New York's Redistricting News
Times Union: "Lawmaker says little time
left for map changes." August 12, 2003
More Redistricting News from New York (January 2, 2003-February 20, 2003)
More Redistricting News from New York (April 23, 2002-November 7, 2002)
More Redistricting News from New York (December 29, 2000-April 22, 2002)
The chairman of Albany County's redistricting panel said Monday he still hopes that a fresh legislative district map now before county legislators can be adopted in time for this year's elections, but he acknowledged chances are growing slim.
"Time is of the essence, obviously, and I think we would have to act very quickly to have elections this year," said Redistricting Commission Chairman Sean Ward, D-Green Island.
Primary day is four weeks away.
On Monday night, the County Legislature sent the most recently revised map -- which Ward says would add a fourth district where minority representation is likely -- to the Redistricting Commission for consideration, but no date was set for a meeting.
For now, a map approved by the legislature in December with three minority districts remains in place, and candidates have made plans to run in those districts.
But that map is under challenge in federal court, which is why the county is trying to craft a new one at this late date. The Albany NAACP and Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens have filed a lawsuit charging that the map fails to provide for fair representation of minority residents.
Last month, U.S. Magistrate David Homer recommended that U.S. District Court Judge Norman Mordue prohibit legislative elections from taking place this year unless a new map with four minority districts is created. Homer said growth in Albany's minority population, as shown in the 2000 census, justifies a fourth district.
Mordue has yet to act on Homer's recommendation, and lawyers on both sides have been engaged in settlement efforts in the meantime.
"We put our best plan on the table tonight, and we think it is a very viable plan," Ward said. "We hope Judge Homer concurs."
Ward did not close the door on further revisions to satisfy the judges involved, but, he said, "We did a lot of compromising. I'm not sure how much further we can go."
He declined to say whether the specific revision now before the legislature has been submitted formally to the court.
Aaron Mair, president of Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens, and Albany NAACP President Anne Pope said Ward's latest plan still has serious flaws.
They said it would slice off parts of Albany's South End that are home to many African-American voters and put them into a white-majority district that stretches into affluent Delmar and undermine minority voting strength in an Arbor Hill district by attaching a largely white portion of Colonie known as West Albany.
Lucille McKnight, one of the three current African-American representatives, said she can't support the redistricting plan as it stands now. "It dilutes a lot of my district," she said.
Albany's other two black legislators, Democrats Wanda Willingham and Fowler Riddick, said they probably could support it.
"I feel, right now, I have not seen anything else that's better than that plan," Willingham said, adding that she and Riddick noted they have not seen any updated plans proposed by Mair and the NAACP.
Earlier Monday, Ward defended multiple revisions of the legislation creating the latest proposed map over the last two weeks, saying the changes were intended to keep pace with developments in settlement talks.
It was always the intention to have the final changes aired in public discussions before a legislative vote, he said, but he refrained from public discussion of the revisions because U.S. Magistrate Randolph Treece, who oversaw the settlement talks, asked those involved not to speak about them.
KINGSTON - City government was rife with accusations of political gamesmanship on Friday after it was determined that the previous night's vote to redraw Kingston's ward boundaries was not sufficient to enact the plan.
The vote to approve the redistricting plan was 4-3, with one council member absent and another serving as the non-voting council president because James Noble was on vacation. The city's assistant corporation counsel, Dan Heppner, told aldermen on Thursday that a majority of the voting members present would be sufficient to approve the plan; but on Friday, Heppner admitted he erred and that approval required five "yea" votes, a majority of the council's full nine-person membership.
The redistricting plan, designed by Democrats in the Common Council majority, now will return to the council floor for a second vote, and though it may well be approved again, it has thrown a wrench into the city's political calendar: the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, at which candidates for the November election will be chosen, were scheduled for June 2 but now may have to be pushed back.
When Thursday's council meeting began, all nine voting members were present, but Ward 6 Democrat John Martino had to fill in for Noble, the vacationing council president, and Ward 4 Republican Mary Ann Parker left before the redistricting vote, saying she wasn't feeling well.
Had Parker stayed, the redistricting vote probably would have been 4-4, and Martino would have been allowed to vote - likely in the affirmative - to break the tie. That would have created a 5-4 result, sufficient to enact the plan.
But Parker's departure eliminated the possibility of a tie and, it turns out, left too few "yea" votes for the redistricting plan to legally pass muster.
