Authors Posts by Nancy Marr

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By Nancy Marr

While we await the BOE’s certification of our election results (required by Dec. 7) we need to plan our priorities for the incoming NYS Legislators. Of critical importance is post-census redistricting. After the mid-2021 release of the 2020 census results, states must redraw their state and congressional district lines. These districts determine how communities are represented at the local, state and federal levels, influencing how our government works for us.

Gerrymandering (the intentional manipulation of the redistricting process by the people in political power to keep or change political power) can result from partisan redistricting in a number of ways, such as by consolidating communities into one district, or packing, which gives that community only one representative in the legislature; or by dividing the community across districts, called cracking, ensuring that the community is always the minority and less likely to be adequately represented by their representatives.

Two common forms of gerrymandering are racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering. In 2018, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to set federal standards when states draw their districts that could ultimately curb partisan gerrymandering. Instead, the Court ruled to allow states to make their own determinations about partisan gerrymandering practices.

The New York State Constitution was amended in 2014 to designate an Independent Redistricting Commission to replace the legislature-controlled New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) as the entity responsible for drawing the lines. The new commission is made up of four Democratic and four Republican appointees. Two additional nonaffiliated commissioners who are not members of those parties are then selected by a majority vote of the eight politically-appointed commissioners.

Members shall represent the diversity of the residents of the state with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, language and geographic reference. They cannot have been a member of the NYS legislature or U.S. Congress, or a state-wide official, or have been a state officer or employee or legislative employee, a registered lobbyist in NYS, or a political party chairman, or the spouse of any of those mentioned. Co-executives, one from each party, direct it. A chairperson, to organize the panel, is elected by majority vote.

The legislature has recently appointed its eight members, and those eight members selected two additional nonaffiliated commissioners. The commission also recently met to hire its Co-Executive Directors and begin planning its bylaws and staffing plans

To ensure that the redistricting process is fair and doesn’t lead to racial or partisan gerrymandering, districts should contain as nearly as possible an equal number of inhabitants and shall consist of contiguous territory and be as compact in form as practicable. It should consider the maintenance of cores of existing districts, or pre-existing political subdivisions, including counties, cities and towns, and communities of interest. Data showing race, income, education, employment, and age will guide the process.

Although New York State has not passed a Voter Rights Act, it should follow the guidelines set by the federal Voter Rights Act, which targeted certain New York election districts for pre-clearance before changing election lines.

Because the date for releasing the census counts was moved from April to July 31, 2021, and June 2022 is now the first NYS primary affected, there is a shortened time frame for public review of the plan, and input of community members as the plan is made. The commission must hold 12 public hearings with proposed maps available at least 30 days prior to the first public hearing. The plan must be submitted to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2022. If it is rejected by the legislature or the governor, the commission must submit a second plan no later than Feb. 28, 2022, to be approved by the legislature and implemented by March 2022. If it is not then approved, the plan will be drawn up by the legislature, or by a court master.

The Independent Redistricting Commission can curb gerrymandering through increased public input, accountability and transparent processes. We urge the legislature to ensure that the commission follows open meetings laws and allows for ample citizen input at the twelve public hearings that are required and as the plans are drafted. The success of New York’s first independent redistricting commission hinges on whether the legislature can provide adequate support and allow sufficient independence for the newly formed maps commission. 

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Peggy Olness and Nancy Marr

It is said that 90% of Americans have already decided on their choice for President this year. In fact, early voting has already begun in some states (NYS starts on Oct. 24) and absentee ballots have been mailed by county Boards of Elections to those who’ve requested them. The Presidential campaigns have dominated the media for (it seems) a year, while voters barely register their interest on concerns about lower-ballot races and propositions.

All seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are voted on every two years, and Suffolk County voters are either in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd CD. Currently the Democrats have a majority of the 435 voting seats in the House. US Senators are elected for 6-year terms; in 2020 neither of our two senators is facing election. Currently the 100-member Senate has a Republican majority.

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New York State’s Senators and Assembly members are all up for election in 2020; the Governor is not. We experienced the use of executive orders for the Governor during the pandemic, but it’s up to the Legislature to codify the laws.

