A lawsuit that aims to split the Town of Islip board members up into council districts is scheduled to go to trial next month at Central Islip federal court.
U.S. District Court Judge Gary Brown last week set a September trial date in the case in which residents of the town’s largely minority communities of Brentwood, Central Islip, and Bay Shore seek to reform the current at-large voting system.
“This is a matter of significance and the court will continue to expedite and prioritize this case,” Brown said in his court order, which Frederick Brewington, the Hempstead-based civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, read aloud during a news conference Monday outside Islip Town Hall.
Plaintiffs alleged Islip, the town board, and Suffolk County Board of Elections are violating the Voting Rights Act in minority communities, which they say are getting ignored under the current system. The plaintiffs argue that if the five town council members were designated to represent specific communities instead of sharing responsibility for all 333,758 town residents, the local lawmakers would be more responsive to the constituents.
The use of council districts, known as the ward system, is used by three of the 13 towns on Long Island—Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Brookhaven. Brewington tried the case that brought council districts to Hempstead, where Councilwoman Dorthy Goosby represents minority communities as the lone African American woman on that town board. Voters in the other two towns chose to make the switch via referenda.
Advocacy groups Make The Road New York and New York Communities for Change joined forces with Brewington in the hopes of succeeding where prior efforts in Islip fell short. Petitioners had repeatedly tried to get a referendum to enact Islip districts for years. Once they succeeded in getting the question on ballots 14 years ago, town voters rejected the measure by a margin of 56 to 43 percent. The town suggested holding another referendum on the topic to resolve the current case, but the judge rejected that idea.
The plaintiffs point to the fact that the town board is all white and live in the southern part of the town while about a third of Islip’s population are minorities from the northern section. The current town board is solidly Republican and the minority communities are overwhelmingly Democratic.
“Those individuals have never been able to select and elected candidate of their choice,” Brewington said. “And because there is an at-large voting system in the Town of Islip, their voting strength is diluted. Even if they voted all together for a single candidate, they could not elect anybody to this town board because of the phenomenon known as racial bloc voting.”
The town has declined to comment on the lawsuit.