Some say Parker's early exit was an orchestrated move by the GOP to scuttle the vote, but Parker maintains she truly was ill.
"I felt dizzy," she said on Friday. "I have high blood pressure. I got dizzy and I had to throw up. ... I went out to the car and barfed in a bag and went home and took Pepto-Bismol."
Mayor James Sottile agreed with Heppner on Friday that at least five "yea" votes were needed to enact the redistricting plan, and he urged city lawmakers to convene next Thursday to vote again.
Sottile, a Democrat, was dismayed by Parker's early departure, but he did not challenge her reason.
"I just know that too many people are leaving too many meetings," Sottile said, alluding to a Republican walkout prior to a city budget vote late last year.
Council Majority Leader Bill Reynolds said it's possible that the city Redistricting Committee will have to meet again, perhaps sometime next week, before the council can revote the issue.
Reynolds, the Ward 7 Democrat who chairs the Redistricting Committee, placed the blame for the delay squarely on the shoulders of the GOP leadership and Parker, going so far as to allege a plot to sabotage the redistricting vote.
In particular, Reynolds believes the possibility of Democrat Ann Marie DiBella running for a council seat this fall is at the root of the Republican's actions. The redistricting plan developed by Democrats would move DiBella from Ward 4 to Ward 5, allowing her to run for the seat now occupied by Democrat James Madden, who isn't seeking re-election.
Reynolds said Alderman Robert Senor, R-Ward 8, appeared "gleeful" when Alderman Scott DiMicco, R-Ward 1, didn't arrive for Thursday's meeting on time. "Then, when (DiMicco) showed up, his (Senor's) disappointment was palpable," Reynolds said.
Parker left just after DiMicco arrived.
Also, Reynolds noted, Senor declined a request to serve as council president in Noble's absence on Thursday. Had Senor accepted, Martino would have remained a voting member of the council and the "yea" votes of the five Democrats in the chamber would have been sufficient to approve the redistricting plan.
DiMicco and Senor denied having anything to do with Parker's decision to leave early, and DiMicco accused Reynolds of crafting a redistricting plan that benefits DiBella.
"I am accusing Alderman Reynolds of gerrymandering the Fifth Ward so that Ann Marie DiBella can run for office and splitting up districts more than necessary so that they can further their own political agendas," DiMicco said.
Said Senor: "I swear ... that nothing was done on my part to sabotage this vote."
Last week, when U.S. District Judge Arthur Splatt showed his impatience with the Suffolk County Legislature's inability to come up with a redistricting plan and gave them 24 hours to meet to rectify the problem, most political insiders believed that the court would end up redrawing district lines.
However, after weeks of discussions and five main redistricting plans, the Suffolk County Legislature, in a vote of 10-7 with one abstention, last week adopted a plan created by Legislator Andrew Crecca (R-Hauppauge). Even with the Legislature adopting a plan, some were saying the adopted plan was unfair and the court would still make the final call.
"This plan, 1304, creates a minority district in the Central Islip and Brentwood areas," explained Crecca, noting that the new district had a 45% Hispanic population and a 25% African American population. "We didn't, however, really look at race as a key factor. We focused on bringing together like communities. The fact I am most proud of with this plan is we were able to keep communities together and we were able to put back together communities that had been split in the past." He added that his plan puts legislators Ginny Fields (D-Oakdale) and William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) in the same district.
"This was the better plan," said Crecca. "The plan offered by the Democrats was simply gerrymandering."
Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-East Setauket), who developed the 1247 plan, said the final plan adopted was "politics at its worst." She went on to say that she didn't think the plan introduced by Crecca, adopted in a "partisan" vote, would appease the concerns broached in a lawsuit brought by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"I expect the judge to rule that this is not a good plan," said Fisher.
But Crecca was quick to respond. "Any plan adopted by this Legislature would end up before a judge," said Crecca. "This plan clearly respects the Voters' Right Act. It is fair, and I am confident that it can survive court action."
As for Fisher's comments, Crecca called them "offensive" and said she promoted the same partisanship and divisiveness she was complaining about. "She of all people knows the good faith and hard work that went into making this plan," he said. "Her comments are completely out of line." He added that the initial plan that put two Republicans in the same district could also be seen as a partisan plan. "It's a case of the pot calling the kettle black."
In conclusion, Crecca stated that he expected the judge to be pleased and render the suit moot. The matter of the Legislature's progress in creating a district plan went before Judge Splatt on Friday at 2:30 p.m. but no decision had been made as of press time.
