He worked for the county health department for 37 1/2 years, the last 10 as director of the Division of Environmental Quality. But only five days after his April 2 retirement, Vito Minei is back behind a desk, this time as the new director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, an amalgam of programs including agriculture, water quality, health and youth activities and education.
He takes the reins at the Riverhead-based extension, which spends about $15 million a year and employs close to 200 people, after a career that also included 18 years as head of the Peconic Estuary Program. As chief of the Office of Ecology and later director of the Division of Environmental Quality, Mr. Minei was the health department’s point man on following and investigating the spread of the brown tide algae, which first appeared in the Peconics in 1986. He fills the seat that Dale Moyer of Mattituck, the group’s agriculture program director, held on an interim basis.
Q: What is the biggest challenge Cornell Cooperative Extension currently faces?
A: The economy. We took some funding hits and my immediate challenge is to make sure that we can continue to keep these valuable projects going.
Q: Why take the director’s job after such a long career with the health department?
A: I was planning to retire this spring and assumed I would go into the consulting business. But when I saw extension’s recruitment announcement back in October I pursued it from there. The timing happened to work out perfectly. It’s public service and it’s multifaceted. I was interested in the fact that it’s more than an environmental program. The youth development programs here really excited me and that’s one of the reasons why I came here. Then there’s the Cornell connection. If you’re going to get involved with a science-based organization, there aren’t too many more nationally renowned than Cornell University.
Q: With extensive background and experience in water quality issues, how do you reconcile that with your new responsibilities for CCE’s agricultural program?
A: I never saw agriculture and environmental quality as mutually exclusive. I always thought they could go hand in hand and that we could do away with what for decades seemed to be a very contentious relationship between regulators and the farming industry. I know how much agriculture meant to the East End and the vitality of its economy. Coming from the county health department, it’s my responsibility to build on the relationships I had with Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela and Dale Moyer on the sustainability of agriculture, both environmentally and economically.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your first days as director?
A: Cooperative Extension operates the County Farm in Yaphank, which combines the concepts of maintaining a working farm with offering educational programs for kids. The staff is in a temporary building from the SSSq60s and the road is a series of potholes that looks like the road to Kabul, Afghanistan, after an American bombing run. My initial goal is to try to reach out to people I know in the building industries to help refurbish that.
I’d also like to get more kids interested in science, perhaps with Brookhaven National Lab or the Cold Spring Harbor fish hatchery. There’s a lot of education that can be done out of school and the people here are motivated and capable of taking on that responsibility.