Last week, North Hempstead Republicans filed a petition with the town clerk to hold a town-wide referendum on the creation of a council district system. The petition, which includes 3,895 signatures, is pursuant to Section 81 of the New York State Town Law requiring a referendum be held within the next 60 to 75 days, bringing the referendum before voters between the end of December 2002 and the second week of January 2003.
The petition, which requests a public vote on whether or not a councilmanic or "ward system" should be established to replace the town's current at-large voting system, surpasses the number of signatures required which must be five percent of the total number of gubernatorial votes (the total number of voters from the town who participated in the 1998 governor's election). The petition would be denied only if it was found to be invalid for reasons such as duplicate signatures, invalid residency or if the legal language listed conflicted with state board of election code or town code.
"The only reason we would challenge it is if we felt there was something in it that makes it unjust," said Lauren Corcoran, spokesperson for the town. "The chances that the entire petition would be invalid are slim." She added that the town is currently working with Stanley Schlein, a bipartisan election law expert, to determine the validity of the petition. As of press time, a decision was still pending.
The Republican-issued petition is the result of a decision made last month by the all-Democratic town board extending the voting deadline for the council district proposal to November 2003 due to the need to modify a town law from 15 years ago. As a result, the current town board is now faced with the challenge of dealing with the amended town code.
In 1987, when Democrats and civic groups began talking about proposing a council district system, the 5-0 Republican town board passed a law making it difficult to put forth such a system. The town law limits the number of council districts which can be established to four and includes various obstacles that would have to be overcome before a council district could be implemented. This town law, however, currently conflicts with state law on several counts. State law limits the total number of districts that can be implemented to six.
However, if the petition is approved and a special election is held in early 2003, before the town has a chance to amend current town code, the town could take the brunt of it all. "The whole thing will be a mess," said Joe Galante, chairman for the North Hempstead Democratic Committee and a member of the town's Councilmanic District Commission. "There will be lawsuit after lawsuit with everyone arguing over the two laws. Because of the inconsistencies, we needed to take this time to correct some of those and reconcile these two laws to avoid it from coming down to litigation."
He added, "I see this as an unfortunate, very cheap political ploy on behalf of the Republicans of the Town of North Hempstead. What's so ironic is that those who wanted to block it in 1987 are the ones who want it so badly now."
Peter Cavallaro, North Hempstead's Republican chairman, disagreed, saying, "Every time this issue is raised, [Supervisor Newburger] basically says, 'Well, the Republicans passed this law.' First of all, that was Republicans a whole generation ago, that was not me or another Republican who is actively involved in this process right now."
In the Republicans' defense, Cavallaro added, "All of these things they are saying are really just excuses for why they are being forced to do now what they should have done on their own initiative. We gave them every benefit of the doubt; every benefit of acting on their own. They failed to do it and they had plenty of time to do. This action was necessitated by the fact that they failed to do what was their duty to do."
Responding to the Republican's recent action, Supervisor May Newburger said, "They knew I felt very strongly about this and have gone on record over the years publicly supporting the idea of council districts. We felt it deserved public attention and committed ourselves to this referendum. I am troubled that an issue of this significance to the town should be treated in such a cavalier fashion."
A special election will cost the town an excessive amount of money that would ordinarily be absorbed into the costs of a regular election. The cost would most likely be somewhere near $200,000 with $114,000 alone for inspectors' salaries and additional fees for voting machines, advertising and other costs associated with a special election.
"They are the only ones who could have put this on for a referendum this November. Any additional costs that the taxpayer is going to incur are their fault, not ours. For them to come back and say that now we are costing the taxpayers $100,000, $200,000 is an outrageous charge," Cavallaro said.
Aside from unnecessary costs, advocates for the November election also believe that holding a special election on such short notice will have a negative effect on voter turnout. "By calling for this now, [the Republicans] are forcing the entire town to hold a referendum between the Christmas holiday and the first or second week of January," Galante said. "Instead of having it during a general election where most people would vote, you are talking about having it in the dead of winter where very few people would vote or be aware of it. Why would you want 10 percent of voter turnout as opposed to 60 percent? An issue as important as this one really shouldn't be held on a day nobody knows about. That's not keeping with democracy."
Newburger agreed, saying, "What troubles me is that many people are not going to even be around to vote. They gave no thought to that. This referendum [is going to] take place at the worst time and it is a great disrespect to the voting public. This is a major town issue which should be considered and discussed in a town election."
She added that if council district supporters were that determined to put the referendum up before voters on such short notice, they could have submitted their petition in time to get it on this November's ballot. Doing so, Newburger said, would have allowed for higher voter turnout and not placed such a large financial burden on the town.
Galante agreed, saying, "The town board and the supervisor already agreed to put the referendum to vote in November 2003. It was already agreed that it [would go before voters in the form of] a referendum as part of a regular election; all they disagreed upon is the timing."