Both the NYS Senate and the NYS Assembly currently have Democratic majorities (historically the NYS Senate had a Republican majority) and have been able to pass a number of laws including voting reform in the past 2 years. Check your NYS Senate and Assembly races and candidates on Vote411.org.

Additionally, there are candidates for NYS Supreme Court, County Court Judges and Family Court Judges on your ballot. Most are cross-endorsed by all major parties; thus they have no opponents. Refer to Vote411.org to find the Judicial candidates on your ballot.

In addition to the races, party lines and candidates, every Suffolk County voter will have 2 resolutions on the reverse/back of your ballot. (Town of Riverhead voters will have a third resolution relating to their Town government). Each resolution statement is written as a question, and you have a choice to vote YES or NO.

The League of Women Voters of Suffolk County is not supporting or opposing any resolution, but will clarify the pros and cons or issues relating to each proposition.

PROP 1: for all Suffolk County voters

Shall Resolution No. 442-2020, adopting a charter law to change the legislative term of office for County legislators from two (2) years to four (4) years be approved?

Details:

The twelve-year term limit for legislators would remain in effect notwithstanding any change in the legislative term of office. If approved by voters, the four-year term of office would begin Jan. 1, 2022 (affecting all 18 Legislators elected on the November 2021 ballot.)

Pros:

■ All other Suffolk County elected officials serve four-year terms.

■ Allows more time for legislators to see projects come to fruition.

■ Frequent periods of campaigning for office and fundraising take time away from legislative issues.

Cons:

■ Frequent elections help to keep legislators accountable.

■ Frequent elections require candidates to hear from citizens more often.

PROP 2: for all Suffolk County voters

Shall Resolution No. 547-2020, adopting a charter law to transfer excess funds in the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund to the Suffolk County Taxpayer Trust Fund and to eliminate the requirement that interfund transfers be made from the General Fund to the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund be approved?

Purpose of Resolution 547-2020:

This resolution proposes that funds from the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund (ASRF) be made available to pay county operating expenses. In 1987, county voters passed a quarter cent sales tax to fund the Drinking Water Protection Program (DWPP). The funds have been used for land acquisition, maintenance of water quality and the sewer districts, including current efforts to fund septic systems that can remove nitrogen from waste water. The ASRF Fund 404, which receives 25% of the DWPP tax revenue, was created within the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program to protect taxpayers in sewer districts where there is an increase in costs of more than 3%.

The ASRF ended 2019 with a balance of 35 million dollars.  The resolution proposes a Suffolk County Taxpayers Trust Fund be created to receive 15 million dollars of the unspent balance, as well as any other sum that may be transferred to the Trust Fund to balance the county’s operating budget.   

The resolution also proposes that a debt of $144,719 million, borrowed from the DWPP since 2011, be canceled so that the funds that are released can be placed in the Trust Fund for use by the county for its operating budget, if so passed by the legislature.

Background:

In September 2020, the New York State Comptroller listed Suffolk County as one of the eight NYS municipalities in significant fiscal stress, stating “since the pandemic hit, local governments have seen a massive drop in sales tax collections. This is hurting their bottom lines and many have few options to plug the hole.” Rather than borrow from other sources that impose interest charges, the county borrowed from the DWPP with the requirement that it pay the amount borrowed back once revenue sources rebounded.

In 2018, 2019, and 2020 the county paid back a total of $26,581 million, leaving $144,719 million outstanding. The County Executive points out that Suffolk has satisfied some of its obligations by already spending $29.4 million for water quality and land acquisition projects, as agreed to in a 2014 settlement, in which he agreed to repayment by 2029.

There is concern that the intent and result of the resolution becoming law, although it deals with a complex issue, is not clearly phrased to the voter. The resolution is contrary to two court decisions. In the Levy lawsuit in 2011 and the settlement by the County Executive in 2014, the county has been ordered to repay the monies borrowed from a fund dedicated to drinking water protection. 

Visit the LWVSC website resources page at https://my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county/resources to learn more about Suffolk County finances, the actual legislation behind the propositions and more details on Proposition 2.

