Nassau County legislators approved Tuesday a controversial proposal by the Republican majority to redraw the county’s legislative districts without first going through the traditionally lengthy public review process.
Lawyers for Democratic and GOP lawmakers are slated to argue the legality of the new map in court this week while critics are planning another lawsuit alleging minority communities would have their political representation diluted. Questions were also raised prior to the vote regarding the legality of hiring two redistricting consultants while the new map was being drawn.
The measure passed 10-8, with Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) siding with the Democrats in opposition and Legis. Robert Troiano (D-Westbury) absent for the vote. Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) has said the changes are needed immediately under federal law to address population shifts evident in the new census results, but the Democrats took issue with the hasty nature of such a complex plan.
“Who participated in redistricting?” asked Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). Denenberg, whose district would be merged with another Democratic lawmaker’s under the new map, repeatedly asked Deputy County Attorney Joseph Nocella that question, but the response was the same: “I don’t know.”
“We want to hear from who was actually there,” shouted Minority Leader Diane Yatauro (D-Glen Cove). “How about somebody come down here that has the freakin’ answers!”
County Attorney John Ciampoli, who was unable to attend the vote because he was hospitalized, has said his office hired two consultants: Debra Levine, the co-executive director of the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, which provides technical support for state Senate, Assembly and Congressional redistricting; and David Schaefer, of Skyline Demographic Consultants, a firm known for their work with redistricting across New York and in other states.
Democrats reiterated calls to have the consultants available to answer questions at the meeting—calls that went unanswered. Meanwhile, even more questions mounted Tuesday upon revelations that the consultants were hired without the approval of the legislature or the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state fiscal watchdog panel that has the final say on county finances.
The contracts for Levine and Schaefer were obtained by this reporter following a Freedom of Information Law request.
Levine’s contract indicates the Albany insider was paid $25,000 despite earlier indications from Republicans that it was less at $21,000. Schaefer and his firm were paid $72,000, nearly three times the $25,000 threshold requiring legislative approval and over NIFA’s $50,000 threshold for contract approval.
“We have ordered the county attorney to start handing over contracts,” said George Marlin, a NIFA board member. “If there are games going on it’s time for the games to stop.”
NIFA earlier this month threatened legal action against the county for its alleged failure to send contracts to the board for approval.
“Everybody here knows exactly what is going on and they’re going to put a stop to it,” said Joseph Gill, vice-chair of New York Community for Change, a nonprofit advocacy group. “You’re wasting the taxpayer’s money.”
Republicans and Democrats will argue their case Thursday before state Supreme Court Judge Steven Jaeger in Mineola. Democrats allege the GOP’s redistricting plan violates procedure by not creating a bipartisan commission and hosting a series of public hearings. But Republicans have said the county charter requires redistricting this year and that they would create a new map following a more thorough process next year.
Jaeger had previously issued a temporary restraining order barring the new districts from being implemented but an appeals court stayed that decision.
Both sides need to act fast. The nomination petitioning process begins June 7 and potential candidates need to know if they follow the current lines or the new proposed ones. With every district affected, and more than 500,000 residents scrambled around, Nassau voters may have to study a new map before casting their ballots this fall.
Hempstead-based civil rights attorney Frederick K. Brewington has said he is planning to sue, citing alleged violations of the Voter Rights Act. He told the lawmakers during a prior meeting: “If you violate the voting rights act, I’m coming!”