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Fallout over lackluster snow removal on Long Island

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By FRANK ELTMAN | AP

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. (AP) — The fallout from a lackluster snow-removal effort after a blizzard dumped 30 inches or more across eastern Long Island widened Thursday, ensnaring both state and town officials in its wake.

The state has suspended two Department of Transportation officials on Long Island, and a highway official in Brookhaven resigned after complaints from residents who waited days to get their neighborhood streets plowed. Meanwhile, Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine apologized to residents for vacationing in Jamaica during the storm but blamed the inadequate response on the departed highway official.

The snowstorm, which struck during rush hour Feb. 8, left hundreds of motorists stranded in their vehicles on the Long Island Expressway and other roads for 12 hours or more as rapidly falling snow inundated unplowed highways. Forecasts had called for as much as 18 inches, but some areas of eastern Long Island were hit with 30 inches or more.

The state DOT suspended two officials on Long Island for 30 days without pay, according to a lawyer for one of the men. A department representative declined to comment, citing it as a personnel matter.

Attorney Howard Rubin, who represents DOT Suffolk regional director, Subimal Chakrobouti, said his client was told about the suspension in an email Saturday, just hours after he joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a news conference detailing the state response to the blizzard. Rubin said the 68-year-old Chakrobouti is being made a scapegoat.

"He hasn't been told he did anything wrong," Rubin said. "This is a guy with a spotless record."

Rubin suggested there may have been complaints about state DOT plows clearing roads in Nassau County and western Suffolk County to keep access clear to New York City, but he said any decisions on prioritizing what highways got plowed and when was done in consultation with Chakrobouti's supervisors. He also said some DOT plows were sent to eastern Long Island, but he didn't have specific details.

The second suspended DOT official was identified as a transportation maintenance engineer. A busy signal rang repeatedly at a telephone number listed for his residence.

Suffolk County police announced the closure of the LIE and Sunrise Highway around 9 p.m. last Friday, and state police issued a release saying state parkways in the county were closed at 1 a.m. Saturday.

Cuomo has come under fire from some for not ordering state roads closed before the storm, as several other Northeastern states did. He said Thursday that he had no information about the DOT suspensions.

"That's a DOT personnel matter, so I don't really know the details of exactly what it was about," he said.

The governor demurred when asked about his appraisal of the overall performance of the DOT during the blizzard, repeating his previous contention that drivers who became stranded should take responsibility for their actions.

"When we have issues is when people don't act responsibly, don't act as responsibly as they should," he said. "Now look, sometimes when you act totally responsibly, things happen. When in Hurricane Sandy a tree comes through the roof, there was nothing you could do about that. But, there's going to be a snowstorm, you know you're going to be driving, there's some responsibility and adjustment."

Also Thursday, Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine apologized for the town's response to the blizzard, which struck while he was vacationing in Jamaica. He said he remained in telephone contact with town officials while he was away.

Brookhaven is the largest town in the state at 531 square miles. That's bigger in size than all of neighboring Nassau County.

"Do I feel very badly that I was out of town when this occurred? Absolutely," Romaine said. "And do I offer an apology to the residents of Brookhaven town? Yes. Because there was no one else to make the apology because the guy who was in charge of the highway department resigned."

He also blamed the town's highway department, which he said doesn't answer to him. He said the highway superintendent is an elected position that doesn't answer to the town board. The acting superintendent, Michael Murphy, resigned that post Wednesday. Town officials had said this week that Murphy didn't report for work during the storm because he had a toothache.

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