The Babylon Town Clerk is expected to rule Friday on a blanket challenge from Democrats to a petition circulated by Republicans to force a referendum on whether to divide the town into council districts.
The clerk’s challenge argues that all roughly 2,500 signatures are invalid because the wording on the document, circulated in early September, does not meet the exacting standards of town and state law — an argument that Democrats say they will follow with litigation over the validity of individual signatures if Clerk Carol Quirk rules against the initial challenge.
Republicans say they too may sue if Quirk validates the challenge, or else will restart the petition process.
At stake is the current system in which Town Board members represent the town at large, following the practice of most Long Island municipalities. If petition supporters prevail, residents could change that system in a November referendum so that the board members serve specific districts.
Supporters say the change would result in better governance. Opponents say it would lead to gridlock and squabbling for resources. Depending on how the districts are drawn, the change could offer Republicans a path to power for the first time in decades in Babylon, where the predominantly Democratic electorate gives town Democrats a strong advantage in townwide elections.
Leading petition supporters is Amityville Village trustee Nick LaLota, who also serves as Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, who also serves as Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman, opposes the effort.
This week Schaffer called the petition “an embarrassment.”
“They didn’t have the proper legal form that’s required and a number of the signatures were from people who either weren’t registered to vote, don’t live in the town, or in fact aren’t the people who actually signed the names, which pretty much amounts to fraud,” he said.
LaLota countered that the petition wording was identical to that used in Huntington Town that forced a 2009 referendum. Residents there opted to keep the at-large system.
LaLota said the signatures on the Babylon petition are valid and that no fraud had taken place. He said that Schaffer’s dual roles as party leader and Babylon Town supervisor compromised the process in which Quirk, a Democrat, will evaluate the petition’s validity.
“It’s preposterous, the amount of power that one man has,” LaLota said, arguing that Quirk depends on Schaffer’s goodwill to keep her job. “You have a party chairman who controls the nominating process of an individual’s re-election, who has direct control over someone’s future political prospects.”
For his part, Schaffer said that politics will not enter into Quirk’s review.
“If Nick and his gang didn’t follow the law in putting the petition together, the petition will be found invalid,” he said.