A hotly debated meeting occurred among members of the Councilmanic District Commission and public speakers offering opinions on the concept of councilmanic districts in North Hempstead. The hearing, held May 28 at the Landmark on Main Street, was peppered with cross accusations of grandstanding, politicization and misinterpretation of statistical data.
The 11 member Commission conducted the last of seven local meetings in North Hempstead. At issue was the concept of councilmanic districts, i.e., drawing council members from and electing them to represent a specific geographical area of North Hempstead. At present, council members are elected by all voters in North Hempstead and assigned to serve as the primary representative of an area by the Town supervisor. In effect, citizens of North Hempstead may call on any one of four council members for representation. The final recommendation to the Town will be whether or not to seek a referendum for the voters to decide if a change should be made to the present system.
The meeting, chaired by Joseph Galante of Mineola, began with a series of opening statements by commission members. Commission member, Roma Connable of Roslyn, immediately sparked controversy by reading a prepared statement charging an improper performance by Republicans trying to dominate the meetings by recruiting speakers to come forward and make the same points repeatedly. Connable's assertion was met with heated outbursts shouted from the audience that labeled her statement shameful and disgraceful. This exchange set the tone of the meeting.
The first speaker was a Sands Point resident speaking against the referendum. Commission member, Dr. Rudolph Clark of Westbury posed a rhetorical question to the speaker asking if it was fair that two of four Town council members lived in Port Washington. Commission member Thomas Liotti of Westbury asked the speaker's opinion as to whether Port would have been served better in recent matters such as the landfill and garbage disposal controversies by a council member charged specifically with representing Port. The Sands Pointer was uncertain but added there was already a means of dealing with unresponsive elected officials summed up as "throw the rascals out."
A speaker from New Hyde Park suggested the referendum include a requirement for a residency requirement in the district for office seekers vying to serve as its representative. This speaker charged commission member, Dr. Gerald Scharfman, listed on the agenda as a resident of New Hyde Park, actually resided in North Hills. The New Hyde Park speaker was particularly incensed about commission remarks that local politicians were prominent in earlier hearings. He strongly asserted that these representatives were civic leaders with every right to voice their opinion. He concluded with an assertion that street cleaning around New Hyde Park was woefully lacking in areas dependent for service on the Town of North Hempstead.
In her opening remarks, former Town Clerk Linda Green of Port Washington noted that Port was not originally scheduled to host a meeting and voiced shock at some of the earlier remarks by certain commission members. She continued saying the Town supervisor and majority of those expressing an opinion at these hearings clearly favored a referendum. Green favored councilmanic districts because fixing accountability would require elected representatives to give more personal attention to their constituent's concerns. Commission member Connable cordially thanked Green for her comments but once again ignited debate by labeling Green's remarks as being made because of her position as a Republican. Green in measured yet forceful words rebuked Connable several times for reiterating the context of her opening statement ascribing political motivations to those addressing the commission. The exchange was becoming more heated when commission member, Dr. Clark of Westbury, extended an apology to Green on behalf of the commission. Chairman Galante quickly advised Clark to speak for himself and not the entire commission.
The North Hempstead Republican Chairman Peter Cavallaro followed Green's exchange. He immediately charged Connable should be ashamed of herself for ascribing political motives to the body of speakers exercising their rights as citizens to address their concerns to government officials. An exchange ensued between Cavallaro and commission member John Fabio of Greenvale. Fabio presented a preliminary tabulation on the Town's concern for this issue. He said that the seven meetings generated 200 attendees out of approximately 220,000 town residents. Of this number, about 50 offered comments as follows: in favor of the referendum-40; opposed to the referendum-5; no opinion-5. A heated debate followed concerning the significance of these numbers.
The most confrontational moment occurred after a comment by Connable that her role was to listen to the public's comments and form an opinion only after all the community sentiments were in. Commission member Thomas Liotti objected strongly to that position and said the commission's role was to stimulate discussion and encourage the community to form opinions. Liotti proposed a motion to take an immediate poll of the positions of commission members, which was labeled out of order by Commission Chairman Galante. Liotti made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to have his motion seconded. In the ensuing debate, numerous charges were exchanged among Commission members.
A Westbury resident spoke against the concept arguing he now has the ability to vote for four council members; the new proposal would limit his vote to only one. Finally, a 32- year resident of Port castigated the Commission characterizing Port as the Town's stepchild and noted not a single Port representative served on the 11 member commission. He said the referendum was irrelevant because the most important characteristic of a legislator is the quality of the person in office.
The meeting concluded with the chairman's statement that the commission would soon go into private session, evaluate the public comment and confer on a final recommendation on a proposed referendum to the Town Board. The commission was also assigned to examine several other issues, i.e., 1) the extension of the term of office of the supervisor and council members from two to four years and 2), the desirability of term limits. Because of the complexity of discussion on councilmanic districts, the last two issues were deemed best examined at a future date.