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Brookhaven Redistricting Committee

Coram resident Logan Mazer, above, presented a map of least change, a proposal he said would preserve communities of interest on the Brookhaven Town Council.

From gavel to gavel, it looked like any other public meeting of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee. 

But this was no meeting at all, at least not officially. Without a stenographer, an advising counsel or quorum, the three members present were left alone in a hot and humid room to hear public comments on redistricting.

George Hoffman (left), Rabia Aziz (middle) and Gail Lynch-Bailey (right) during an unofficial public meeting of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee. 

On Friday, Aug. 5, five of the eight members of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee failed to make an appearance at a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Setauket Neighborhood House, standing up the three Democratic appointees to the committee and dozens of Brookhaven residents. For a committee that is, by design, supposed to be nonpartisan and independent, this marks yet another setback in a redistricting process which has become an all-out circus.

Meeting cancellation

George Hoffman, a Setauket resident and member of the redistricting committee, explained the last-minute cancellation of Friday’s meeting. He said originally the committee suspected it would have enough members to hold the meeting. 

In the final hours leading up to the meeting, Hoffman said the quorum quickly dissolved as more committee members announced they could not attend. By mid-afternoon, the committee’s counsel, Vincent Messina, informed the remaining members that the meeting was canceled.

“This afternoon at 2 or 3 o’clock, we were told that Vinny Messina canceled the meeting without even discussing it with the chairpeople,” Hoffman said. “They decided to cancel this meeting without any concern for the people that were already coming. They only pulled it from their website at 4:30.”

Hoffman, who has clashed publicly with the committee’s counsel, has criticized the way in which the redistricting process has unfolded. Despite a looming Sept. 15 deadline, Hoffman said the committee members have had little to no input throughout this process.

“The committee has been completely divorced from the mapmaking process,” he said. “Other than just sitting here at the public meetings that we’ve had, we’ve never met with the mapmaker, we’ve never explained what we would like to see in the maps.” Referring to the two maps that have circulated on the committee’s website, he added, “Those maps came out of nowhere. We never accepted them as a committee, even for discussion purposes. They’re just a fiction.”

Between the mysteriously created maps and the cancellation of public meetings, Hoffman has expressed growing frustration with the outside counsel. “We’ve tried to pull together this commission, but they keep insisting that those maps that they created somehow have validity, which we say they don’t.”

Messina could not be reached for comment.

‘The most egregious and unnecessary thing that I see in these proposed maps is dividing Port Jefferson Station.’

—Steve Englebright

Public comments

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) reflected on the days when there were at-large elections for the Brookhaven Town Council. With at-large elections, the residents did not feel connected to their representatives. 

The change to councilmanic elections did not change the balance of power in Brookhaven, according to Englebright, but it strengthened the connection between representatives and constituents.

“It was not something that favored the Democratic Party — what it favored was the democratic principle,” Englebright said. “It favored direct representation, it made Brookhaven grow up, if you will, within the context of the promise and premise of a direct representation form of government.”

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), above, condemned draft maps that propose the splitting of Port Jefferson Station and Terryville into separate council districts. 

Englebright addressed the precarious future of Port Jefferson Station/Terryville, which is split  under the two draft proposals on the committee’s website. He supported keeping that community of interest unified under one council district.

“Port Jefferson Station, under the mysterious map, would be divided — the library would be in one part, the high school would be in somebody else’s district,” the assemblyman said. “We worked hard for communities to have … direct representation, so the most egregious and unnecessary thing that I see in these proposed maps is dividing Port Jefferson Station.”

Logan Mazer, a resident of Coram, responded to the two map proposals on the committee’s website. “When I saw the two maps that were put out, I was disgusted and horrified that they would attempt to make such a dramatic change from the current maps that we have now,” he said. 

Mazer proposed a map of his own. “Today, we have a viable option with my map, the map of least change,” he said. “While I will be the first to admit that the map has its flaws and is not perfect, I wholeheartedly believe that it is the best option to create fair and equitable [districts] for all of Brookhaven Town.”

Ira Castell, a member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, supported Mazer’s proposal, arguing that it best comports with the town code and keeps communities of interest together.

“That meets the letter of the law and the intent of the law,” he said. “It keeps the capacity for this community of interest — ours here in the 1st District — to stay together.” He added, “It’s not the ‘Port Jeff Station/Half of Terryville Civic Association.’ We are all united.”

Castell defined the term “community of interest.” A community of interest, he said, “is for people who have a common policy concern and would benefit from being maintained in a single district. Another way of understanding a community of interest is that it is simply a way for a community to tell its own story.”

Under this definition, PJS/Terryville constitutes a community of interest, according to Castell. For this reason alone, it should be unified within the town council, he indicated.

