Friday, 29 April 2011 11:26
Last week, Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt suddenly announced that the Nassau County Legislature would immediately begin redrawing the boundaries of county legislative districts, two years ahead of the schedule prescribed by the county charter and by precedent. If we’re lucky, we will have two weeks between the presentation of the proposed district boundaries and the meeting at which the county legislature will vote to approve the plan. Just like that.
This isn’t being imposed by some outside board. It isn’t a reaction to a revenue shortfall. This bad choice is entirely self-inflicted by us, if we let this stand.
And it’s such a bad choice, such a heavy-handed, cynical maneuver. When I first heard about this, I thought it might be part of some kind of emergency planning exercise, maybe testing if vital services could function if key political leaders lost their grip.
Presumably, Nassau Republicans have lost confidence in their ability to maintain their 11-8 majority without making adjustments to the district boundaries in time for this fall’s elections. By the time the lawsuits are over, there will likely be no time for anyone except the handpicked candidates of the political parties to prepare campaigns.
Democrats in the legislature are crying foul, but they kept the bar low with the redistricting they engineered in 2003.“We have one map, and we have 10 votes to pass it,” the Legislature’s Democratic Presiding Officer was quoted at the time.
Mr. Schmitt has pointed out that Westchester and Erie counties are redistricting in time for this November’s elections. That’s true. However, those counties always redraw district lines in years that end in “1,” and nothing is coming as a surprise. In Erie County, there has been an ongoing public discussion about the size and composition of their legislature for over a year. In Westchester, which engaged a demographer from a local college to draw the lines, obvious care is being taken to keep communities intact and to make adjustments based on preliminary public comments before the district maps are presented officially to the legislature. There is no indication that anything like this will happen in Nassau County. We don’t do it that way here.
This doesn’t have to be merely a discussion about a line on a map here or there. We’ve never had a serious review or public discussion about whether or not the changes made in 1995 actually worked or are the best way to represent the competing interests of over 1.3 million county residents.
Nassau County’s diverse, highly-educated residents could offer a hundred good ideas on how to improve the responsiveness and effectiveness of our government. In 1993 and 1994, when the current version of the county legislature was being designed, hundreds of residents spoke at public hearings about what kind of representation should replace the old Board of Supervisors. What we ended up with looks nothing like what speaker after speaker said they wanted.
The districts and benefits are large enough to be attractive to professional politicians, but are inaccessible to neighborhood-generated candidates. In over 150 individual races since 1995, you can count the number of times any district has switched from one party to the other on your toes. Most districts have never had a single competitive campaign. The hyper-partisanship that marks every level of Nassau County government is magnified and intensified in the county Legislature, where there is almost no cooperation or even casual social interaction between members of the different party caucuses. We have legislation and oversight by press release, often with nasty tones. Scoring points trumps crafting policy.
Most telling of all, in the time since the creation of this version of the county legislature, voter turnout and participation in this county has collapsed to disturbing low levels. We should all be embarrassed and motivated to find a better way to run our civic affairs. Unfortunately, we have some local leaders who appear to be immune from embarrassment.
More and more the feeling grows that government in Nassau County is just bouncing from one wall to the other, the bad decisions with long-term implications coming faster and faster. We just have no time for this. No time.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org