KINGSTON - A legislative redistricting compromise reached between Ulster County Republicans and Democrats last week sets in place a 12-district plan for this year's election, and for subsequent elections through 2010.
The plan adopted by lawmakers, and approved by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn, keeps 15 of the county's 20 towns intact within districts and divides the towns of Shawangunk, New Paltz, Marbletown, Saugerties and Ulster among two or more districts.
The city of Kingston will be split among three districts: two contained within city boundaries, and one made up of a small part of Kingston and most of the town of Ulster.
As part of the redistricting deal, a referendum on the ballot this November will ask voters whether the Legislature from 33 to 23 members - each representing one of 23 single-member districts - beginning in 2012.
The 12 districts that will take effect with this fall's election, which are based on population figures data the 2000 Census, are as follows:
District 1 (four legislators): All of Rochester and Wawarsing, as well as 489 people from a portion of southern Marbletown, south of Canal and Berme roads. Four current legislators live in this district: Susan Cummings, R-Ellenville, Gerald DePew, R-Kerhonkson, Marlene Dunn, R-Kerhonkson, and Edward Jennings, R-Wawarsing.
District 2 (two legislators): All of Hardenburgh, Denning, Shandaken and Woodstock, as well as 862 people from a portion of West Saugerties, west of Band Camp Road. Two current legislators live in this district: Michael Stock, R-Woodstock, and Legislature Chairman Ward Todd, R-Shandaken. Todd, however, is resigning in the next month or so to become head of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce.
District 3 (three legislators): All of Olive and Hurley, as well as most of Marbletown, except for the portion in District 1. Three current legislators live in the district: Linda Bertone, R-Hurley, Richard Parete, D-Accord, and Robert Parete, D-Boiceville.
District 4 (four legislators): Most of Saugerties (except for the portion in District 2), all of the town of Kingston and 3,034 people from the town of Ulster hamlets of Ruby and Lake Katrine. There are five current legislators in this district: Robert Aiello, R-Saugerties, Gary Bischoff, D-Saugerties, Joan Feldmann, D-Saugerties, Joseph Roberti, R-Saugerties and Alice Tipp, R-Saugerties.
District 5 (two legislators): Most of the town of Ulster (except for that portion in District 4), as well as a small section of the city of Kingston, north of Flatbush Avenue. No current legislators live in this district.
District 6 (two legislators): A large portion of southern and eastern Kingston, including the city's Rondout, Ponckhockie and Boulevard communities. Two current legislators live in this district: Frank Dart, D-Kingston, and Jeanette Provenzano, D-Kingston.
District 7 (three legislators): All of Esopus and Rosendale. Three current legislators live in this district: Joan Every, R-Rosendale, Brian Hathaway, R-Bloomington, and Alan Lomita, R-Rosendale.
District 8 (three legislators): All of Gardiner, most of Shawangunk (except for portions in District 9) and a southwestern portion of New Paltz, containing 1,542 people, bordered by Mountain Rest Road, Butterville Road and Gatehouse Road to the north, South Mannheim Road to the east and the town boundary to the south and west. Three current legislators live in this district:: William Calabrese, R-Pine Bush, Albert Meyer, R-Wallkill, and Glenn Noonan, R-Gardiner.
District 9 (four legislators): All of Plattekill and Marlboro, as well part of southern and eastern Shawangunk, south of Bruyn Turnpike, east of Plains Road and north of Birch Road, including the Wallkill state prison. Four current legislators live in this district:: Frank Felicello, R-Marlboro, Richard Gerentine, R-Marlboro, Wayne Harris, R-Clintondale, and William McAfee, R-Highland.
District 10 (two legislators): Much of New Paltz, except for the portions contained in Districts 9 and 11. Includes both the village of New Paltz and SUNY New Paltz. One current legislator lives in this district:: Barbara Santoro, R-New Paltz.
District 11 (two legislators): All of Highland, as well as part of eastern New Paltz, east of Plutarch Road, Elliotts Lane, North Ohioville Road and Ohioville Road. Three current legislators live in this district:: Elizabeth Alfonso, R-Highland, Charles Busick, R-Highland, and Fawn Tantillo, R-New Paltz.
District 12 (two legislators): A large portion of northern Kingston, including the city's Stockade and Midtown districts, north of Lucas Avenue, Emerson Street, Washington Avenue, Greenkill Avenue, Broadway and Prince Street, and west of East Chester Street. Two current legislators live in this district:: David Donaldson, D-Kingston, and John Naccarato, R-Kingston.
