Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 03 June 2011 00:00
Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt decided to mix things up at the special meeting of the Nassau County Legislature on Tuesday, May 24: Instead of adhering to the schedule, he decided to address the redistricting vote—the last item on the legislative calendar for that meeting- first. Angry Democratic legislators pointed out that the residents who had come to speak on the topic of authorizing financing for new projects in the Nassau Hub- the first item on the calendar- would have to wait several hours, and asked that the Hub item be called first, but Schmitt would not budge. As a result, it was nearly four hours before the Hub issue was called, after the legislature passed the redistricting plan 10-8.
Minority Leader Diane Yatauro stated that the amendments to the redistricting plan called for a new public hearing, which Schmitt denied, stating that it was not practice to hold a hearing after amendments. However, Yatauro and her Democratic colleagues contended that the amendments were substantial and in fact amounted to a new law; the amendments primarily involve villages and parts of villages being traded between the different proposed legislative districts, with the 2nd, 13th and proposed new district 19 seeing the bulk of the changes. Schmitt responded that these changes were minor, implemented as a result of public comments at the previous hearing.
The main difference of opinion between the two parties hinges on interpretation of the county charter; while the Republicans argue that the wording of Section 112 provides a legal imperative for redistricting immediately, Democrats believe that Sections 113 and 114, which call for a bipartisan redistricting commission, are the intended implementation of the process first mentioned in Section 112. While Schmitt and his colleagues are not refuting that the bi-partisan commission called for in the latter two sections must be invoked, they believe it should be done after an initial redistricting this year; Democrats contend that this means the redistricting will effectively be done (and the taxpayers will have to fund it) twice.
The amount of taxpayer money involved—both up to this point, and going forward—was also a subject of contention on Tuesday, with Democrats contending that the money spent thus far amounted to over $600,000, while Republicans said it is less.
Initially, a court hearing on Thursday, May 26 was to determine whether or not the plan is illegal, as the Democrats have alleged. New York State Supreme Court Justice Steven M. Jaeger issued a temporary restraining order against the county legislature on May 12, barring them from implementing the plan until the May 26 hearing determined its legality. However, soon after an appellate judge overturned that decision, allowing the legislature to vote on the issue May 24. However, at the May 26 hearing, the Republicans asked the judge to recuse himself. Now, the case is delayed until Tuesday, May 31, so the Democrats can respond to this latest development in the legal battle.
Legislator Judy Jacobs (LD-16) stated her view of how this redistricting effort differed from that of eight years ago when she was the legislature’s presiding officer, and said that when evaluating these plans the courts looked for standards of community interest, respect for political subdivisions, and respect for minority voters’ rights, among other factors.
“How can you be in any way confident, after having come up with a map that tramples on each of the factors I just mentioned, that this map will not simply evaporate when it’s subjected to the light of judicial scrutiny?” said Jacobs.
Deputy County Attorney Joseph Nocella, who filled in for County Attorney John Ciampoli while the latter was in the hospital, responded to Jacobs, saying that the court would look at the census data and determine that the county being in violation of the “one person, one vote” rule necessitated the immediate redistricting.
Nocella fielded questions from the Democratic legislators for hours, however he contended that many of their questions were either already answered by Ciampoli at previous meetings, or that they were irrelevant. Nocella stated that he was there to speak to the constitutionality of the amended plan, not how the maps were drawn or who drew them.
When Nocella repeatedly stated that questions about the consultants who drew the maps and what those individuals were paid were irrelevant, Democratic legislators became visibly annoyed. Dave Denenberg (LD-19) asked half-jokingly if Ciampoli had taken all the relevant files to the hospital with him, since Nocella did not seem to have any access to them, while Yatauro requested that they bring in someone who had the “friggin’ answers.” Furthermore, despite repeated requests by the Democrats for their presence, the individuals who did take part in preparing the maps were not available for questioning.
Once again, the speakers who took to the microphone during the public comment period were highly critical of the plan, criticizing both the plan itself and the Republican legislators’ conduct; several characterized Schmitt as disrespectful to members of the opposing party as well as the public speakers, while others called attention to the fact that none of the Republican legislators were asking questions about the map that they too would have to live with going forward.
When the vote was called, Republican Denise Ford surprised attendees at the Tuesday meeting by voting against the redistricting, citing concerns with the process; her decision was cheered by the audience in the legislative chamber. With Democrat Robert Troiano absent, the final vote was 10-8.
As of this writing, (May 27) the decision of the court at the May 31 hearing, which will determine whether or not the plan will be put into effect, is pending; coverage of that event will follow in next week’s edition.