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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

The facts, politics of trying to make Suffolk’s legislature smaller

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby of the legislature building in Hauppauge, seen on Aug. 14, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Could 13 be a lucky number for Suffolk’s legislature?

Yup, says Legis. William J. Lindsay III (D-Bohemia), who has submitted a bill to reduce the size of the legislature from 18 to 13 as a way to save the financially stressed county about $2.5 million a year — by ditching five $100,000-a-year lawmakers, 15 support staff members and the expense of running five district offices.

Lindsay’s proposal would require a public referendum. But first, the measure would have to be approved by lawmakers.

And there’s not much chance of that. Because, well, why would five lawmakers voluntarily give up their jobs?

Except there’s more to be considered here.

For one, Suffolk’s size. Eighteen legislative districts may sound like a lot — and perhaps losing a seat or two could make the body operate more efficiently — but larger districts make fewer lawmakers accountable for larger numbers of Suffolk residents.

Which isn’t quite what Suffolk’s charter had in mind in 1970, when the county swapped a board of supervisors for a county legislature. Under Suffolk’s supervisor model, the supervisor of Shelter Island, the county’s smallest township, had as much voting power as the supervisors of Islip and Brookhaven, the county’s largest.

Going to a legislature evened that out by determining district lines by population, rather than by town — while at the same time freeing town supervisors from the responsibility of also being county lawmakers.

Suffolk’s board of supervisors, by the way, operated differently from that in Nassau — which weighted supervisor votes by town population, giving Hempstead the most power. Nassau went to legislative districts in the 1990s, after U.S. District Court Judge Arthur D. Spatt determined that its weighted system violated the principle of one person, one vote.

But let’s get back to Suffolk, where the initial move to create an 18-member legislature also was fueled by a desire — in theory at least — to make it possible for civic-minded Suffolk residents to run for legislature. Under the current configuration, a challenger need only collect 500 signatures from neighbors to make a run (plus the cost of a campaign for a primary, and the blessing of party leaders for the general election).

Moving to a 13-member legislature — and, thus, significantly larger districts — could push the required number of petition signatures up to 1,500, Rich Schaffer, the county’s Democratic chairman, said Friday.

And, of course, there’s the politics: A significantly smaller legislature would provide the executive opportunity to consolidate power and exercise control — which may be why Lindsay’s fellow Democrat, County Executive Steve Bellone, said the proposal “merits strong consideration.”

How are legislatures in neighboring counties configured?

Nassau has 19 legislative districts; Westchester has 17. But a look upstate at Albany County, which has 306,000 residents and 39 — yes, you read that right — legislative districts might prove instructive.

In August, Albany County lawmakers rejected a proposal to send voters a referendum to shrink the legislature — from 39 to 33 districts in 2024 and shrink it again, to 29 districts, in 2032.

If reducing legislative districts wasn’t embraced by Albany lawmakers, the notion almost certainly will fail in Suffolk — where, in decades past, other attempts to shrink the legislature also proved unsuccessful.

But there are other options lawmakers have in addressing Suffolk’s nagging budget issues. As Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said, “I think we need to work toward making the legislature more effective, not smaller.”

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