A team of judges sharply grilled city lawyers Thursday over their claim that the City Council had the power to change local term-limits law without a voter referendum.
One hour of arguments before a Brooklyn appellate panel centered on the council's legislative attempt to exempt from term limits the abbreviated two-year council terms forced every 20 years by redistricting.
A state trial judge last month declared the legislation void. Four judges from the state's Second Judicial Department -- all Nassau County Republicans -- are to decide the city's appeal in the next few weeks.
The outcome will determine whether Speaker Gifford Miller and five other members can seek re-election through 2005 or be required to leave office in December.
As decided in ballot questions in 1993 and 1996, city officials are allowed to serve a maximum of two consecutive terms.
For most city offices, that means up to eight years. But every 20 years, the redrawing of districts to conform to the federal Census interrupts the election cycle of the council -- resulting in two successive two-year terms just for the 51-member body.
The council enacted legislation over Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto that counts two two-year terms as a single four-year term.
During arguments before the panel, Justice Sandra J. Feuerstein told Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo "it seems as though you are contorting the will of the public."
"It seems almost like a fraud on the public," she added.
Cardozo insisted that enacting a law through a referendum grants no "special rights" against being amended. Council legislation altered the composition of a police review board years after it was created by referendum, Cardozo noted.
Cardozo is a Bloomberg appointee, who, despite the veto, says the council measure was legal.
Justice Robert Schmidt alluded to the legislation allowing the council's top official and other members to stay in office.
"This could be a good policy," he said of the term-limits change. So, he asked, why not put it to a referendum in time for the next redistricting?
Robert Joffe, a private attorney representing the council, replied that the issue is not the wisdom of the term-limit bill but its legality.
Plaintiffs' lawyer Randy Mastro told the judges: "The City Council, acting in its self-interest, breached a fundamental public trust."
Lawyer Ravi Batra, representing a plaintiff, former council candidate Felipe Luciano, accused the council of "definitional sleight of hand."
Mastro told reporters he couldn't predict victory but said the court "seemed to appreciate in its questions that this local law clearly eviscerated the way of the people twice expressed at the ballot box."
"I think and hope that this court appreciates that fundamental wrong," Mastro said.
A week after residents sued Suffolk County in federal court over what they called a lackadaisical approach to redistricting, the county legislature has filed three reapportionment plans which would radically alter districts of several incumbents.
Legis. Andrew Crecca (R-Hauppauge), Paul Tonna (R-West Hills) and Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-Stony Brook), the body's only Latina, filed plans with the clerk's office maintaining the 18-district system while creating a majority Hispanic and African-American district within the town of Islip.
"There's no way to adopt a plan where all 18 of us are taken care of," said Legis. Fred Towle (R-Shirley) about potential changes in constituencies. "Somebody is going to end up on the short end of the stick."
Crecca's Republican measure would incorporate most of the minority election districts in Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore into the 9th District, now held by Legis. Ginny Fields (D-Oakdale) - a move Democrats said is designed to ensure a primary for Fields by including enough Hispanics to encourage a challenge by a minority candidate.
Crecca's plan also distributes parts of Brentwood between Legis. Cameron Alden (R-Islip) and Legis. Angie Carpenter (R-West Islip).
Viloria-Fisher's Democratic plan would create a separate district without an incumbent and with a population 50 percent Hispanic and nearly 16 percent African-American.
The Democratic lines also place the homes of Alden and Carpenter within the same district. The legislature's seven other Democrats, including Presiding Officer Maxine Postal (D-Amityville), have co-sponsored Viloria- Fisher's measure.
But where the votes will fall remains uncertain. "They have 10 people ... we have eight people," said Postal's chief of staff, Ellie Mystal. "We have plenty of time to sit down at the table."
Although Tonna signed on to Crecca's plan, he nonetheless filed his own map, which makes minor changes to Crecca's. "As long as certain priorities I've established are met, I intend to fully support Andrew's plan," Tonna said.
Adding to the unpredictability is what sources described as a redistricting process littered with broken promises.
Democrats were angry that Legis. Allan Binder (R-Huntington), Deputy Presiding Officer Joseph Caracappa (R-Selden), Towle and Alden agreed in January to support a bipartisan plan and have since reneged.
Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) recalled that at the time of the race to elect Postal to presiding officer he "asked to shake hands with each one of the four, I looked them right in the eyes and said 'Do you swear that we can trust you on this?' For someone's handshake to not mean anything is really disappointing."
