Some critics of Brookhaven's latest redistricting proposal say the plan rolled out last week would make it harder for Hispanic and Black residents to elect town council members who would help them deal with issues such as crime, the town landfill and environmental hazards.
Citing federal and state voting rights laws designed to ensure minorities have a voice in political affairs, civic leaders in Brookhaven Town communities such as Bellport and Gordon Heights said the map proposed by Republican Supervisor Edward P. Romaine would "dilute" Black and Hispanic votes by splitting communities or adding a mostly white community to a district that includes areas with large minority populations.
'The whole point of having districts is having commonality.'
-Brookhaven NAACP president Georgette Grier-Key of Bellport
Credit: Randee Daddona
"The whole point of having districts is having commonality," Brookhaven NAACP president Georgette Grier-Key of Bellport told Newsday, adding that the town's proposed map is "putting a circle into a square."
Romaine said Brookhaven's diverse population — about one-fifth of the town is Black or Hispanic — should ensure the map meets federal and state guidelines, adding that the map includes no new splits of minority hamlets.
"We're not going to do that, and we have not looked at that," he said at a Sept. 13 town board meeting. The town posted the map on its website on Sept. 19.
The Brookhaven Town Board has until Dec. 15 to approve a new map that will set council district boundaries for the next 10 years. Reapportionment is necessary because 2020 census data showed two districts are too large or too small, based on town criteria.
The board has scheduled a 5 p.m. public hearing on Thursday at Town Hall in Farmingville to discuss Romaine's map. It's not clear when the board will vote.
What is Brookhaven proposing?
The population of each council district must be within 5% of 81,000 residents, or about one-sixth of the town's total population of 485,000. The town must adjust the council district map to reduce population in District 6, in southeastern Brookhaven, and increase population in District 2, in the northeastern part of town.
Romaine's map would do that in part by moving 3,980 Ridge residents from Districts 2 and 6 to District 4, which includes some of the town's most racially and ethnically diverse hamlets, such as Coram, Gordon Heights and North Bellport. A large portion of Coram would move from District 4 to District 2.
Town officials said the map would unite communities such as Ridge and North Bellport that historically have been split among two or more districts.
What was the reaction?
Many Black and Hispanic community leaders said the sparsely populated, mostly white Ridge doesn't belong in District 4 because it has little in common with hamlets with large numbers of Black and Latino residents who worry about issues such as the landfill and industrial development in the North Bellport area.
Grier-Key said adding Ridge to District 4 was "kind of a reach."
Gordon Heights Civic Association president E. James Freeman said if Romaine's map is approved, he planned to "fight it with every last drop of blood that we have."
Is splitting minority communities illegal?
Not necessarily, legal experts said. Federal court decisions set a high bar for creating majority-minority districts: Minorities must show they would form a majority in a hypothetical district, and that they would vote as a bloc for a particular candidate or party.
But the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act and New York's John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, signed in June by Gov. Kathy Hochul, both bar discriminatory redistricting laws.
'They have to fear getting taken to court.'
-Chris Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut
Credit: Defining Studios & Defining Properties
Chris Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, told Newsday that towns "probably want to avoid those policies that violate the 14th or 15th amendment," the constitutional provisions that ensure due process and bar racial discrimination at the polls. "They have to fear getting taken to court."
Jeff Wice of Long Beach, a Democrat who served as legal adviser to Brookhaven's 2012 redistricting committee, told Newsday the town "needs to be especially sensitive to minority communities." About 15.6% of Brookhaven residents were Hispanic in 2021, census data showed. Blacks made up 6.1% of the town's population.
'The final map could be challenged [in court] based on violation of federal or state law.'
-Jeff Wice, senior fellow at the New York Census and Redistricting Institute at New York Law School
Credit: Rolland Smith Photography
"The final map could be challenged [in court] based on violation of federal or state law," said Wice, senior fellow at the New York Census and Redistricting Institute at New York Law School. "A challenge would have to demonstrate that you could create a 50% district of primarily minority voters."
Have LI towns faced voting rights lawsuits?
Yes. Black Hempstead residents in 2000 successfully argued that the town's at-large voting system made it virtually impossible for them to win elections, and Islip Town Hispanics did the same two years ago. Both towns subsequently adopted council districts.
Hempstead lawyer Frederick K. Brewington, who represented residents in both cases, told Newsday that Brookhaven's council districts don't automatically ensure compliance with voting rights laws.
'The fact that they have districts requires them to create districts appropriately.'
-Hempstead lawyer Frederick K. Brewington
Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost
"It boils down to whether under the Voting Rights Act … the redistricting process is one that respects the particular needs of the protected classes that exist in the town," Brewington said. "The fact that they have districts requires them to create districts appropriately."
What if the board doesn't adopt a map by Dec. 15?
Town officials said they weren't sure. Republicans hold a 6-1 majority on the Town Board.
Wice said redistricting "becomes ripe for a court action" if the board fails to approve a map. A judge could extend the deadline and ask the board to try again, he said, "or the court would draw a plan of its own, usually by appointing a special master." An example, Wice said, was this year's New York State congressional redistricting, which was referred to a special master to establish new district lines.