Port Jefferson Village trustee Rebecca Kassay, above, stood in solidarity with her neighbors in PJS/Terryville. 

Port Jefferson Village trustee Rebecca Kassay also made an appearance at this unofficial meeting. Speaking as a private citizen, she stood in solidarity with her neighbors in Port Jefferson Station/Terryville. 

“I have had tremendous success … working alongside the civic association, the chamber of commerce and these other groups in Port Jefferson Station/Terryville, who have made phenomenal progress,” Kassay said. “As their neighbor, I know that our success in revitalizing the uptown of Port Jefferson village hinges on the success of Port Jefferson Station/Terryville.” She added, “I do not want to see that community split up because there is so much strength there.”

Following adjournment, members of the public agreed to bring their grievances to Brookhaven Town Hall during a meeting of the Town Board on Thursday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m.

—Photos by Raymond Janis

Photo from Brookhaven Town website

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) has encountered several hurdles throughout his tenure. In Part II of this two-part series, he forecasts the upcoming redistricting process for the town council, highlights the challenges of offering adequate public transportation to Brookhaven residents and shares the lessons learned from his decades in public office.   

What are your expectations for the upcoming redistricting of the Brookhaven Town Council?

I don’t expect many changes whatsoever. I don’t expect it to be controversial. There will be some people who are partisan who will want to make it controversial, but it will not be partisan.

I expect it will be done fairly. I do not expect many changes at all. I do expect that the minority-majority district stays together, and that’s the district that includes North Bellport and Gordon Heights, which are the two major minority areas in our town, as well as Coram.

So I don’t expect many changes at all. The only changes that would have to be made are for the shift in population that the [2020] Census would project.

Now I don’t have anything to do with redistricting. We have a Redistricting Committee and we are waiting for the Redistricting Committee to come and offer choices, which will be discussed by everyone on the Town Board.

But the council will be voting on the maps, correct?

At some point, but I’m not going to vote for any major changes. I expect there to be only minor changes as reflected by a shift in population. And I do expect to keep the 4th [Council] District together, which includes Gordon Heights and North Bellport, so that those major minority communities continue to have the opportunity for representation.

In draft maps circulated by the Redistricting Committee, there is a proposal to split the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community, along with Mount Sinai, between two council districts. Would you vote under any scenario to separate those communities of interest?

There might be a scenario in which I would take a look at that. You’re asking a simple question to a complicated answer. There are other factors that you have to take into account, such as keeping a minority district intact. The second district, which is represented by Jane Bonner [R-Rocky Point], has to grow. Where does that grow? How does that affect things?

If we don’t do that, how does that affect the other districts? Because it’s like a Rubik’s Cube: You have to turn all the sides to get it perfect. I want to hear their explanation and I certainly want to listen to why they thought that was the better choice. I want to listen to that, and I’m not about to rush to judgment on anything without hearing a full explanation, and I’m sure those issues will be raised at our public hearing.

What are your thoughts on the state of public transit in your township?

I am a huge supporter of public transportation because there are a lot of people that depend on it. The bus system in this county is so broken. We don’t get even half of the subsidy that Nassau County gets. It’s just incredible, the lack of coordination between buses and trains, which is so needed because not everyone owns a car or wants to use a car.

Do you believe that the Long Island Rail Road is doing enough to expand services into Brookhaven?

I live in the largest town [by area] and the second most populous town in the State of New York, and yet it is served by 19th-century technology: diesel, which is a polluting, dirty fuel.

I have been beating and beating on this issue since the day I came here. We should have had electrification of all of our lines much earlier than this and we’re still arguing over it. Every year we argue that, the price goes up. So we’re stuck with diesel, which is a polluting fuel.

Other than a mile on the main line in Ronkonkoma, all of my three lines — the southern, the main line and the northern line — are all diesel. Electric ends at Huntington, and from Huntington to Port Jeff it’s all diesel. Electric ends at Ronkonkoma and everything east is diesel. Electric ends on the Montauk line at Babylon, and everything east is diesel.

The investment has been skewed away from this Island. Our voice has not been raised, there hasn’t been an investment in providing modern technology. And I’m talking about 20th-century technology, which is electric; 21st-century technology is maglev [a train technology supported by magnetic repulsion] … Forget it, they’re not even talking about the future.

Most 20th-century technology has bypassed my town because the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] has not made any investment. All the money seems to be funneled into the City of New York. We have a million-and-a-half people out here in Suffolk County, and that’s wrong.

It’s so frustrating. I am passionate about these issues and I am in public office to do something, not to sit here and collect a salary but to do something and to make a change for the better for everyone in this town.

Could you summarize your approach to budgeting, taxation and public expenditures?

