This past January marked the 50-year anniversary of the creation of the Suffolk County Legislature. Like others marking milestones this year, we had celebration plans that were diverted by the …
This past January marked the 50-year anniversary of the creation of the Suffolk County Legislature. Like others marking milestones this year, we had celebration plans that were diverted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we are still honoring this important historical marker and acknowledging all that our predecessors have done to make this legislative body what it is today.
The Suffolk County Legislature was established in January 1970, replacing the 287-year-old Board of Supervisors, made up of the town supervisors. With the creation of the legislature, the county was divided into 18 legislative districts, each with their own elected representative. Legislators first met in January 1970 for a two-hour meeting. According to a New York Times article, after the meeting the legislators listened to then county executive H. Lee Dennison deliver his annual message, which interestingly addressed many of the same issues we face today: sewers, water, and affordable housing.
Today’s meetings of the Suffolk County Legislature last much longer than two hours, and that is not the only thing that has evolved. Since 1970, the legislature has established a reputation for creating innovative solutions that are often the first of their kind, and the body has often found itself leading the way for reforms not just in New York State, but in the nation as a whole.
In 1981, for example, then-legislator Patrick Halpin led efforts to pass a bill requiring 5-cent deposits on soft-drink and beer containers. Only Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut had passed such measures at the time. The legislature has since carried on a tradition of being staunch protectors of the environment, including being an early proponent of discouraging the use of plastic bags and limiting the use of plastic straws.
In 2000, then-legislator Jon Cooper sponsored the nation’s first county-wide ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving, which has become even more important over the years as mobile phones became ubiquitous.
Several pieces of landmark legislation over the years were passed to protect children. In 2009, Suffolk County was the first in the nation to ban baby bottles and cups that contain the potentially toxic material bisphenol-A, a measure sponsored by then-legislator Steve Stern, who later led efforts to pass the
Safer Sales Slip Act, a first-in-the-nation ban on receipts coated with that same chemical. Also, in 2009, Suffolk County passed a first-in-the-nation ban on the sale of drop-side baby cribs, proposed by then-legislator Wayne Horsley. In 2013, legislator William Spencer sponsored a first-in-the-nation energy drink action plan to prohibit direct marketing of energy drinks to minors and prohibit the sale and distribution of energy drinks to minors in county parks. A year later, Suffolk County became the first municipality in the nation to ban the sale of powdered caffeine to minors, thanks to the efforts of legislator Spencer and former presiding officer DuWayne Gregory.
In 2003, Suffolk County became the first in nation to ban the sale of all dietary supplements containing ephedra, another Cooper proposal. He also led efforts to create the first-in-the-nation registry for animal abusers in 2010.
Suffolk County has also been on the forefront of many initiatives to limit smoking. In 1994, the county limited smoking in restaurants and bars and banned smoking in schools, daycare centers, bowling alleys, and other sports and recreational facilities. Eight years later, Suffolk banned smoking in bars and restaurants, bingo halls and indoor office workplace areas. Suffolk was the first county in New York State to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 19, and then raised it again to 21. In 2015, Suffolk banned smoking in common areas of apartment complexes.
The legislature has also remained one of the most transparent local governmental bodies in the nation, especially since adopting the video streaming of all meetings. I am proud to have contributed to promoting an open and transparent government during my tenure in office with initiatives like our Open Data Portal and increased oversight of the county’s asset forfeiture fund.
With all the challenges presented by 2020, it is more important now than ever before that legislators continue to build upon the Suffolk County Legislature’s proud history of innovation. The Suffolk Legislature has always been on the forefront of public policy, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue that tradition.