Peggy Olness is a board member and Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Suffolk County police car. File photo

By Nancy Marr

In 2009, the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) was investigated by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) after the death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian national murdered by teenagers in Patchogue. The SCPD cooperated with the DOJ investigation and signed an agreement that the SCPD would ensure that it would police equitably, respectfully and free of unlawful bias. It agreed to maintain a true Community Oriented Police Enforcement program through the County, and strengthen outreach efforts in the Latino communities.

Gov. Cuomo’s June 12 statewide Executive Order states that all police agencies must “develop a plan that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input. Each police agency’s reform plan must address policies, procedures, practices and deployment, including, but not limited to use of force.” Police forces must adopt a plan by April 1, 2021 to be eligible for future state funding and certify that they have:

• Engaged stakeholders in a public and open process on policing strategies and tools;

• Presented a plan by chief executive and head of the local police force to the public for comment;

• After consideration of any comments, presented such plan to the local legislative body (council or legislature as appropriate) which has approved such plan (by either local law or resolution); and

• If such local government does not certify the plan, the police force may not be eligible to receive future state funding.

Governor Cuomo said, “Our law enforcement officers are essential to ensuring public safety — they literally put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect us. This emergency regulation will help rebuild that confidence and restore trust between police and the communities they serve by requiring localities to develop a new plan for policing in the community based on fact-finding and meaningful community input.”

The Suffolk County plan development will be conducted by Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Sheriff Errol Toulon, and will consist of stakeholders from all sectors of the county, seeking to address any racial bias, use of force, negligence and sensitivity, and about incidents where the police have reacted differently when treating minorities.

Recent review of police conduct show that the police are often tasked to deal with issues of mental health, homelessness and addiction as often as crime prevention or property protection. Many communities have developed programs to respond with mental health workers, either before or with the police. Since 1989, in Eugene Oregon, a mobile crisis intervention team (Cahoots) responds to calls involving people who may be in mental distress. Police back-up is called in only when necessary. Examples of programs are numerous, but each jurisdiction has its own data, issues and challenges.

Open meetings and providing information to the public through the media will be needed to engage community members in the process. It is a chance for the community to get a fuller understanding of how a police and community relationship based on trust, fairness, accountability and transparency, necessary to reduce any racial disparities in policing is truly possible.

Suffolk County’s success will depend on the commitment of County Executive Steve Bellone to promptly and transparently communicate his support, and not interfere in the forums while listening to the concerns and passions of stakeholders. Nassau County already has announced the beginning of their process, while all is quiet in Suffolk County.

Engaging representatives of groups with different perspectives and experiences, in a facilitated non-judgmental setting, is a step toward creating a community that treats everyone fairly.  Please reach out to our County Executive and your County Legislator to support a process that engages participants through the county in a fair and honest evaluation of police practices, and envisions new ways of approaching community safety and social justice. Time is of the essence!

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

The year 2020 in New York State began with excitement about voting access and modernization. Governor Cuomo had signed the bill for 9 days of early voting in November 2019 and New York voters embraced it.

We synchronized federal, state and local primary elections to reduce costs and encourage greater turnout. Young people can pre-register at ages sixteen and seventeen with automatic registration when they turn eighteen. Voters who move within the state will have their registration go with them seamlessly. We also closed the LLC Loophole, meaning that an LLC’s political spending was limited to the same amount allowed to corporations, $5,000 annually. We expected to see the fruit of these efforts this year.

Then, starting in March, we saw the threat of the pandemic on voter safety. After declaring a state of emergency, Gov. Cuomo ordered the presidential primaries postponed from April 28 to June 23 (already the date of state and local primaries) and then ordered Boards of Elections to send Absentee Ballot (AB) applications to all voters in New York State eligible to vote in a primary.

There was great confusion since some voters had already mailed individual AB applications, and those were different from the mass-mailed applications. The NYS Board of Elections announced cancellation of the Democratic presidential primary due to pandemic fears. Then a court declared that cancellation invalid, and the primary was back on. This caused the absentee ballots to be on two pages (presidential on one, other offices on another page) resulting in some  eligible voters not receiving both ballot pages.

