Friday, 15 June 2012 00:00
In North Hemsptead, momentary political expediencies from 10 years ago are about to be hardened in place, saddled on top of citizens and taxpayers who didn’t do anything to deserve them. They desire, and pay top dollar, for better. It’s a good example for everyone of how important it is to do things right in the first place, because in any bureaucracy or a static political environment even the most obvious bad choices can become fossilized in place, with implications for decades.
Everyone lives in a place. The U.S. Census Bureau recognizes 1,189 cities, incorporated villages and unincorporated places in the State of New York. Out of those 1,189 recognized places, the three with the highest percentage of Asian residents and seven of the 10 with the highest percentage of Asian residents are within North Hempstead. Parts of New York City have many more Asian residents, but overall Asians make up only 12.7 percent of the city’s population. Of the 34 places in New York where at least 15 percent of residents are Asian, 20 of them are in Nassau County and 14 are primarily in North Hempstead. In southwestern North Hempstead, moving east and south from the Lake Success area, nearly a third of over 57,000 residents in contiguous villages and unincorporated neighborhoods are Asian. The voter rolls are changing.
And those communities with large and growing Asian populations are concentrated in exactly the parts of North Hempstead that were cut up in the last town-districting. This includes the largest swath of unincorporated communities in the town, slivered so that they form a series of less influential tails on large dogs.
What most people would consider “Great Neck Proper” was slightly more populous than the ideal district population, but was within accepted standards established by courts, the Department of Justice and precedent for local governments throughout New York. This Democratic base should have been one district, but was split down the middle and the districts extended across the town, in one case as narrow as a single residential block, to the reach the homes of incumbents outside of Great Neck. The families of my local elementary school were cut up into three different districts. Electing the town board by individual district instead of by one town-wide district was supposed to increase accountability and competitiveness, especially in the town’s largest unincorporated areas. It didn’t.
The primary priority in the creation of the current councilmanic map was the ability of incumbent members of the town board to run in districts of their own choosing, without having to run against another incumbent. Half the council members have since been replaced, but by residents of the same abominable districts, and the clear and stated goal of this round is to cement things in place for another decade.
The town supervisor has inappropriately and inaccurately telegraphed in published reports that he “doesn't anticipate any major changes in the district lines.” The redistricting committee directed their expensive Washington consulting firm to make as make as little change as possible.
So with large portions of the town turning over with new constituents, there is no need to consider changes? That’s a pretty cavalier attitude toward thousands of enrolling voters here along the upper edge of the old Hempstead Plains.
I don’t point blame at the committee members, some of whom are likely innocent bystanders. This always seems to happen. Ten years ago, the town’s committee split into three distinct factions (Republicans, public employees and “civilians” who felt that their choices and access to information had been limited). In the end, the district boundaries were drawn behind closed doors, after a Top Secret showdown meeting at the home of an elected official failed to produce agreement. The town board once again reserves the right to make any changes they want, and they will.
We have a sad history of these redistricting committees in Nassau County. The commission that in theory drew up the 2003 boundaries for the Nassau County legislature technically deadlocked along partisan lines, but Democratic legislators, then in the majority, brought their side’s plans to the floor. In one of the most bizarre public meetings I have ever witnessed, both the staff and the chairman of the commission could not answer basic questions about why choices were made. Noted local attorney Fred Brewington, for reasons of his own, stood up from the audience, moved forward and began answering questions about redistricting theory. Had he not done that, the meeting would have degenerated into chaos.
I have the urge to write about the current Nassau County redistricting situation, but not the space right now.
The members of the town board each appointed at least one member of the redistricting committee. Why wasn’t the League of Women Voters allowed representation, or the Village Officials Association, or the School Boards Association or the Long Island Water Conference for that matter? The town board members do not own these districts. By taking every option and every important decision about the makeup of the board off the table, with the entire process revolving around themselves, the town board has essentially hijacked the system. These aren’t their districts, it isn’t their town board. They are merely trustees, and the biggest disappointment of all is that another decade may go by before another review of long-unresolved critical problems is made.
The town board as we know it only dates to the beginning of 1933, created in a compromise that sorely disappointed Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted bigger and more sweeping changes. More than 90 percent of New York’s towns are the size of Nassau County’s smaller villages, yet our towns, so much larger and more diverse, share the same antiquated form and structure of government. Nassau County’s towns have no true executive branch, no true legislative branch. Accountability, responsiveness, effectiveness and innovation are thwarted. Endless turf wars encourage compromises made out of the public eye.
Should the supervisor be on the town board, or removed as were town clerks eight decades ago? What is the ideal size of a district, regardless of the personal interests or ambition of incumbent politicians? Should those living in incorporated villages have the same representation as those in unincorporated neighborhoods, which rely so much more on decisions made by the town government? Shouldn’t all the board members be elected at the same time, with two or four-year terms? Should appointed commissioners continue to have fixed terms or answer directly to an empowered town executive?
This was the chance to ask these and fifty other questions that need answers, now. The people of our towns have been fully empowered to recreate their governments. When towns were granted Home Rule powers in 1964 it was fully expected that many would. They didn’t, for a variety of reasons that are no longer valid.
With revenues from, among other things, their monopoly on solid waste management, golf fees, and the ability to offload expensive items onto off-budget authorities and special districts, towns have seemed like money machines in these times of difficulty for almost every other local government unit. Water is rising. The recent reduction by one agency of Oyster Bay’s bond rating is a wake up call. It is the 21st century, and it will never be the 19th century again. We need to figure out how to make decisions for hundreds of thousands of people that make sense, are democratic and are responsive to new realities.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org