misses the point of comptroller independence.
We worry about Kennedy's ability to leave his legislative roots behind and make the switch from rabidly partisan lawmaker to the county's voice of financial reason. He is well-cast in his current position.
Gaughran cites his legislative history in saying he would be independent and a public prod for fiscal honesty and discipline, and promises to "be in the face of the legislature." We will hold him to that.
Newsday endorses Gaughran.