Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 13 May 2011 00:00
The members of the Nassau County Legislature can all agree on what Section 113 and Section 114 of the county charter mean; however, as residents at the first hearing on the 2011 county redistricting proposal (put forth by Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt and the Republicans who currently control the legislature) learned very quickly, Section 112 is a very different beast. Much of the discussion at the Monday, May 2 hearing involved questions of interpretation of the county charter- or, if it was a question of interpretation at all.
Sections 113 and 114 require a redistricting commission to be established one year and eight months prior to the 2013 election, with the final plan to be adopted in 2013. Section112, which deals with the subject of redistricting according to census data, is the justification for the Republicans’ controversial plan to redraw the district lines this year, subject to revision in 2013. While Democrats have criticized the plan as a transparent power-grab by Schmitt and his party, County Attorney John Ciampoli stated that the presence of Section 112 makes the redistricting immediately necessary for legal reasons.
At the beginning of the hearing, Ciampoli stated that Section 112 requires the legislature to act within six months with regard to district lines, and to prepare a plan of appointment that reflects the most recent census. According to Ciampoli, Nassau County districts were revealed by the census to be over the maximum allowed population deviation of 10 percent (according to state law) between a district and the “ideal” district; he cited that there was a deviation of 14.5 percent in District 2 specifically. “That forces our hands,” said Ciampoli.
Since some minority districts are now over-populated and under-represented, Ciampoli went on, leaving the current district lines in place is “unacceptable” to him in his capacity as the chief legal officer of Nassau County; not only is the county vulnerable to a civil rights action if the status quo is maintained, but just according to basic math, the deviations are too great; he later named the overall deviation as 22.7 percent.
“The plan, I believe, meets all state statutory requirements, meets all constitutional requirements, and is in fact a progressive step forward for this county,” Ciampoli said.
Schmitt clarified that the bipartisan redistricting committee called for by the charter- the establishment of which Republicans and Democrats both support- is not changed by redrawing in the district lines in 2011 first, in accordance with Section 112. “No one is suggesting that Section 113 and 114 of the charter will not be adhered to,” said Schmitt.
Debate on the Nassau County Charter: Is It Superior?
While Ciampoli mentioned other counties in the state that are currently undergoing redistricting, such as Westchester, Putnam, and Albany counties, he stated that Nassau’s charter is “superior” to those of other counties because the charter sets up a three-step process for redistricting in the form of Sections 112, 113 and 114. He noted that the forthcoming redistricting commission will take a “longer, harder look” at both the numbers and district lines, and then the legislature will pass a final plan in 2013.
However, Legislator Judy Jacobs (LD 16) disagreed, stating that the charter was rife with contradictions. “113 and 114 were adopted by the board of supervisors. When it was adopted by the board of supervisors, we all know the error that was made was they never deleted 112, creating a situation- which is not unusual in our charter- where one section says one thing, and two sections say another,” said Jacobs. “There’s a lot of contradictory information in the charter, which has never really been gone over and really cleaned up, so it makes it easier legally.”
Jacobs also pointed out that this approach to redistricting would be costly. “It doesn’t look like anything but a rush job, which will have to be repeated for 2013, costing beleaguered taxpayers millions of dollars,” she said. She went on to characterize the plan as “a total disgrace.”
“We are being asked today to violate the county charter,” said Minority Leader Diane Yatauro. “United States Supreme Court decisions require us to redistrict once a decade- not once every two years, when we have a political party which finds it to be to its advantage.”
In response, Ciampoli characterized Yatauro’s interpretation of Section 112 as imposing a duty on the legislature “to do nothing,” which he said did not make sense.
Both Schmitt and Ciampoli reiterated the core argument about the imperative put forth by Section 112 many times throughout the day, and well into the evening. When asked to slow down the process, or allow for bi-partisan and/or community input in the redistricting (by both legislators and community members), they reiterated that the inequities presented by the Census data put them in the position of having to take action immediately, otherwise some voters would be disenfranchised during the 2011 election.
Schmitt also frequently reiterated that many of the concerns the Democratic members of the legislature were voicing now were put forth by himself and his Republican colleagues during the last redistricting process, and the Democrats in power had not heeded those concerns at that time.