However, Towle said that because he and his Republican colleagues had not been invited to participate in creating the maps subsequent to Postal's election, he had decided to support Crecca's plan.
Nassau civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington filed suit March 28 on behalf of minority residents for the county's failure to redraw district lines. The county charter stipulates lawmakers must establish new districts no less than six months after census data is published.
KINGSTON - The fate of Ulster County's legislative districts will, for the time being, remain in the hands of state Supreme Court Judge Vincent Bradley, a federal judge says.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled on Thursday that it's up to the state Supreme Court in Ulster County, over which Bradley presides, to adopt a reapportionment plan for the November election.
The ruling was in response to a suit filed by county GOP Chairman Peter Savago that sought to have the federal court in Albany impose the nine-district reapportionment plan adopted by the Legislature in December.
Democrats responded by asking the federal court to return the case to Bradley.
County Democratic Chairman John Parete said he was "thrilled" that Kahn returned the case to Bradley's court.
"It just amazes me that these fellows (the GOP) want to try to circumvent the local court and the local people to try to gain an advantage," Parete said. "For 35 to 40 years, Frank Murray, John Tobin, Clark Bell and Pete Savago have been taking the county to court to justify their gerrymandering redistricting, and now they want to go someplace else. It appalls me. They're insulting to the public."
Savago declined to comment.
Kahn's ruling gives Bradley until April 21 to designate a reapportionment plan. If he doesn't, the federal court will step in.
Last week, the GOP-controlled Ulster County Legislature approved a resolution asking the court to adopt the Legislature's plan. County Attorney Francis Murray, who had no immediate comment on Kahn's ruling, said Thursday that he sent that resolution to both Kahn's and Bradley's courts.
Kahn's ruling is the latest action in a drawn-out legal fight over legislative redistricting.
In 2001, a seven-district plan adopted by the Legislature was challenged by the Democrats and ruled unconstitutional by Bradley, though he allowed it to remain in place for the 2001 elections because there wasn't enough time to begin the process anew.
Democrats renewed their challenge in early 2002, and Bradley again ruled the plan unconstitutional.
The Legislature - which has 24 Republicans and nine Democrats - then devised a new nine-district plan, which lawmakers approved last December.
Democrats, who favor the creation of 33 districts, each represented by one legislator, then mounted a successful petition drive that will result in the nine-district plan being subject to a voter referendum this November.
CATSKILL - In the continuing effort to block a 14-member Legislature redistricting plan, opponents attempted to reduce the plan by one member Wednesday night by amending the proposed local law that would establish the new voting districts.
Legislator Richard Carl, R-Leeds, offered the amendment, which was eventually defeated in an 8-5 vote.
The motion did not sit well with Legislature Chairman Frank Stabile, R-Palenville, a supporter of the 14-member plan who squared off with Legislator Karen Deyo, R-Catskill, who had seconded the motion. "I can tell you as a representative of the people and the town of Catskill, I will not vote to shortchange my constituents. Catskill now has four legislators and I will not vote to remove a legislator," Stabile said. "It's not in the best interest of the people in the town."
Stabile took on the issue of paying for an additional legislator, estimated at approximately $20,000 annually, by saying the cost would be 60 to 70 cents a year for taxpayers with property assessed at $100,000. He called the amount "peanuts."
Deyo wasted no time in countering Stabile's argument.
"Every department head in Greene County could use that same exact logic when they come here demanding additional money. As far as shortchanging the residents of Catskill, I would never ever shortchange the residents of Catskill," she said as her voice grew louder and more emphatic.
"Here we are the capital seat. We have a resident population of 11,809. Those people should have clout. They should have weight. I looked at all these percentages. I should be up there with 8.69 percent (weighted votes per legislator). Athens has more of the vote than I do. Cairo has more of the vote than I have. Greenville, Jewett, all of the mountaintop has more vote than I have," Deyo said of the 14-member plan.
The 13-member plan would reduce the number of legislators in Catskill from 4 to 3, but with weighted voting the district's 26.8 percent of the overall vote would be split among three district legislators rather than four.
Lawmakers were able to pass a resolution, 9-4, to hold the public hearing required before the redistricting plan can be adopted. The hearing was set for April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Legislature Building. But again animosity bubbled up, this time offered by Legislator Dorothy Prest, R-Catskill.
