Government

Legislature’s redistricting hearing gets heated

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 In a public hearing that turned raucous at times on Monday, the Nassau County Legislature heard testimony from a long line of speakers who charged that a Republican plan to redraw the lines of the county’s 19 legislative districts would, if passed, dilute the minority vote while shifting roughly half of the county’s population –– 576,000 people in all –– into new districts.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s majority leader, Peter Schmitt, a Republican from Massapequa, defended the plan, saying that the county must redraw lines after the U.S. census if a district’s population is 10 percent greater than the allowable maximum of 70,000, which, in many cases, it is, while in others population has decreased. Thus, Schmitt said repeatedly, immediate redistricting is required.

Monday’s hearing was the only public forum on the proposed redistricting plan. The Legislature plans to vote on the plan next Monday, which led many to say that the Republican majority was acting hastily to push through its proposal while “slicing and dicing” a number of legislative districts that have stood for years.

If approved, the GOP’s redistricting plan would take effect in time for the Legislature’s next election in November.

Residents ‘appalled’

Valerie Feinman of Great Neck said, “I am appalled by what is being done today. This redistricting is proposed with undue haste.” Feinman added that she believes the plan represents a “blatant and unlawful” power grab by the Republican majority, as it would carve up and reconfigure Democratic districts to ensure GOP rule.

Naomi Feldheim, also of Great Neck, said the Republican plan is “antithetical to the concept of community.”

The Legislature’s Democratic minority –– along with a host of residents who spoke on Monday –– said the Legislature should hand redistricting over to a bipartisan commission that would hold a series of public hearings to collect comments on the plan before it is adopted, as required by Section 113 of the county charter.

Schmitt said that Section 113 would be honored. County Attorney John Ciampoli said such a commission would be put in place in March of 2012 and would deliberate through 2013, when the Legislature is expected to adopt a final redistricting map.

  In the meantime, however, Schmitt said that Section 112 of the county charter requires that a temporary plan to address population deviations be adopted. Democrat Judy Jacobs, a former majority leader who represents the 16th Legislative District, has said that Section 112 requires only that the Legislature “describe” current district lines before installing a redistricting commission.

Minority district dilution?

Aubrey Phillips of Elmont, who runs the website Elmont.org, said the Republican plan would split the 3rd District, whose population has become increasingly diverse since the last census in 2000, particularly in the Elmont area. Phillips noted that the 3rd District, now represented by Republican John Ciotti, was 54 percent white and 29 percent African-American in 2000, according to the census. Now it’s 38 percent white and 39 percent African-American.

Under the Republican plan, however, Phillips noted, the district would become 68 percent white and 14 percent African-American. He asked Schmitt and Ciampoli why the 3rd District would be broken apart and minority voters would be shifted to other districts under redistricting.

Neither Schmitt nor Ciampoli would comment. Ciampoli referred Phillips to the 19th District, which would no longer be located in central Nassau, but would be shifted to the county’s southwestern border with Queens under the Republican plan. Ciampoli had earlier said that the new 19th District had the potential to become a third “minority district.” Nassau currently has two.

Under the Republican plan, the current 19th District, which takes in Merrick and Bellmore and is represented by Democrat David Denenberg, would merge with the 5th District, which is now represented by Democrat Joseph Scannell of Baldwin.

Phillips said that the new 19th District would not be a lock-solid minority district. Only a little more than half of the population would comprise minorities, he said.

Carol Gordon, an African-American community activist who has run for the State Senate in the 8th District, said, “We will fight to have our three [minority] seats in the Legislature.” Gordon said she believes the Republican plan violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices designed to disenfranchise African-Americans.

Discussion also centered on the 2nd District, a minority district that includes the Village of Hempstead. The village is currently represented by two legislators, Democrat Kevan Abrahams of the 1st District and Democrat Robert Troiano of the 2nd District.

Under the Republican plan, the Village of Hempstead would be represented by three legislators instead of two, which led many to say that the community’s largely minority vote would be divided even more than it is. Schmitt, however, said that the 2nd District must be redrawn because its population is now 14 percent larger than the allowable limit.

Linda John of Hempstead said that the Republican majority might claim that it is not diluting the minority vote, but she added, “That’s exactly what you’re going to be doing –– diluting the minority vote.”

Representing the Nassau County League of Women Voters, Paula Blum said, “It is not uncommon for people in power to remain in power by using gerrymandered redistricting, by packing and splitting concentrations of voters. In recent years, advances in information and mapping technology have enabled a level of precision in district drawing that enables legislators to choose the voters they wish to represent, making it difficult for voters to hold their elected officials accountable.”

According to knowledgeable sources, the Legislature’s Democratic minority planned to file suit to halt the Republican redistricting plan.

Comments about this story? SBrinton@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203.