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Suffolk redistricting hearing starts after flurry of judicial rulings

Democrat Robert Calarco, presiding officer of the Suffolk

Democrat Robert Calarco, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, has proposed a plan to redraw legislative districts by the end of the year. Credit: James Escher

After a flurry of court decisions, the Suffolk County Legislature held its only public hearing Tuesday on a Democratic proposal to create new legislative districts that would be in effect for a decade.

Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Santorelli on Tuesday temporarily barred the legislature from voting on the redistricting plan or holding a public hearing on it.

Within a few hours, an appeals court panel in Brooklyn had overturned that decision.

The appeals ruling paved the way for more than two dozen residents to testify about the reapportionment plan after waiting more than an hour to see if they'd be allowed to.

Many speakers, who included community activists and leaders of nonprofits, said the proposal would improve representation of minority county residents.

"Please give us the opportunity to have equal representation," said Dr. Beverly Dean, of Gordon Heights.

Dean said her community is divided between multiple legislative districts, and would be unified under the Democratic proposal.

Witnesses also testified that the proposed redistricting, introduced by outgoing county Legis. Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), would not create partisan gerrymandered districts because nine likely would be heavily Republican and nine largely Democratic.

A handful of speakers, primarily Republican elected officials, complained that Democrats were rushing the plan through in order to position the Democratic Party to retake the majority in the 2023 legislative elections.

Republicans will take control of the county legislature Jan. 1, after defeating three Democratic incumbents in the November elections.

"It's like the elected officials at this point are choosing their voters instead of the opposite happening in a democratic society," Republican Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. yRomaine said.

Other witnesses criticized lawmakers for not including residents in the drafting process.

"It's not fair to make a decision that's so important for the next 10 years without any community input," said Sandra Townsend, of Central Islip.

Republicans filed suit Tuesday in an attempt to block the reapportionment.

Republicans said Calarco's plan would violate the Suffolk County charter, which says a bipartisan reapportionment commission should propose new district maps.

Calarco, who was defeated by Republican Dominick Thorne, said his office drew the new district map after Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) and Majority Leader Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) failed to nominate commission members by the Nov. 10 deadline.

McCaffrey, the minority leader, said he has since appointed commission members.

Berland has not commented on the commission issue.

Calarco's proposal would shift legislative boundaries to create two more districts where Black and Latino residents would be in the majority, for a total of four minority-majority districts.

Minorities make up 36% of Suffolk's population.

The plan would squeeze four Republican legislators into two districts, without pitting any Democratic incumbents against each other.

McCaffrey was among the plaintiffs in a court petition filed Tuesday morning against Calarco, Berland and the county legislature.

Plaintiffs argued in court papers that county Democrats were engaged in a "flagrant effort to derail and sabotage the reapportionment process and to return it to the partisan gerrymandering mischief of a prior era."

Democrats hold 10 legislative districts, and there are eight members of the Republican caucus, including Legis. Nicholas Caracappa (C-Selden).

Calarco called the Republican petition "a desperate act to subvert our process." He said the proposed maps use natural boundaries to create districts that will have "fair representation"

The Suffolk County charter gives the reapportionment commission until February 2022 to propose new district maps.

If the panel doesn’t meet the deadline, the legislature has until June 2022 to craft and approve a redistricting plan.

The legislature is expected to vote on Calarco's redistricting measure on Dec. 21.

Also Tuesday, legislators approved two key elements of the county's police reform plan.

The legislation would give the county Human Rights Commission oversight of police internal affairs investigations.

It also would codify a new police data transparency hub, which provides raw data to the public on arrests, traffic stops and other police actions.

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