Janison: A ray of hope for redistricting

Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko talks about town issues.

Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko talks about town issues. Videojournalist: (May 31, 2012) (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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Removing politics from redistricting can prove as illusory and wispy a goal as keeping politics out of government.

In Albany, the party majorities of the state's legislative houses ended up retaining full control of the 10-year drafting of their own districts, despite previous pledges by key players of a "nonpartisan" process, and earlier vows by the governor to veto all gerrymanders. Congressional lines, which generally mean a lot less to state lawmakers empowered to shape them, were settled instead by a federal court.

In Suffolk, there was much good-government talk in the final week of 2010 with elected officials on the cusp of naming panel members for what was supposed to be a model of the process. "We in Suffolk are the first in the state of New York to actually make this type of independent redistricting a reality," said then-County Executive Steve Levy. But the commission plan proceeded to fall apart and post-census lines for the county's 18 seats have been set by the lawmakers themselves.

In Nassau, redistricting has become a flash point in a partisan battle over county borrowing.

Now, however, the Town of Brookhaven is embarking on a post-census redistricting process that promises fairness between the major parties -- even if bipartisan "balance" is not the same as nonpartisan independence.

Next week, Brookhaven's redistricting commission begins hearings. The panel by design has three Republican and three Democratic members, plus another two members, the co-chairs, who belong to neither major party. These are Martin G. Callahan, a civic activist and insurance executive, who's a registered Conservative, and the Rev. Beresford Adams, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Coram, who's a registered voter with no party affiliation.

This is the first process of its kind since the town a decade ago established districts for its six separately elected council members rather than elect the members at-large.

"Frankly, behind the scenes there was a little bit of resistance at first, but I think reason prevailed," said Supervisor Mark Lesko, a Democrat. "As soon as I saw the names that were put forward I started being very hopeful. These are reasonable people, real pillars-of-the-community types. It would be tough to impugn their motives."

Lesko noted the modest increase in Brookhaven's population during the latest 10-year census period -- by about 5,000 to about 486,000 -- bars the need for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the current map. But population shifts within the town will require adjustment, officials say, as between the 3rd and 4th districts. Another goal for the panel: keeping hamlets whole within districts, to the degree possible.

Tim Mazzei, one of three Republican council members, said the commission's makeup could help it succeed. Also, Mazzei said, "Our districts can only change so much." He said he anticipates no "battles or arrows shot back and forth."

Jeff Wice, a Democratic redistricting expert, serves as counsel to the commission, which conducts its first public hearing Monday at 4 p.m. at the Port Jefferson Village Center. Party membership data won't be part of the drafting, he said.

"We've seen what hasn't worked so far," Wice said of this census cycle's other redistricting efforts. "This might be an exception."

The commission is due to submit a plan to the town board by Sept. 15.

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