I believe there’s a role for public expenditures. I also believe, living as I do on Long Island, that our taxes are way too high and that we have too many levels of government. It’s amazing: If you go elsewhere in the United States, you don’t have all the levels of government that we have here.

I’m a great believer in — as much as possible — not raising taxes and being fiscally responsible. Someone said, “Can you sum up your political philosophy?” Yeah, I’m a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and an environmental liberal. It’s really simple.

When I arrived, it was no fault of Supervisor [Mark] Lesko [D] or Supervisor [Brian] Foley [D], both of whom I had known for many, many years, that they were caught up in the 2008 recession. Things were bad, the town had taken on debt and we were not viewed as financially stable.

When I came [into office], I said, “Let me see the last audit.” The audit had numerous exceptions that pointed out the failings of the town. I worked on that audit and those exceptions to improve our financial condition. And I have to say, I am blessed with a very good finance commissioner, Tamara Branson. She is very, very good, along with a number of other people in the finance department.

I worked with them and the following year, the rating agencies gave the town a AAA bond rating and we’ve never had less for as long as I have been supervisor. We’ve always stayed at or below the tax cap and have always tried to limit and look at things on how we could be more efficient in delivering services because there’s a tremendous amount of inefficiency built into governmental services.

What motivates you to continue your work to this day?

I’m motivated because I see that with effort and energy, you can make a difference, if only incrementally. I am about doing all I can to move Brookhaven forward. I owe it to the people that elected me.

There are a lot of bad things about public life, but the great thing is that you meet a lot of great people. You get involved with civics and other organizations; you see people donating their time and energy for the public good; and it’s great to work with people like that. We have a lot of nonprofits and civics that we work with to make this town better.

That keeps my motivation going, and I’m just going to continue to do that and focus on the job as supervisor every day I come to work, whether it’s on the small problems or the big problems.

Looking back, which project or initiative are you proudest of? And conversely, what do you view as your greatest setback along the way?

I would say that the things I’m proudest of are saving as much open space and farmland as possible — both as a [county] legislator and a supervisor — and putting a plan together to preserve the Carmans River Watershed. I view that as a tremendous achievement, not of myself, but something that will endure because it will mean that these areas will not be developed.

My greatest disappointment is not getting people to do the right thing, like the MTA with electrification, or the [New York Department of Environmental Conservation] on working with us to strengthen recycling. These are all regulatory things, and we need people to be less regulatory and more innovative in terms of approaching issues such as recycling and mass transit.

Also, I have been here for a while and I see the structure of government. Brookhaven would be much better off by itself as a county. To have one level of government to be able to go to and get things accomplished would probably be better, but that’s not practicable and that’s not happening.

That being said, you set yourself up, you work at it every day, and hopefully you will make a difference. The biggest thing I can do when I’m eventually retired is to look back upon the town and say, “I left it better than when I found it.”

What do you consider to be your legacy at Town Hall?

I think it would be embodied in the phrase, “Save what’s left.”

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

First of all, I’m very honored to be a supervisor and I remind myself every day of what an honor it is to serve the people of Brookhaven, who have been extremely kind to me by electing me by large margins each time I’ve run. They have given me the confidence and the faith to do their work every day.

I am so lucky to have the trust and support of the majority of the people in this town. I don’t forget it and I am very grateful for it, so I would say thank you for the opportunity to serve. I hope that those who follow me come with the same passion, commitment and dedication. And I am sure that there are many who came before me who did the same.

If we can continue that, our society is going to be a good society and my grandchildren are going to grow up in this town. I am just honored to be here.

Brookhaven residents gathered at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center, above, in opposition to the proposed draft maps. File photo

Dozens of local residents turned out on Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center in Mount Sinai to voice their concerns over the proposed redistricting plans for the Brookhaven Town Council.

The meeting was called by the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee, which has recently drawn public scrutiny over proposed maps that suggest significant changes to Council Districts 1 and 2. In an attempt to clear up any confusion surrounding two existing maps circulating on the town’s website, members of the committee held their own deliberations on this matter.

‘These maps, to me, don’t seem sensitive to what communities are and what communities can achieve when they work together.’

— Jonathan Kornreich

George Hoffman, a Setauket resident and member of the redistricting committee, questioned the legitimacy of the draft maps. Under these proposed boundaries, Council Districts 1 and 2 would see significant changes, as half of Port Jefferson Station/Terryville would be swapped for half of Mount Sinai.

During the meeting, the committee announced that it had not yet met with the mapmaker or had any discussion on the maps. To clear up confusion, the board voted unanimously to designate the existing maps as unofficial.

“We don’t have any official maps before us,” Hoffman said. “Every map that’s submitted, either by our attorney or by the public, is going to be given equal weight.”