"As far as Mr. Carl is concerned he tried to be innocent the other evening when he was talking about the weighted vote. He's been on the Legislature since 1989, and I think that attempt to look innocent was self-serving. I think that (Carl and Deyo) have their own agenda, their own reason for this and it has nothing to do with the representation of Catskill. I'm ashamed to be sitting in the same room with them - who would actually consider lowering the constituency of people they represent?" Prest said.
KINGSTON - City political leaders hoped at one time that a plan to reshape ward boundaries in Kingston would be mapped out this year with bipartisan approval.
But if the early back-and-forth is any indication, the Common Council's plans to redraw the boundaries of city's nine districts is likely to be as unsuccessful as it was during the last attempt, in 2001.
Council Majority Leader Bill Reynolds, D-Ward 7, already described a Republican plan as probably being ridiculous - even though he hasn't see it yet. City GOP Chairman Richard Cahill Jr. countered that the only reason Reynolds "is against this is because it is a Republican plan."
Just recently, though, Cahill said during a council meeting that city leaders should seek a bipartisan solution to redistricting, and Reynolds agreed at the time that politics should be put aside in the name of doing what's best for voters.
But now Reynolds accuses Cahill of "shopping" a plan that favors Republicans and says the GOP is "more concerned about party politics then they are (about) doing what is right by the people."
"The point behind a redistricting plan is not to protect aldermen's jobs or give comfy, cozy districts to would-be candidates," Reynolds said.
Reynolds accuses the Republicans of devising a plan in secret and says a Democratic plan will be mapped out during a public session at 7:30 p.m. March 27 in City Hall. Cahill said Reynolds needs to grow up. "Alderman Reynolds is just playing politics and behaving like a child, and he ought to live up to his responsibilities," the GOP leader said.
Cahill said anyone interested in examining the Republican plan can contact him or Alderman Rick Jankowski, R-Ward 3.
A proposed resdistricting plan was rejected by city voters in 2001, resulting in the Common Council forming a Redistricting Committee, with Reynolds as chairman. The idea now is to have new districts established by June of this year, in time for the nominating conventions at which Common Council candidates are chosen.
All nine seats on the council are up for election this fall. Democrats currently hold a 5-4 majority.
Several wards would be affected under the Republican plan, with 709 people being shifted from one ward to another. The plan includes shifting part of Ten Broeck Avenue from the Second Ward to the Sixth; moving two blocks of Tremper Avenue from the Second Ward to Fourth; moving lower Abeel Street from the Fifth Ward to the Ninth; and shifting parts of the Boulevard, Abeel Street and Washington and Pettit avenues from the Third Ward to the Fifth.
The redistricting - a mandatory outgrowth of the once-per-decade Census - will not change the number of wards in the city. That number last changed in the mid-1990s, when 13 districts were consolidated into the current nine.
Reynolds said the fact that the GOP plan affects so few people suggests that little work when into it.
"I am sure that it doesn't make sense," Reynolds said. "All they (Republicans) want to do is to maintain the status quo. ... There are egregious disparities between the wards right now and that needs to be corrected."
Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney, in his last annual State of the County address, yesterday endorsed a plan to create a 19th legislative district, proposed a taxing district dedicated to parks and argued for an "action plan" to attack a crushing budget deficit.
Gaffney, a Republican who announced in January he would not seek another term, told lawmakers, county workers and public officials inside a Hauppauge auditorium that "Suffolk County has a bright, bright future." However, he said, "We have to work our way through choppy waters ahead."
Gaffney said the county's current position is not unlike the situation he found during a recession in 1992, when he took office.
At the time, Gaffney recalled, Suffolk was projecting a $200-million budget deficit over two years and property taxes were at an all-time high.
In his 45-minute presentation, Gaffney highlighted the decline in tax bills during his tenure: in 1993, he said, Suffolk collected $162 million in general fund property taxes, while this year it collected only $53 million. But he said that "in retrospect, we may have cut taxes too much for our own good."
In a generally muted response in which he praised Gaffney for his "decency," legislative Minority Leader David Bishop (D-West Babylon) agreed "the crisis is real."
"But we'd also like people to know that Suffolk County is in relatively good shape to weather this storm," Bishop said, noting the county has a relatively low level of debt compared with other municipalities. "We still have cards to play."
Gaffney called for the legislature's cooperation in creating a "budget deficit action plan" to curb escalating Medicaid and pension costs.