A huge number of people in Suffolk County applied for Absentee Ballots (more than double the in-person number of voters) and counting mailed in ballots could only begin on July 1 and was expected to end on July 9. Our media didn’t help either; readers were told which candidates were “leading” after the relatively small number of in-person votes were counted on election night (in CD1’s Democratic primary, about 15,000).

As if that amount of confusion couldn’t be any worse, due to the virus a very large number of poll workers chose not to work on election day, regular polling sites refused to be hosts and the Suffolk Board of Elections reduced the actual number of polling places on June 23 by almost two-thirds.

Letters were mailed to voters just before election day, but chaos resulted, including removing neighborhood polling places in communities where transportation was a challenge as well as communities of color. Signage was poor or non-existent in new locations and many places were hard to find. 

Voters in New York State have traditionally felt that although we had antiquated aspects to our elections (no early voting, no “no excuse” absentee ballots, no same-day voter registration, and terrible voter turnout) we were in pretty good shape compared to other states that were suppressing the vote. Our blinders have now been removed and much work needs to be done, quickly and thoughtfully, in order to assure a fair, secure, auditable, inclusive and clear process on Nov. 3.

Your voice counts as much as your vote. The New York State Legislature has already closed its session, but the Governor can bring them back. We need money allocated to the Boards of Elections to ensure the Nov. 3 elections are perceived by all voters as valid and reflective of all those who voted.

Study media writeups of the June 23 results during July, learn from them, and in the fall help spread nonpartisan communication about the process. The League of Women Voters’ voter information website, www.VOTE411.org. is a great starting point to see if a voter is registered, learn who is on their ballot, and understand election law and changes in their state.

Threats to the viability of the United State Postal Service will be an issue if the November election is deemed not safe enough for in-person voting. Congress must act immediately to fix the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) which required the USPS to create a $72 billion fund to pay for the cost of its post-retirement health care costs, 75 years into the future. This burden applies to no other federal agency or private corporation.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

Because of New York State’s identity as the current U.S. “Epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 7 issued Executive Order 2020, declaring a State disaster for the State of New York, which gives him the power to modify any statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule or regulation if necessary to assist or aid in coping with such disaster. 

An Executive Order, issued on April 24, requires that every voter who is in active or inactive status and is eligible to vote in the primary elections on June 23 shall be sent an absentee ballot application with a postage paid return option.  

Earlier, Gov. Cuomo had announced that he was cancelling the April 28 presidential primary and postponing it to June 23. Then on April 27 the NYS Board of Elections (BOE) canceled the June 23 presidential primary amid pandemic concerns, which means that Bernie Sanders will not  appear on the ballot in the state and Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, will get all the 274 pledged delegates. 

Gov. Cuomo had added a provision to the state budget earlier this month that allowed the BOE to remove candidates from the ballot if they had dropped out of the race; if Biden were the only nominee left, the BOE could then cancel the election. 

The election on June 23, 2020, thus will combine the state and congressional primaries (the special elections that were scheduled for June 23 will be postponed to the General Election on Nov. 3, 2020). In order to vote in a primary, you must have registered in the party holding the election by Feb. 14, 2020. To be sure that you are registered in a party, visit www.voterlookup.elections.ny.gov. To find out which primary candidates will be on your ballot, check www.Vote411.org.  

Be sure to exercise your right to vote. When you receive the absentee ballot application (mailed if you are eligible to vote on June 23), complete it, checking the box for “temporary illness or disability,“ and return it in the postage paid envelope provided. 

If you do not receive the application, and believe you are eligible to vote in the election, contact the BOE, but you can also obtain an application from your local post office, or go to the BOE website  https://suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/BOE to find an application that you can complete, copy, and return by mail or email. (The Governor has waived the requirement for a signature for this election.) 

When the ballots are finalized, one will be mailed to each voter who has returned an application and is eligible to vote in a primary on June 23. Your completed ballot must be returned in the envelope provided no later than the close of polls on June 23 or postmarked no later than the day before the election.

