Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 13 May 2011 00:00
Calling the May 9 redistricting hearing “contentious” would be a gross understatement. While many of the residents and elected officials who took the podium criticized the plan logically and eloquently, there was a lot of screaming and yelling in the chamber. While the audience in the chamber was diverse in every respect, many members of the minority groups whose current alleged under-representation the redistricting plan is supposedly intended to correct, were present to tell Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt-in no uncertain terms-that he does not speak for them.
Minority Leader Diane Yatauro also did not mince words: “This hearing is nothing but a farce...I can tell you how most of this self-serving ‘Republican Protection Plan’ will play out today, over the next week. Here’s what will happen: We know that Peter Schmitt will claim to be the great protector of the minority community…” (the rest of this sentence was inaudible due to audience laughter). “Just as they were spending millions of dollars to defend the NIFA fight, but to no avail, as the Republicans were shot down in court, we’re expecting the same action. And that’s where this will end up again- in court,” Yatauro said.
Yatauro also noted that the hearing was held at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, a time when most constituents could not attend; many residents also made reference to this during their time at the podium.
There was even an argument over when the public would speak. At first, Schmitt said he planned to follow “procedure” and have both Republican and Democratic legislators present their questions to county attorney John Ciampoli before members of the public would be allowed to speak. According to Schmitt, this was proper procedure- even if it had not always been followed in the past, such as during Legislator Jacobs’ tenure as Presiding Officer, he stated. When visibly angry Democratic legislators pointed out this would mean that the many people who had come to speak would have to wait several hours again- as they had at the May 2 Rules Committee hearing when speakers were not heard for three hours after the meeting had started- and when the crowd threatened to erupt in anger, Schmitt changed tracks, allowing public comment after Ciampoli’s opening statement.
Many speakers noted the haste with which the redistricting was being undertaken. “I feel that this is being rushed, and that the people of Nassau County are not being represented,” said Francesca Carlow, Plainview resident and a candidate for the 6th SD seat in the state Senate in 2010. “This is too important an item to be rushed through in a matter of months. It should be looked at with a- and I do understand the implications of saying “non-partisan”- but it should be looked at with a commission and duly understood by the citizens and then acted upon.”
Ciampoli reiterated much of what he stated at the May 2 meeting, explaining the Republican position that Section 112 of the charter left the legislature with a legal imperative to redistrict immediately. Ciampoli continued to reiterate this point throughout the day, frequently after prompting by Schmitt in response to residents’ questions. Many residents responded that his statements did not answer the questions they had posed, and that some of his statements were incomprehensible.
Furthermore, not everyone was convinced that the intent of Section 112 matched Ciampoli’s interpretation. Louise Hochberg, president of Great Neck United Parent Teacher Council, stated that the implementation of Section 112 was explained by Section 113, which it seemed to her that Ciampoli was not acknowledging.
“The county attorney relies on Section 112, but it is Section 113 of the county charter that tells us how to accomplish the redistricting mandated by Section 112,” said Hochberg. “You can’t pick and choose which sections of the charter you are going to follow, and when you are going to follow them.”
Charles Renfroe, president of the school board for Hempstead Union Free School District, asked if the communities that this plan would affect had been contacted, to which Ciampoli repeated his explanation of the need for redistricting due to the population shift in the Second District.
Great Neck resident Valerie Feinman noted she did not think it was worth asking a question. “I refuse to ask any questions of the people sitting in front of me because all you do when we ask questions is blather, blather blather,” she said.
Elaine Smith of Uniondale appeared to speak for many when she called attention to the racial tensions in the chamber. “Mr. Schmitt, when you said ‘you people,’ I finally realized that you and your GOP team have no idea what you’re doing,” she said, to much applause from the audience. “I realized that this is a mockery- you are making a mockery out of the American dream and you are stepping on the 1965 Voting Rights Act…we are going to stand here until this is clearly resolved. We are not to be taken lightly.”
Several Elmont residents affiliated with the website Elmont.org also took to the microphone, voicing similar concerns. Aubrey Phillips noted that while Schmitt said that the plan was being undertaken for the sake of minorities, the minority population in the Third district would be lower, taking away minority voting power.
“My question is- without presuming any mal-intent on the part of any individual- how should residents of the Third LD not consider this as a line brightly drawn in color, as opposed to brightly drawn in common interest?” said Phillips. Ciampoli repeated the same answer he had been restating throughout the day.
While most of the attention remained on Schmitt and Ciampoli, Republican Legislator John Ciotti also fielded questions. Linda John of Hempstead asked Ciotti for the names of the people in her community “of color,” whom Ciotti had spoken to, who were in favor of the split of her current district. Ciotti would not disclose the names, but said he had spoken to “at least two or three people” that morning, and that he’d spoken to “a number” of people in the Third legislative district.
Later, speakers noted that if the people Ciotti had spoken to did not want their names to be known, they should not presume to speak for the people of their districts.
Many officials took to the podium as well, including Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall and several mayors from the Great Neck peninsula. When Hall left the podium, he mirrored Yatauro’s statements, noting he would see the Republican legislators in court.