Suffolk is facing a shortfall of $140 million to $234 million next year, according to Budget Director Robert Bortzfield. Medicaid, Gaffney said, "is a great program," but is "a financial deadweight around the neck of county governments throughout New York."
Counties pay between 15 percent and 25 percent of Medicaid costs, while the state and federal governments pick up the rest. Officials throughout the region are complaining increasingly about the burden of such "unfunded mandates."
Gaffney also discussed various law enforcement, housing and land preservation initiatives designed to help save money in the long term.
He argued for the expansion of Suffolk's correctional facilities to relieve overcrowding. County Sheriff Alfred Tisch has repeatedly asked for the construction of space for 850 new prisoner beds. Without the additional space, the county will have to pay millions of dollars to transport prisoners to jails and prisons outside Suffolk.
Gaffney also proposed creating a separate taxation district for parks, which would remove the parks budget from the county's general fund.
Under Gaffney's proposal, which would need state approval, all revenues from license fees and other parks activities would go directly back into parks operations.
The county executive also endorsed a proposal by Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-Setauket) to add a 19th legislative district. Currently there are 18 districts held by 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
As Hispanic populations in Central Islip, Brentwood and Bay Shore have increased, lawmakers have struggled to draw district lines to create a majority Latino legislative seat.
The right approach to redistricting, Gaffney said, "is one that recognizes the growing importance of our Latino population and gives it a greater voice."
The county Legislature voted Thursday night, Feb. 27, to approve new district boundaries that "move" more than 280,000 Nassau residents into new legislative districts.
The Incorporated Village of Valley Stream, now wholly contained in District 6 and represented by Legislator Francis X. Becker (R-Lynbrook), is divided under the new redistricting plan, with much of the western part of the village moved into District 3, represented by John Ciotti (R-North Valley Stream).
The rest of District 3 includes only unincorporated areas, such as Elmont and North Valley Stream. District 6 includes only incorporated villages, such as Valley Stream, Lynbrook and Malverne.
Three or four of Valley Stream's 27 election districts will be in District 3 as of Jan. 1, 2004. The entire 19-member Legislature is up for election in November.
Redistricting is required by law after every federal census, and is designed to equalize the population in each Nassau county legislative district at about 70,000 people. Redistricting is also done to assure that minorities are given a fair chance to elect candidates of their choosing, and are not forced by district lines into districts with such large white majorities that their votes are diluted, effectively barring them from fair electoral participation.
As well as equalizing districts' populations, redistricting changes the boundary lines of districts whose minority populations have fallen below a number that would enable them to elect a candidate of their choice.
The redistricting plan considered on Thursday night was developed by the five Democrat-appointed members of the Temporary Redistricting Commission and approved by the 10 Democrats in the Legislature. The plan reconfigures all 19 current districts, even though, opponents said, only two of them, District 2 and District 14, had population shifts that legally required changes in their district lines.
Republicans charged that the other districts were changed to make it easier for Democrats to win re-election in their current districts and improve their chances of defeating incumbent Republicans in legislative elections in November.
Valley Stream Village Justice Robert Bogle attended the hearing on his own behalf and represented Valley Stream Mayor Ed Cahill in protesting the Legislature's division of the Village of Valley Stream. Bogle testified that courts have recognized the importance of keeping municipalities and communities together for purposes of representation, citing late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's decision that "boundary lines of local communities should be respected and be given high consideration."
"Valley Stream has a long history as a distinctly incorporated area dating back to 1925," Bogle testified. "Historically, in any represented district, our village has always been included under one representative. At present, the Incorporated Village of Valley Stream is represented by one member of the Legislature, Mr. Becker; by one town councilman, Jim Darcy; by one assemblyman, Robert Barra; by one state senator, Dean Skelos, and by one member of Congress, Carolyn McCarthy."
The judge said the plan "would isolate and set apart a small portion of our village and create unnecessary confusion."
John Tufarelli, owner of the Wheeler Deli on Wheeler Avenue and president of the Valley Stream Taxpayers Association, also attended the hearing to express opposition to the plan. "Although I believe that Mr. Ciotti is a competent and respected legislator, I believe separating Valley Stream will have an adverse effect on the community," Tufarelli said. "Carving sections of Valley Stream away from the rest of the community will only send a message to those leaving the district that they are not included in the village 100 percent. This cannot be allowed to happen. We want the residents of the west end of the village to have the same identity and be on the same page as the rest of the community.