Regarding future mail-in voting by absentee ballot: The New York State Legislature during the 2019 session passed legislation to remove the specific conditions needed for an absentee ballot. This no-excuse absentee ballot would make it easier to vote. Since it would be a constitutional change, however, it must be passed again by the next legislative session, and then submitted to the electorate in a referendum in 2021. If it passes, it will make permanent the no-excuse absentee ballot that Gov. Cuomo has provided temporarily.  

Separately, State Senator Biaggi and Assemblymember Jacobson introduced a bill this year to amend the election law to define “illness” as ”the spread or potential spread of any communicable disease, at a time of declaration of a state of emergency …” This is still in committee, but, if passed, would make it possible to vote by absentee ballot in all elections held in the future during a state of emergency. Stay safe; make your voice heard.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

When Newsday published its account of racial discrimination in housing last December, people were sad to read it but most said it was not a surprise. 

By documenting it with the results of 25 testers we are forced to look for explanations and then for solutions. Racial attitudes from the past were carried over by the federal government; it advocated racially restrictive covenants on deeds to prevent homes from being occupied by African Americans, Jews and other minorities. 

The Federal Housing Administration’s manual in 1936 stated that deed restrictions should prohibit occupancy of homes “except by the race for which they are intended” lest “incompatible racial elements“ would cause housing values to fall. In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-restrictive covenants were not enforceable, but the practice remained. The 1968 Fair Housing Act signed by President Johnson finally made racial discrimination illegal. 

Blatant discrimination began to give way to steering; black house hunters were shown homes only in minority or integrated areas while whites were shown houses in overwhelmingly white areas. As people of color began to buy homes in mostly white areas, block busting by real estate brokers took advantage of the situation by scaring white homeowners into selling their homes at lowered prices. 

The U.S. Justice Department ruled racial steering illegal under the Fair Housing Act and both state and federal governments launched efforts to investigate and curtail steering and block busting. Local agencies like the Human Rights Commission and Suffolk Housing Services have been able to bring cases of discrimination and steering to court with some success.

And yet the testers in the current study showed that significant proportions of homebuyers of color were not shown homes in areas with better schools or primarily white populations, but African Americans, Latinos, and Asians were shown homes in areas that the testers told white homebuyers they would not want to live in. 

It is significant that the salespeople chose to match their prospective buyers with the schools in the districts they were shown. They knew that white buyers would want to live in the areas with the best schools that they could afford. They showed the buyers of color homes in areas with poorer schools, even though they too wanted to live in the areas with the best schools they could afford. 

The Newsday article was followed by County Executive Bellone’s announcement that a testing program will be launched by Suffolk County. New York State has already started trainings for the real estate industry with strict enforcement of the rules that should guide them.  

But can the solution rest with enforcement of civil rights laws? At the LIVE Newsday event, panels of experts discussed the article on discrimination and filled in some of the spaces. The method of funding schools in New York State, if not changed, will continue to create  competition for funds between “good” areas and “bad” ones.  Deep seated public prejudices and fear of changes that might affect home values often influence real estate brokers, who can play a role in re-educating the public about housing discrimination but who are not insensitive to the attitudes of their clients. 

How can we, as the community, change our attitudes? Can community planners in towns and villages find ways to include all segments of the community to find solutions? The Village of Patchogue worked with the Long Island Housing Partnership to build workforce housing priced for families with lower incomes, chosen by a lottery. Located near the railroad station, it has brought together a diverse group of younger families and stimulated the building of other housing downtown. The entrepreneurship of  Latinos in Patchogue has supported the growth of the business district. 

Other sustainable developments throughout Suffolk County are redeveloping vacant malls and stores to build affordable and workforce housing, overcoming the shortage of available land and finding ways around the need for sewers. The L. I. Housing Partnership has formed a land trust to acquire and own the land that it leases to homeowners, reducing the cost of homeownership.  Vision Long Island’s website VisionLongIsland.org gives examples of development projects that address issues of diversity. 

