Friday, 25 December 2009 00:00“He has the background, education, courage and ability to meet the challenge of this office. And I stand ready to be of assistance and to serve my county in any manner that he may desire.” These are the words of outgoing Nassau County Executive Holly Patterson at the swearing-in of his successor, the Democratic Eugene Nickerson, on New Year’s Day 1962. Patterson, former County Leader (that was his title) of the Nassau Republicans, was true to his word and played a productive role on boards dealing with planning, recreation and education during Nickerson’s administration.
It was a different time, wasn’t it? Republicans tried hard, particularly in the first five months of 1962, to appear that they were giving Nickerson a fair chance to succeed and do the public business he was elected to do. To do otherwise would have been considered unfair, unseemly and somewhat un-American. Back then, we even taught this kind of thing in Civics classes, a subject we no longer teach in our public schools.
Some Republicans openly expressed regret that between the Friday that Patterson walked out of his office and the Monday that Nickerson was sworn in, someone cleared out everything but the furniture from the county executive’s office. Nickerson complained that he hadn’t even been left a legal pad on which to write.
By fall 1962, the gloves were off. But some good things were forged in the crucible of competition and debate. Nassau led the state and the country in innovations and in firsts. Our elected officials today don’t understand how many there were, and take it for granted that there was always a budget office, a comprehensive civil service system, consumer protection and human rights programs, regional planning of any kind, a medical center and one of the country’s largest community colleges, and all those parks. The entire Medicaid program and almost every other social support service was put into place during the 1960s, and the last new county highways were built. Other counties, hundreds of them, copied what Nassau County did, again and again.
The county executive drew on the vast pool of talent right here in Nassau County’s neighborhood. Volunteer experts from the community staffed new county boards that served as incubators and think tanks for ideas that would make local government work better. The county workforce was more than twice its current size, but the county executive’s staff was less than half of what it is today.
County taxes tripled during the nine years of the Nickerson administration, but most taxpayers believed that they were getting value for most of their dollars and were living in a place that was moving into a bright future.
And not just one political party got to be proud. Maybe the most striking single fact out of all of this is that Nickerson’s party never had anything like a majority in the county legislature. Every budget, every initiative, every shovel in the ground and, yes, every tax rate had to be negotiated with and approved by supervisors elected from Nassau’s five towns and cities.
Five decades ago, some smart people were worried that with ineffective or irrelevant local government, much of this county would slowly degenerate into blight and low property values. With problems and challenges mounting around us, some smart people today are worried that it can still happen. Some of our elected officials don’t seem particularly worried. We have name calling and mind games on both sides of the county legislature. Business as usual. It is so boring.
We can figure new ways to deliver services, provide protections and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. It will take imagination, cooperation and an ability to play well with others.
When he left office at the end of 1970, Gene Nickerson made sure that all the files stayed. He symbolically placed a legal pad on his desk and walked out. We need legal pads all over the place now.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org