Public comments

Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who currently represents Council District 1, stated that the intended purpose of redistricting is to rebalance council districts based on changes in population. Because his district does not need to adjust for population, he said he was “mystified” when he saw the draft proposals.

“It’s just very disappointing to me to see a map like this get created because I think that people more and more have a sense of cynicism toward their government,” the councilmember said. “There’s a feeling that government serves its own needs more than the needs of the residents, and these maps, to me, don’t seem sensitive to what communities are and what communities can achieve when they work together.”

Leaders representing various community organizations addressed the committee during the public hearing.

Joan Nickeson, a Terryville resident and community liaison for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed maps would divide the community if approved.

“The proposals that were put forth that belong to your mapmaker that you have not yet met cleave our advocacy power with the chamber,” Nickeson said. “They cleave our school district buildings from the other school district buildings, neighbors from neighbors.” She added, “It is unconscionable that these maps got out into the public without the public being able to ascertain where they came from.”

Salvatore Pitti, vice president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, considered the proposed redistricting scheme for Council Districts 1 and 2 nonsensical. According to him, the plans undermine the years of close coordination between the civic association and its representative on the town council.

“It has taken us years to get us to where we are, and now we’re going to start from scratch,” he said. Referring to the draft maps, he added, “It makes no sense. It does not work for our community.”

Francis Gibbons, a resident of Terryville and member of the PJS/Terryville Civic Association, discussed how residents of Port Jefferson Station and Terryville have coordinated their efforts in service to the greater community.

“We have people that have worked together for years to make our communities whole,” he said. “And you think tearing them apart is a good thing?”

Ira Castell, a resident of Port Jefferson Station and member of PJSTCA, referred to Port Jefferson Station/Terryville as a community of interest with longstanding ties to Council District 1.

“It is one of the organizing principles of any redistricting effort to avoid cracking and to unite and retain communities of interest,” he said. “A community of interest is a neighborhood, community or group of people who have common policy concerns and who would benefit from being maintained in a single district.” He added, “Segmenting our community, we will no longer have a united voice to advance our story with one councilperson who represents all my neighbors, with whom I share a common purpose.”

‘Our community does not want to be split.’

— Brad Arrington

Nancy Marr, president of the League of Women’s Voters of Suffolk County, reiterated these objections. “People who share a common history and are connected by common institutions such as community libraries or civic associations should be in the same council district,” she said.

In his opposition to the proposed maps, Brad Arrington, vice president and corresponding secretary of the Mount Sinai Civic Association, defended the preservation of Mount Sinai as a contiguous community.

“Our community does not want to be split,” he said. “Mount Sinai is a community of interest. It is a unified community. And from being on the civic association for 17 years, I can say that we are a very cohesive community.”

The redistricting process remains ongoing. The next meeting will be held Friday, Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., East Setauket. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee will hold a public hearing at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center (above), located at 739 Route 25A, Mount Sinai, NY.

During a meeting of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association on Tuesday, July 26, Brookhaven Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) delivered a startling warning to the people of this area. 

Kornreich, who represents Council District 1, unveiled draft plans for the redrawing of his council district. While he currently represents the entirety of the Port Jefferson Station and Terryville community on the town council, that will change if the draft plans are approved. 

Under this proposal, large swaths of territory — primarily from Terryville — will be moved into Council District 2. In exchange, Council District 1 will receive roughly half of Mount Sinai. Port Jefferson Station and Terryville will be effectively severed from one another and Mount Sinai will be sliced in two. This phenomenon is referred to as “cracking.”

Cracking is a longstanding and pernicious practice in political redistricting. Through cracking, mapmakers can dilute the voting power of a community by dividing its population across multiple districts. With less voting power, limited resources are far more likely to be diverted to the areas that offer politicians the most votes and the best odds at reelection. We cannot allow this to happen here. 

As one civic association member wisely acknowledged during Tuesday’s meeting, the places affected by the proposed redistricting scheme are communities of interest. This means that the people of these areas are unified by a common historic and cultural identity, by common institutions such as public schools and libraries, and by organizations such as civic associations and chambers of commerce. 

The people that work together to strengthen and enrich our community must not be separated by political boundaries. They should have one representative on the town council, a single point of contact to do their bidding. They require a representative who is committed to the community in its entirety and not just a fragment of it. 

The people of this area must rise in solidarity to resist the current redistricting plans. They must tell the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee and their elected leaders at Town Hall that they will not tolerate their community being cut into pieces. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, a public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center in Mount Sinai to discuss the draft maps. Bring family, neighbors and friends. With numbers, the people of Council Districts 1 and 2 can, and will, keep their communities intact. 

There is no conceivable explanation for drastic changes to the present district boundaries. The people must stand together to champion this cause. If we stand united, then nothing can tear us apart. We will not crack under pressure.