Make your voice heard. Let your county, town and village representatives know that you want all neighborhoods to welcome housing for a diversity of people in thriving communities. 

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

Each Election Day we have the opportunity to vote for the candidates we think are best for our communities.

This Nov. 5, candidates will be on the ballot for positions as Suffolk County executive and legislators in each of the 18 county legislative districts. The county executive manages and supervises the county’s departments and agencies, establishing the efficiency and effectiveness of county government — setting policy, standards, goals and objectives and hiring and evaluating the performance of county management personnel.

As manager of the county finances, the county executive creates and presents an annual budget to the Legislature. He or she represents the county at meetings, forums and intergovernmental relations with other levels of government. To learn more about the county executive, call to make an appointment with a staff member to discuss an issue of concern to you and ask what the executive can do about it.

The Suffolk County Legislature consists of 18 legislative districts, each of which elects a representative every two years. (Every 10 years, after each census is tallied, the districts are redrawn according to the redistribution of the population.) The Legislature is the elected body responsible for public health and public safety. Its presiding officer appoints the members and chairs of committees.

There are currently 12 committees, each one dealing with a different subject – health, economic development, transportation, etc. The members, schedule and agendas for meetings of the Legislature are on the county website at www.scnylegislature.us/. Committee meetings are held the week before the general meetings, and the public may attend and address the committee. A call to the chairperson of the committee you wish to visit may open up a line of communication.

When a bill is proposed, it is assigned to a committee which brings in experts to inform committee members, listens to testimony from concerned citizens and votes on it. If a bill is passed through the committee, it will move to the agenda of the next general meeting for consideration by the full Legislature.

Both the Suffolk County executive and the 18 Suffolk County legislator positions are term-limited. Each can serve up to 12 years (three 4-year terms for the county executive, and six 2-year terms for the legislators). Consult the League of Women Voter’s Directory of Public Officials at www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/files/2019DPO_web_6-23-19.pdf for information on the 2019 officeholders and their contact details.

How can you know whether the incumbent represents your point of view about a particular issue? Attend any meetings where it will be discussed or listen to the streaming of the meetings on your phone or computer.

Each meeting, held in either Hauppauge or Riverhead, includes a Public Portion, when members of the public may make statements to the legislators about any of their concerns. (They may not answer questions asked by constituents at the meeting but can be reached at their office if you wish to speak with them.) What can we find out about the opposing candidates? Information from news articles, debates held by civic organizations, events where the candidates will be meeting voters and websites such as www.vote411.org/ are ways to learn more about all candidates.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, recognizing how hard it is to hold public officials accountable, has scheduled training sessions open to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Deer Park Public Library, Oct. 3 at the Patchogue-Medford Library, Oct. 8 at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, and Oct. 9 at Middle Country Public Library in Centereach. Call 631-650-2301 or email [email protected] for more information or to register.

The election is but one step in the process. Our job continues with the candidate who has won. We can continue to speak at the Legislature and committee meetings, and at meetings with the legislator and/or staff to work toward action. Gathering others who share and support your concerns will strengthen your efforts to create positive change.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

In July 2015, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman made permanent the Commission to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York. To measure the impact of the justice gap on vulnerable litigants and others, a task force had been created in 2010 to assess the extent and nature of the state’s civil legal services crisis. 

It held public hearings with civil legal providers, law firms, law schools and other stakeholders statewide and determined that the chronic lack of  free and low-cost legal assistance has led to a crisis in the courts, reflected by the ever-rising number of unrepresented litigants in these cases whose incomes are too low to pay for legal representation (a low-income family of four in New York State earns about 125 percent of the poverty level of $25,750).   

The mission of the commission is to ensure access to justice for all by using every resource, including self-help services, pro bono programs, technological tools and adequate funding (now $100 million of dedicated state funds annually for civil legal services throughout New York State). In order to add more pro bono attorneys, the commission amended the Rules of Professional Conduct to recommend an increase of annual pro bono hours for lawyers and for law school graduates seeking admission to the New York State bar from 10 to 50.   

