by Karl Grossman
“You can’t fight city hall” is the cliché — perhaps created by city hall. That’s because people can — not always but sometimes — challenge city hall and other governmental authorities successfully.
An example: the rapid repeal of a $4-a-car charge put in place last month by the Suffolk County executive and legislature for people who between 5 to 8 p.m visit Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton, Smith Point County Park in Shirley, and Meschutt Beach and Sears Bellows County Parks, both in Hampton Bays.
Despite a charge to park at county parks during the day, in the evening that has always been free. It has provided a nice after-work break for many Suffolk residents.
What was dubbed a “twilight” beach parking fee was vigorously opposed by Suffolk citizens. It was put in place on June 23rd after a 12-to-5 vote of the Suffolk Legislature on a resolution sent to it by County Executive Steve Bellone. He attached to the bill a “certificate of necessity” which under county government rules allows for a prompt vote by the legislature without a resolution going through its committee system.
Quickly, more than a thousand people signed an online petition blasting the fee and demanding it be repealed. There was a flood of emails, letters and phone calls to legislators and the county executive’s office calling for a repeal.
Then, on July 9, as more than 100 people gathered in Shirley to protest the charge, the two county legislators who represent the districts in which the parks are located announced that Mr. Bellone had reversed himself and cancelled the fee.
When the cheers subsided, a rally organizer, Donato Sangemino of Shirley, said: “This shows the power of the community. We all came together and fought it, and won.”
Important was the opposition of Legislator Kate Browning of Shirley and Jay Schneiderman of Montauk, from the districts of the parks. “This fee is unfair and targets families in Suffolk County that can least afford it,” said Ms. Browning. She’s closely tied to working people—having driven a school bus before being elected to the legislature. She is the only member of the Working Families Party on the legislature.
Mr. Schneiderman, originally a science teacher, emphasized: “The beaches of Suffolk County are national treasures that should be open to all residents regardless of income. Access to nature is beneficial to the public, which is why we preserve natural areas in the first place.”
They had put together a resolution titled “Repealing Twilight Fee at County Beaches.” It declared: “This new fee presents a financial hardship for those communities surrounded by the county’s beaches” and “is particularly harmful to the county’s working class families that visit recreational facilities in late afternoon/early evening hours.”
There was also opposition from town officials. Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty, chair of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, issued a statement declaring: “This fee is an unfair, regressive penalty imposed on the ordinary citizen.”
It was a measure of Mr. Bellone’s flexibility and sensitivity that he swiftly did an about-face on the “twilight” charge. And he got criticized by some county legislators for doing that.
Legislator Tom Barraga of West Islip complained that “no matter what we do, there’s always someone that’s unhappy. You need to stick to your guns.”
“If we go back on one decision, it’s going to make the ones later on that much tougher,” said DuWayne Gregory of Amityville, leader of the legislature’s Democratic majority. “We have to realize we have no money, and we need to have the resolve to stick with our decisions.”
Indeed, Suffolk County government — like governments all over the U.S. in this Great Recession — has financial problems. Suffolk’s difficulties have been worsened by what has been its constantly growing dependence over the years on the sales tax, hard-hit in these tough times.
But the total yearly collection on the “twilight” beach parking fee was estimated at $90,000; that’s in a county with a $2.4 billion (with a b) annual budget.