GOP rejects call for change in Nassau redistricting process

Nassau County Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves speaks during Nassau County Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves speaks during a press conference in Mineola Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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The Nassau County Legislature's Republican majority has rebuffed a call by good-government groups to overhaul the disputed process for redrawing lawmakers' district lines.

A coalition of local nonprofits had released a 28-page report in January recommending more participation by nonaligned voters in the once-a-decade redistricting. The groups argued that limiting influence of political parties and county workers would eliminate gerrymandering and protect minority voting rights.

But after months of meetings with the activists, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said last week that she sees no need to move now on the coalition's calls to revise the county charter on redistricting. The lines will next be redrawn beginning in 2021.

"After hearing the proposals and discussing it with the caucus, we feel the timing is premature," Gonsalves said in a statement, adding that she's still willing to hear coalition proposals.

Coalition leaders said they will hold a rally this week in New Hyde Park in an effort to show the GOP, which controls the county legislature with an 11-8 majority, that a wide range of residents desire its action.

"This is really the right moment, because the people who have to be involved in the change are more removed from possible political electoral consequences," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a nonpartisan citizens group with the Nassau redistricting coalition.

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"By acting now," Lerner said of lawmakers, "it's not the sense of looking down the barrel of a gun and saying, 'OK, I'm up for re-election next time and whatever I do is going to impact where I have to stand.' "

Opponents of the current maps, approved by the GOP majority in March 2013, said they divided and disenfranchised minority communities and greatly limited competitive races. Republicans have denied that the maps improperly split communities, and said they were drawn "blind to incumbency."

After a series of meetings with staff and lawmakers from both parties, the coalition in March presented draft language of a potential charter amendment that would take the drawing of maps out of lawmakers' hands and overhaul the independent advisory commission on redistricting that had deadlocked on each party's submitted maps in 2012. The new commission would draw the maps.

The commission was split between GOP and Democratic appointees; the coalition recommends replacing some of them with citizens without ties to county staff or party leaders.

Gonsalves said she was willing to continue speaking with the coalition, whose members also include the League of Women Voters, which seeks to expand voter participation; the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, which works to involve voters in issues; and La Fuente, which promotes immigrant community participation.

"We're at the point of having gotten in the room with legislators, and that means that we can now start doing things like engaging more members of the public," said Benjamin Van Dyne of the Civic Engagement Table. "We're pretty confident that we can make clear to them this is both politically in their interest and the best thing for Nassau County on the merits."

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