The commission sought a site for a local pilot in which a strategic action plan could be developed; its goal would be providing effective assistance to all the persons in need and its success could then inform similar efforts in communities statewide. 

Looking at Suffolk County it found significant assets: a supportive judiciary, engaged providers, an active bar association and an involved law school that provides a variety of legal clinics for residents and trainings for legal service providers are significant assets. 

Suffolk’s challenges include its geography, the highest number of veterans in the state, a high percentage of homeless persons and many unaccompanied minors. A substantial  percentage of the population speaks a language other than English at home. 

Because the needs of many community members were still unmet, Suffolk was selected as a pilot. The gaps in legal services in Suffolk County are largest in three areas: family law, immigration and re-entry of veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals. Housing and health care also loom high in need for legal help. 

With funding from the Public Welfare Association, under the leadership of Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, Suffolk County launched its program with the Suffolk Planning Group, including civil legal aid providers, the judiciary, the Suffolk County Bar and Touro Law Center. Prior to starting the program, they held listening sessions, attended by 70 of the community organizations that are points of entry for people seeking help. 

Despite the number of service providers, many recognized that they were unfamiliar with each other’s services and that gaps exist that present opportunities for community integration and resource awareness. Training will be provided for these organizations and nonlawyer volunteers on how to make effective referrals. Recognizing the importance of talking to people in their own language, and at their level, these organizations can provide assistance to people in need that can prevent the escalation of issues into court matters. 

To publicize the legal resources that exist in Suffolk, and make it easier to navigate the system, the Suffolk Planning Group is soon to launch a website that would include offerings of the many legal service providers and advocacy groups. The two centers for help are Brentwood Public Library, 34 Second Ave., Brentwood, and Middle Country Public Library, 575 Middle Country Road, Selden. Suffolk residents may call 631-822-3272 for appointments with attorneys who provide advice in areas of law to persons in need. Informational materials are available at the centers, as well as training videos. 

The intersections between individuals and the civil justice system are complex. As we begin to break down barriers, we can enable everyone to access the information and effective assistance they need, and in a form they can use. With an integrated system where communities are empowered; courts participate and support access to justice initiatives; and legal service providers are dedicated to serving those in need, the provision of effective assistance will help people improve their lives. 

To view copies of the Community Legal Help Project information flyers in English and in Spanish, visit https://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/TakeAction.html.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

Concern about the school to prison pipeline has mounted in recent years. At the opening of the first federal hearing on the subject, earlier this year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said, “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.” 

Matthew Cregot, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, explained, “With suspension a top predictor of dropout, we must confront this practice if we are ever to end the ‘dropout crisis,’ or the so-called achievement gap.”

A zero-tolerance policy requires school officials to hand down specific, consistent and harsh punishment — usually suspension or expulsion — when students break certain rules. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense) or the student’s history of discipline problems.

These policies developed in the 1990s in response to school shootings and general fears about crime. The school to prison pipeline starts (or is best avoided) in the classroom. When combined with zero-tolerance policies, a teacher’s decision to refer students for punishment can mean they are pushed out of the classroom, and much more likely to be headed toward the criminal justice system.

On May 10, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. (D) and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) from Babylon brought together experts in juvenile justice, child development, human services, law and trauma to develop A Holistic Approach to Deconstructing the Prison Pipeline.

Testimony at the hearing identified domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental health issues, lack of education and gangs as factors that lead young people into crime, and called for the creation of “safe spaces” for “at-risk” children to receive counseling, recreational activities, job training and education.

Intervention to help a child must recognize that he may be calling out for help, angry at himself and his environment; instead, what he gets is punishment. Significantly, three previously incarcerated women testified that prison had rescued them. It changed their environment by providing for their basic needs, making them follow rules, requiring them to go to school.

Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that the increase in police in school buildings, called school resource officers, has contributed to the increase in in-school arrests. The vast majority of these arrests are for nonviolent offenses, often for being disruptive.

A recent U.S. Department of Education study found that more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic. Children with special needs are also arrested at a higher rate than others. Instead of pushing children out, Katzerman said, teachers need a lot more support and training for effective discipline, and schools need to use best practices of behavior modification to keep these kids in school where they belong. 