"The new residents that have moved into the west end are in many respects new to our country, never mind the village," Tufarelli said. "We want to welcome them and include them in our community. We want them to identify with our village and consider themselves proud to be part of our village. By separating them out of District 6 you are categorizing them as different. This defeats community identity, pride and cohesiveness. That's not what we want. Don't let Valley Stream be broken apart."
Democrats defended their actions, saying their redistricting plan was completely legal and that the Republican members of the Temporary Redistricting Commission had refused to participate.
Republican legislative sources said that Republicans may file a lawsuit against the action, explaining that while only 7,500 people needed to be redistricted to achieve compliance with the law, the Democrats redistricted more than 287,000 people in all 19 districts for political gain, using the law as cover.
At the hearing before the vote, supporters applauded the plan for assuring fair and constitutional representation for minorities, and others protested the plan for its effect on their communities.
Representatives from the incorporated and unincorporated villages spoke against the redistricting because the Democrats' map splits several villages, in addition to Valley Stream, into multiple legislative districts.
Within minutes of the close of the hearing, Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs called for a vote, and the matter passed.
Though the possible departure of Glen Cove lawmaker Brian Muellers makes Nassau Democrats nervous about losing their paper-thin majority in the county legislature, party officials are taking some solace from new district lines.
The new map, approved last week 10-9 along party lines, boosted the number of Democratic voters in Muellers' 18th District to give the party a real chance at keeping that seat even with a new candidate.
The redrawing of Muellers' district illustrates the Democrats' redistricting strategy: In a county where Republicans still outnumber Democrats by a significant margin, Democrats are seeking to shore up the districts they hold and increase the number of Democrats in others to make them more competitive.
"They stayed up late at night to draw the lines to take us apart by gerrymandering the lines," Nassau Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello said of the Democrats. "I'm not crying foul, but they are doing everything they used to complain about, once they got into power."
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs disagreed, saying Democrats went "out of our way not to do to Republicans what they did to us. They packed all Democrats into a few districts. It's competitive now."
The new district lines have Republicans outnumbering Democrats in 12 districts, with Democrats in the majority in seven.
But the new maps increase the number of districts that could be considered competitive to as many as seven, while under the current scheme there are only four. For instance, Democrats now outnumber Republicans by nearly 1,500 voters in the 3rd District, represented by Republican John Ciotti of North Valley Stream. Under the current scheme, Republicans have an edge over Democrats by about that margin. The flip-flop occurred because the number of Republicans declined by almost 2,500 while Democrats rose by nearly 1,500, according to Democratic officials.
A group of Republicans from Franklin Square were moved into the adjacent 8th District, represented by Legis. Vincent Muscarella (R-West Hempstead).
Meanwhile, about 900 Democratic voters were taken from the 6th District of Legis. Francis Becker (R-Lynbrook) and moved to Ciotti's district.
Those voters, Democrats said, are mostly African-American, Hispanic and Caribbean and tend to vote Democratic. In five years Ciotti's seat could become the third minority district in the county legislature, said William Biamonte, the Democratic majority chief of staff who helped design the new maps.
The 14th District, represented by Legis. Salvatore Pontillo (R-Farmingdale), currently has a two-to-one Republican majority: 21,580 GOP voters to 10,665 Democrats. The new district, however, will have 19,631 Republicans and 13,206 Democrats, according to Democratic officials. The Democrats engineered the change by moving in Democrats from Republican Minority Leader Peter Schmitt's 12th District.
Pontillo beat Democrat David Mejias by about 300 votes two years ago, Democratic officials said.
Muellers, who said he soon plans to announce a decision about whether he'll run again, represents a district where enrolled Republicans outnumber registered Democrats. So do legislators David Denenberg (D-Merrick) and Joseph Scannell (D-Baldwin).
Under the new map, all three lawmakers will gain Democrats and lose Republicans. Scannell, for instance, will get 1,400 more Democrats and lose 2,200 Republicans.
While the new lines could affect whether the Democrats maintain or extend their slim majority, or whether the GOP regains control after losing it in 1999, officials in both political parties agree that control of the legislature may come down to how voters view the job performance of Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi.
"This entire campaign is a referendum on Suozzi and Democrat leadership," Jacobs said. "Suozzi has done the job. I don't think the voters want to go back to the voice of prior failures," an allusion to the fiscal crisis that developed under Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta.
Mondello said the new map "hurts my party and to win we'll need a lot of hard work and money.
"We'll take our case to the public," Mondello said. "Even though the local media doesn't see it, Suozzi has messed things up with nothing but tax increases."