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Brown: Latinos in Islip push to have town divided into council districts

First came Hempstead. Could Islip's at-large system of electing town council members be next? Plaintiffs in civil suit ask federal judge to have council districts in place for November elections.

A group of Brentwood residents, who filed a

A group of Brentwood residents, who filed a lawsuit alleging the Town of Islip at-large voting system violates the voting rights of Latinos, holds a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Central Islip on April 9. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

"Has there ever been a decision by a court changing the form of government of an entity based on a preliminary injunction?" U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt asked some 10 minutes into final arguments in a civil case recently.

"Judge, yes..," replied Frederick Brewington, one of several attorneys representing four Latino residents and two organizations challenging the way Islip elects town board members.

"Don't forget," Spatt went on. "The change of the form of government will cause all kinds of diversions, delays and especially [since] we are coming close to election time now … even if you were to succeed, the question is when? To disrupt the current system now? Or to do it at a later time?"

The exchange came after three weeks of testimony in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to replace Islip's at-large system of electing council members with a council district system.

And to do so in time for the November 2019 elections.

Under a council system, Latinos — who comprise a third of Islip's population — would have a better chance of fielding and electing candidates of the community's choice.

There have been similar federal lawsuits, seeking similar remedies, on Long Island before.

In 1993, it was Spatt who ruled Nassau County's system of government unconstitutional because a weighted voting system by the county's Board of Supervisors violated the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote.

The voting system, critics at the time pointed out, also discriminated against Democrats and minorities.

Back then, according to news reports, almost every elected and appointed official was white and Republican — in a county where 17 percent of residents were minority and a third of registered voters were Democrats.

Judge Arthur Spatt declared Nassau's form of government

Newsday, April, 1993

U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt strikes down Nassau's system of government. The decision was a victory for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit in 1991 contending that the weighted voting system of a six-member Board of Supervisors, which gave representatives from large and towns and cities more votes than those from smaller communities, was unconstitutional.

In 1997, U.S. District Judge Jack Gleeson, after a trial in federal court in Brooklyn, ruled that Hempstead's system for electing town board members at large discriminated against minorities. The result was a switch to board members elected by districts. One plaintiff in that case, Dorothy Goosby, is now the board's senior councilwoman.

U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ruled that the

Newsday, February, 1997

U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson ruled that Hempstead's at-large system of electing town board members violated federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The system, Gleeson said, ''invidiously excluded blacks from effective participation'' in Hempstead politics. He ordered the town to draw up six election districts.

 

In the Islip case, plaintiffs, which include Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, are taking the unusual path of trying to change the system via preliminary injunction, that is, with a court order — before a trial can even take place.

Attorneys for Islip made much of that strategy in arguing against a preliminary injunction. And the town was joined by an attorney from Suffolk's Board of Elections, who also argued that going to an at-large system, via preliminary injunction and so close to November, could, among other things, confuse residents and suppress the vote.

Spatt, who made a point of complimenting both plaintiffs and defendants on the quality of their final arguments, has yet to release his decision.

Over three weeks, the sides presented contrasting testimony on whether the Islip Town Board serves the interests of the Latino community.

Phil Ramos, a state Assembly member and former Suffolk police officer, at one point was asked about Islip's assertion that change wasn't necessary — because the town's growing Latino population likely could elect a candidate of choice by 2021 or 2023.

"It's saying that we have to trust that natural forces will eventually bring justice to a community that's been disenfranchised," Ramos replied. "If natural forces worked that way, we wouldn't even need the Civil Rights Act in this country. We wouldn't need all of the laws that protect against discrimination … natural forces don't work the way we want them to work."

Angie Carpenter, Islip's town supervisor, testified about her strong support for the current system.

At one point, however, Carpenter was asked about the illegal dumping of 40,000 tons of contaminated debris at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood — which occurred before Carpenter became supervisor.

Which board member "took responsibility for it being done on their watch?" she was asked.

"Obviously," Carpenter testified, "none of them."

At another point, Carpenter was asked about an email she received from Republican officials in Babylon, seeking Carpenter's help in gathering signatures for a GOP initiative.

Carpenter, according to the email, politely declined — because helping the Babylon GOP could end up hurting Islip's position in the case now before Spatt.

What did Babylon Republicans want?

They were gathering signatures to change the system of electing town board members from at-large to council districts in Babylon — where, unlike in Islip, Democrats long have ruled the roost.

Newsday cover from April 15, 1993 headlined “Joey

Newsday, April, 1993

The decision by U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt to scrap Nassau's system of government was not unexpected. The ruling came just two weeks after then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta himself had proposed replacing the 95-year-old Board of Supervisors with a legislature. Nassau later would create a 19-member legislature.

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