Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine emerged from his vacation Thursday amid fury over the town’s mishandling of last week’s blizzard, apologizing to media outlets for his absence during the storm while blaming its highway department for the lackluster response.
“I want to say to the people of Brookhaven that I’m sorry that the storm happened and I’m particularly sorry that I wasn’t here when it occurred,” Romaine said to more than a dozen media outlets packing Brookhaven Town Hall, reading from a prepared statement.
“This is devastating for a lot of people,” he continued. “I understand their frustration and their anger, please accept my apologies.”
Characterizing the town’s response as a “failure of [a] branch of town government to adequately respond to this storm,” he added that it is “something that weighs heavy on me, something that I do not take lightly.”
The blizzard struck Friday night into Saturday morning, leaving many roads impassable until Monday or later. Many residents complained their roads weren’t plowed until Tuesday morning, with entire neighborhoods stranded in their homes into the workweek. Some parts of Suffolk County saw up to 30 inches of snow from the powerful storm, a Nor’easter. It shut down several major throughways, including Middle Country Road, Sunrise Highway and the Long Island Expressway, which was closed for three days as crews maneuvered around more than 150 abandoned vehicles left during Friday’s commute home. More than 1,000 abandoned cars littered the roads in Brookhaven, officials said.
The supervisor’s statements Thursday were his first public remarks about the weather emergency since leaving for warmer climes a week earlier.
Romaine’s staff prohibited reporters from asking the supervisor open questions during a press conference at Brookhaven Town Hall following his official statement. Instead, subsequent one-on-one interviews were permitted inside his office.
“My role here is to give you the basic ground rules for this conference and let you know how things are going to run,” announced Romaine’s Chief of Staff Garrett Swenson. “[The] supervisor is going to make a few brief remarks, I would ask that there be no interruptions and allow him the courtesy of making his remarks without interruption.”
A town spokesperson then emerged with a list of at least 14 outlets that would interview the supervisor. Romaine justified the unorthodox measures during a phone interview with the Press later in the day, saying it was in the interest of fairness.
“I met with everyone and I answered everyone’s questions, which I know I aggravated some people but we originally thought it would be better rather than answer five or six questions and then leave to meet with everyone so no one felt that there questions weren’t getting answered,” he said.
His staff ultimately relented when it became apparent that system was overly time-consuming.
Romaine has taken heat for not only remaining on vacation throughout the crisis, but for the town’s failure in dealing with it.
Romaine explained that under New York State law, the supervisor, nor the town council, has authority to issue directives to the highway department, which was headed by acting-highway superintendent Mike Murphy, whom resigned Tuesday at the Romaine’s request.
“It is an independent entity,” Romaine said of the highway department. “The people elect a highway superintendent who reports directly to the people, not to the supervisor, not to the town board. The only thing that the supervisor and town board does is vote on their budget in November.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “they are part of town government and it concerns me that they failed. And I cannot tell the people of Brookhaven how sorry I am personally that that failure took place.”
Other observers agreed with Romaine’s explanation.
“Traditionally, I think with what you’ll find all over the place where there are elected highway superintendents that they tend to think of themselves as kings of the road and they like to operate independent,” said a source familiar with town operations who asked not to be named. “And they do because they’re independently elected to operate independent of any other parts of town government that not subject to the supervision of anybody on the town board.”
Still, the top levels of government should be able to step in during a moment of crisis, one Brookhaven town official said.
“The highway department has their own elected official but in light of the fact that we have an interim highway department, our job [is] as public servants that are elected and we should have been there to support the acting superintendent of highways and the staff over at highway, we should have been there to assist them,” Brookhaven Councilwoman Kathleen Walsh, an Independent running for the highway superintendent position on the Democratic line, told the Press.
As the criticism mounted and residents desperately called out for help, change in the power structure became necessary, officials said.
“Eventually it got to the point where we asked for the acting superintendent’s resignation,” Romaine said. “He didn’t have to give it to us, he did, and we are appreciative for that.”
Romaine has repeatedly declined to reveal where he was vacationing last week. The Press reported on Wednesday that Romaine was in Jamaica, according to a town source.
The supervisor said he regretted his time in the sun when so many of his residents were swamped with unforgiving cold, snow and ice—saying, “Absolutely, I would’ve loved to had been here”—yet insisted he was receiving constant updates from town officials, and believes response efforts wouldn’t have been different if he was receiving updates in his office rather than over the phone, anyway.
“I don’t think it would’ve made much of a difference because all the decisions I made, when I made them, would not have changed one iota,” he contended, “but you know what, I would’ve loved to be here because you always want to show a presence, particularly to the constituents in Brookhaven Town.”
“I don’t want to talk about the fog of war,” he continued, “but I would be getting the same information. I mean people aren’t telling me one thing on the phone that would tell me something differently if they were sitting in my office, so I’m getting the same information, I’m giving the same directives. Do I think there would be much difference? No I don’t think there would be much difference at all.”
When Romaine left town hall Wednesday night to prepare for a Thursday flight, he said the weather predictions Wednesday called for “rain and then moving to snow, but it wasn’t said that there would be [a] blizzard.”
When notified that the National Weather Service Wednesday issued a statement predicting “significant snowfall and strong winds with near-blizzard conditions,” Romaine responded that he wasn’t aware a possible blizzard was on its way.
“I didn’t see that, honestly,” he said, “I didn’t see that, whatever news I got, I got out of TV news and I didn’t get that there was a blizzard coming.”
The National Weather Service then issued a blizzard watch for Suffolk County on Thursday and predicted eight to 12 inches of snow.
When the supervisor called his office Friday for an update on the storm he said the highway department assured him that they had “it under control,” and that it wasn’t until Saturday that “we were told that they had lost control of the storm in certain areas of the town and we began a frantic call to get other equipment in.”
Before departing for his island getaway, Romaine said he was notified of the department’s plan and was assured that they had the necessary equipment to clean up the snow.
Departments that the town does control—parks and waste management, specifically—had plows at the ready and were sent out to clean roadways Friday afternoon, he added.
Romaine continued making calls throughout the weekend, he said, and was notified that 95 percent of roads would be passable by Monday. Briefed on the hundreds of abandoned cars in the area, he tells the Press, he was surprised to learn that most of them were either on state or county roads, but still advised the town to assist in snow removal for those areas.
“People complained bitterly about Brookhaven Town and I’m like, ‘Wow, most of those cars were abandoned on either the [Long Island] expressway or Sunrise [Highway] or [Route] 25 or County Road 83 or [Route] 112 or Nicolls Road, they weren’t abandoned on town roads,’ but the town had to help in that effort and we all worked together,” he said.
Romaine now says that he intends to work with the acting highway superintendent and whoever is elected March 5 at a special election for the position. The supervisor will conduct a “top-to-bottom review” of the storm, he said, including a review of the equipment, how staff was deployed and the town’s communication system. He will also push for a computerized tracking system for the entire highway department, something that council members have opposed in the past, he said.
As for the criticism from residents frustrated with the town’s leadership, Romaine admitted that they have a right to be upset but promised that the town would use the storm as a learning experience.
“I would be too,” he said of residents’ frustration. “Unfortunately for me it was like the perfect storm, because there was a lot of things that needed to be done in highway that hadn’t been done. I was out of town, the storm was far more severe, and there’s a lot of things happening, we didn’t have a highway superintendent, we had an acting [superintendent] that didn’t have as much management experience as you had hoped. So many things seemed to go wrong that even if I was here, the only thing that we can do is try and learn from this.”