In restorative justice circles, which bring together the student who has committed the crime with the victims and any others who are affected, it is possible to repair the harm, restore relationships and help the student become accountable for his actions. 

Parent groups have successfully worked with school districts to change zero-tolerance policies and adopt schoolwide positive behavior support systems that create a more welcoming environment for children and their parents, encouraging parents to advocate effectively for their children in suspension cases. These are societal issues that will not be solved solely within schools. We need to take action to create a society that meets the needs of all children.

“Deconstructing the prison pipeline is about mobilizing all facets of the community to prevent juvenile delinquency and crime,” said Toulon. “It’s about implementing practical prevention and intervention solutions that will improve people’s lives and make our communities safer.”

You can support programs in your school or community that work for all children, but especially those who need help to overcome the trauma of family problems or mental illness.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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By Nancy Marr

After each decennial census, the Constitution requires each state to re-draw the lines for election districts in order to allocate the number of Congressional house seats fairly if they have gained or lost population. In 42 states they are drawn by the state legislature, while in six states they are drawn by independent commissions and in seven states by politician commissions, where elected officials may serve as members. 

We know that technology makes it possible to mine data for many socio-economic factors, but do you realize that candidates who are drawing the lines can access records on political party registrations of the voters in their district and which elections they’ve voted in to configure legislative districts that will protect their incumbency?

Drawing the lines so that members of the opposition party are diluted by being spread out among many districts (“cracking”) or concentrated in only one district (“packing”) denies the right to an equal vote to those in the minority party. 

The Supreme Court had found complaints about apportionment to be a purely political question outside of their purview, but 1962’s decision in Baker v. Carr held that federal courts had a role in forcing states to correct inequities in the makeup of electoral districts, leading to the rule of “one person, one vote.”  Under the Equal Protection clause in the Constitution, inequality in voting power is unconstitutional, especially when it affects the rights of minorities.  

Advocates in many states have challenged gerrymandering in the courts, based on partisanship or race. Currently, many of the cases heard by the Supreme Court have been denied because the plaintiffs lacked standing, without a finding on whether the claims were justifiable. 

The League of Women Voters of the United States and many state and local leagues have been involved in court cases with other groups or on their own. LWVUS is waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court on a gerrymandering case it brought in North Carolina, and leagues in Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas have been involved in challenges to unfair districting or registration practices. The relief that is sought are often independent redistricting commissions to draw the new lines.  

In 2008, Common Cause led an effort to pass Proposition 11 in California. It placed the power to draw electoral boundaries for state Assembly and state Senate districts in a Citizens Redistricting Commission, as opposed to the state Legislature. The act, proposed by the initiative process, amended both the Constitution of California and the Government Code.  

It was passed by the voters in the November 2008 elections and was extended in 2010  to include U.S. House seats as well. It passed by a small margin despite opposition from the California Democratic Party, including Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi, and Asian, Hispanic and African American groups. They argued that it would not prevent politicians from hiding behind the selected bureaucrats, and would not guarantee protection for minority groups. 

HR1, on the 2019 Congressional calendar, includes proposals that would mandate the use of independent commissions and the establishment of redistricting criteria, including racial fairness, protection for communities of interest and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. It would require public hearings before and after a plan is drafted, and a requirement that the responses to public comment be included alongside the final plan. 

The Brennan Center for Justice interviewed a diverse group of 100 stakeholders who were involved with redistricting in state-level redistricting and municipal commissions. It concluded that commissions can significantly reduce many of the worst abuses associated with redistricting but only if the commissions are carefully designed and structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.  

Despite efforts to require the use of independent commissions, or amend state constitutions to prohibit gerrymandering, fair competition among candidates can only result if all voters believe their candidate can win. As long as information about party membership or voting patterns is available to those drawing lines, redistricting will not be a blind process. 

Today’s technology and algorithms make it too easy to configure districts that include voters who would consistently return incumbents or elect officials of a given party. For our democracy to prosper, all citizens must have the opportunity to vote and to know that their vote will count.  

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.