Joye Brown: Curran’s time precious as she pushes change

There’s a tradition in Nassau County few residents ever get to see, and yet there it was on silent display Monday, New Year’s Day — a reminder that both power and promise are fleeting.

Last week, a color photograph of County Executive Edward Mangano adorned a wall of the executive suite of offices at the county building in Mineola, as it had for the eight years he was in power. By Monday, however, Mangano’s photo had been replaced by a black-and-white copy and positioned aside a long line of former executives, some of them smiling, some of them dour — and every single one of them male.

At some point, a photo of Laura Curran, Nassau’s latest and first woman county executive, will go up on that wall. And as per Nassau tradition, it will be the only one in color — until her administration gives way to another, and Curran joins the line of black-and-white photos too.

All of which is to say that time will be precious to Curran. Like every executive before her, she has a limited window to marshal power into policy that would fulfill the plentiful promises she made on the campaign trail.

She’s made a start by hiring an ethics adviser, by banning administration appointees from holding leadership posts in political parties and by barring her executive staff from donating to, or fundraising for, her political campaigns.

“I did it so that there were be no question as to why they are there,” Curran said in an interview Monday. “That says right off the bat that we are serious about this.”

Curran is believed to be the only Nassau executive to have taken such measures — in a county beset in recent years by allegations of corruption, nepotism, patronage and mismanagement. But while promises of restoring the public’s trust became winning campaign fodder for Curran, translating that in public policy — beyond the positions she controls — nonetheless will be challenging.

It will not be easy to break a culture that took hold in Nassau decades ago and flourished through Republican and Democratic administrations even as Nassau came close to insolvency. The county, in fact, hasn’t found firm fiscal footing since the 1990s, which is why Curran also is inheriting a state financial control board going into its 18th year of monitoring Nassau’s finances.

Curran, unlike many of her predecessors, does not come from a political or politically connected family. She does not — as a former county lawmaker, as Mangano once was — have experience running a government as an executive. And Curran, a Democrat, will have to deal with a Republican-majority legislature.

Meanwhile, contracts with Nassau’s five major unions expired at the end of 2017.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month vetoed a bill that critics viewed as an attempted end run around the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state control board — and by extension Curran. The vetoed measure would have allowed some county public employees to receive “step raises,” which are salary hikes based on time on the job, even if NIFA moved to freeze wages.

“We have a have a chance to sit down to negotiate contracts that are fair to workers and fair to Nassau residents, who pay for those contracts,” Curran said, noting that she had good relations with Nassau unions as a lawmaker even though none endorsed her. “I really think we have a clean slate and we can do good solid negotiations without any baggage.”

On Monday, the heads of all five Nassau unions attended Curran’s inauguration. Afterward, and at their request, they went upstairs for a short meeting with her.

Even as workers continued to prepare Curran’s new office, with the rug stripped out, and a lamp and a plant on a trestle outside tagged and waiting to be placed inside.

And with that color photo of Curran yet to be placed on the wall.