A Contentious Meeting
However, for all of Schmitt’s insistence that the legal imperative for the legislature to act was unquestionable, he appeared to actively discourage the Democratic members of the legislature from asking questions, getting visibly annoyed when he was told that they all had questions:
“You want to do it this way, we can do it this way. Everybody jump in, ask questions, back and forth, and then this side will just jump in- we’ll be here for three and half hours while the public is waiting,” said Schmitt.
In response, Jacobs said, “Considering that this is going to be something, when it’s finally voted upon, that’s going to affect us for 10 years, I would say if we have to sit here for 17 hours, it’s certainly worthwhile.” Schmitt then said he agreed with her, which Jacobs did not accept, saying he obviously didn’t agree.
Kevan Abrahams (LD 1) had asked Schmitt earlier to give the public a chance to speak early in the meeting (before the various legislative committees met), which Schmitt had refused. Abrahams responded that he felt the presiding officer was trying to disenfranchise the members of the public who had come to speak to the legislature, a comment Schmitt said he would not let stand on the record.
Residents who spoke at the hearing largely disagreed with Schmitt’s contention that the redistricting plan would provide proper representation for under-represented minorities.
Dennis Jones, second vice president of the New Hempstead Democratic Club, saw the proposed splitting of Hempstead into three separate legislative districts as harmful to the residents of that community. “Now, this Republican-controlled county legislature is trying to turn back the hands of time- that would diminish the voting power and influence of the minorities in Nassau,” said Jones. “This is a classic attempt to divide-and-conquer.”
Charlene Thompson of Baldwin, who noted that she is a registered Republican and was previously active within the party, heavily implied that the redistricting plan was at heart a power-grab. “The number one thing that I’ve learned over these years is that those in power, will do whatever they can to stay in power- most often at the expense of historically disenfranchised people. That warrants repeating.” She then repeated her statement.
Carrie Solages, Esq. of Solages and Solages, P.C. (also a candidate running for the LD 3 seat in November), offered an alternative legal opinion, stating that the issue of giving appropriate balance to minorities, as mandated by Section 112, cannot actually be resolved by some quick number-crunching.
“It takes far more expertise. If you’re exploring the issue of adverse impact on minorities, a more comprehensive study is needed. In the case at hand, a simple review of the numbers has been provided and nothing further. What are the options or alternatives to this plan?” said Solages.
He went on to explain that in his view, the Republicans’ interpretation of Section 112 could leave them in violation of Sections 113 and 114. “The case at hand lacks the kind of refined and quality decision-making process that Section 113 and 114 of the county charter warrant…the attorney simply went into a basement -an attorney making legislative decisions- with some software, and comes back up with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.”
On a more fundamental note, Douglas Mayers of Freeport stated that he found it difficult to believe that Schmitt and his party had the best interests of minority communities at heart.
Several other residents went up to the microphone to say they believed the new districts would harm their areas, creating divisions where there had once been a sense of community.
More Information Pending
While Yatauro also asked several questions, Abrahams engaged in a long dialogue with Ciampoli, seeking more information about the details of the redistricting process- who did it, how were those people appointed, how it was done, and so on. Schmitt pointed out that this was the kind of information that the Democrats in the legislature refused to give to the Republicans during the last redistricting process in 2003, and the situation was now reversed.
“The county attorney can divulge what the county attorney feels comfortable in divulging. I am not going to subject him, or me, to…third-degree, cross-examination on exactly who drew what,” said Schmitt.
However, Ciampoli did provide some answers to Abrahams’ questions- the software used for redistricting cost under $20,000, and was done with the aid of two consultants, one of whom was paid $20,000, and one whose fee Ciampoli would not disclose because the contract was confidential.
Abrahams stated that members of the legislature should have the opportunity to view and verify the data in the same electronic format as the consultants had prepared it. Ciampoli responded that making the data available in that format could be arranged, but would not commit specifically when Abrahams attempted to press him for a date to receive the data. Abrahams noted that he would like to see the same urgency being employed in moving forward with the redistricting plan so quickly being reflected in the efforts to get legislators the necessary information on the plan; Ciampoli said at one point that he could get Abrahams “a link to the census bureau website.”
See sidebar to this story regarding the Monday, May 9 public hearing.