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Brookhaven Redistricting Committee member on the public’s distrust of government

Gail Lynch-Bailey, a member of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee in 2012 and 2022, above. Photo courtesy Lynch-Bailey

Gail Lynch-Bailey, president of the Middle Island Civic Association, has the unique distinction of serving on the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee both in 2012 and this year. In an exclusive interview, she discusses the breakdown of norms, procedures and public confidence as the committee works to meet its Sept. 15 deadline.

What is your background, and how did you get involved in the redistricting process?

I am the president of the Middle Island Civic Association. As such, I qualify to be a civic representative on the redistricting committee. I did it 10 years ago in the same vein: I was a Democratic appointee then and am one now.

What are your thoughts on how this year’s redistricting process has developed?

This 2022 redistricting process has been contentious and frustrating. It has caused me to rethink a lot of recommendations for the next time the town undergoes this process. I don’t think that we had enough time with the professional mapmaker. As commissioners, we needed a session early on in the process. Instead, we had six meetings with no maps, then two maps appeared, and then we had six hearings based on those maps — which were false maps because we had no input into them.

Now, we’re struggling to see if we get some public hearings on the mapmaker’s three maps we have legitimately requested. I sincerely hope we can do that because I think that’s part of our obligation to the public.

What are some key differences between the redistricting process this year and the one from 2012?

Ten years ago, we met in person as a commission and introduced ourselves. We learned a lot about each other and then had an informational and educational session with the counsel, Jeff Wice.

Then, we had a series of public hearings that were not scheduled during the week of the Fourth of July — when people are on vacation. We had two sessions per week running across three weeks in July. Then, we had a nice work session where we talked about what kind of maps we would like to get from the mapmaker. We had a very good understanding of the three maps we wanted. One was a map of least change. Another was along school district boundaries because that was one of the things we heard about from the public during the public hearings. The last map added more changes involving election districts and things like that.

We went from very little change to much more in those three maps. Then we had time to look at those maps before we went out to the public again. And that was what was missing this time: We got maps on a Friday, and then we were back in front of the public the following Monday. The public thought these were our maps, but we hadn’t even begun understanding what they were. They weren’t based on anything we or the public requested.

That meeting with the mapmaker and understanding of what we would get was missing. And I don’t know who made the schedule of the hearings, but it was unnecessarily daunting. 

What do you think accounts for the committee’s problems this year?

Perhaps it was going to be contentious from the start only because of the nature of the political arena right now. People distrust government at higher levels than I have ever experienced. One side may think that people will be mad no matter what we do. The other side will think that we’re not being transparent. The people are mad, and understandably so.

There have been a lot of complaints about a lack of publicity. Many things have changed at the last minute: We have had several cancellations, which only added to the lack of credibility in my opinion. 

These issues only compounded the already-high level of distrust in government from both sides. We have heard from people who identify as Republicans and Democrats about the attempt to change the Mount Sinai, Port Jefferson Station and Terryville areas. People from both sides of the aisle came out and said, “Why are you doing this? It’s completely unnecessary and we don’t understand it.” And they were absolutely right to ask that kind of a question. 

We’re supposed to be talking about the population disparities between [Council Districts] 2 and 6. Those are the two that are out of alignment, according to the 5% rule [in the town code]. Those first two maps made some strange changes that nobody could understand why they were there.

After you left the committee’s Aug. 18 virtual meeting, a resolution was approved 5-2 that preserves one of the initial drafts maps while reverting the boundaries of CD1 and CD2 to their current form. If you had been in the meeting, how would you have voted?

I probably would have voted “no” because it is not addressing what I have requested, which is the 2-6 boundary. 

With the proposed movement of Ridge into Council District 4, do you believe that district is at risk of partisan gerrymandering?

Yes, I am very worried about that. I live in CD4, and as a civic leader I work with Councilman [Michael] Loguercio [R-Ridge] all the time. We have an excellent relationship. 

I also understand that some of the people from the Ridge Civic [Association] would love to have fewer council representatives — they have three. 

Any number of the maps that we [the Democratic appointees] have proposed gets it down to two, eliminating Ridge from Council District 6. But we’re looking to do it equitably and fairly by not diluting the minority vote. It’s important.

How has public participation during this redistricting cycle differed from that of 2012?

The public has been very engaged, very vocal and very passionate. Again, this goes back to that distrust issue. And also, the ability of people to record themselves, get their message out, and share messages among people is different than it was 10 years ago. People have been able to share information — good information — about what’s going on, regardless of party, when they think that something is awry. 

Last time across all six public hearings, I think we may have had 25 to 29 separate speakers. We had more than 30 at the last public hearing alone … and that was just one hearing. It has been supercharged and contentious at times. I used the term “frustrating” earlier because our job is to listen during these sessions and not respond, and that has been hard for many of us to do. 

We know a lot of these people through different organizations and dealings over the years, so to be unable to sympathize with them or reassure them has been really challenging. 

What steps can the committee take in the next two weeks to meet its deadline and produce maps that reflect the will of the people?

I think the three maps we have requested should be posted on the town’s website immediately as soon as they are ready. I believe that the committee should meet to discuss the maps and then have a public hearing on those maps. We still have time. We have [the rest of] this week, all of next week and part of the following week. That’s plenty of time to get things done. 

The public has asked for two things: a map of least change, and respect for the possibility of a majority-minority district. There are three tenets that school districts, businesses and all levels of government have adopted: diversity, equity and inclusion. Those aren’t just trendy buzzwords. They are the hallmarks of creating a better society, and the maps that the committee and the town adopt need to embody those three tenets. 

Ten years. That’s a long time in local government. It’s a long time for all levels of government. But at the local level, 10 years can be an eternity.

Brookhaven Redistricting Committee member says residents must stay engaged

George Hoffman, a member of the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee, congratulated the residents who have mobilized throughout this process, but he believes their work is unfinished. Photo courtesy Hoffman

The redistricting committee recently approved the creation of three new draft maps, one of which you voted ‘no.’ Could you briefly explain your ‘no’ vote?

Ali Nazir, the co-chair, requested taking one of the first maps — which created all this controversy — and refining it by putting Council Districts 1 and 2 together but leaving everything else as it is. 

Ali’s resolution solves the issue of Mount Sinai and Terryville. Still, it keeps [Council District] 4 the way the mapmaker drew it. I voted ‘no.’ Rabia [Aziz] voted ‘no.’ Gail [Lynch-Bailey] had left because she had to go to a civic meeting by that time. The rest of the [members] voted ‘yes’ [for a 5-2 vote] and that’s very concerning.

What is your message to those who have successfully resisted the first two draft maps?

I congratulate the communities of Mount Sinai, Terryville and Port Jeff Station because they mobilized quickly to preserve their communities of interest. They wanted to stay with the original council district boundaries we have had for 20 years, so I would not minimize their involvement. And it was a very personal involvement: they were defending their communities and protecting their backyards. If they hadn’t come out in such strength, maybe the majority on that commission may not have put it back. But I think the bigger goal is still to crack CD4.

In your eyes, does the transfer of Ridge into Council District 4 constitute an act of partisan gerrymandering?

Yes, and I think it may even violate the [John Lewis] Voting Rights Act. It’s pretty clear that Ridge is a solid Republican-leaning area. To put it into a diverse community solely because it will affect the outcome of that district, I think, is certainly the definition of gerrymandering.

With a few adjustments to Council Districts 1 and 2, Hoffman said Proposal 2 (above) is still in play. Map from the Brookhaven Redistricting Committee’s website

How can concerned residents help to deter an unfavorable redrawing of CD4?

To all the residents of Brookhaven, we should be concerned. They should care about their own community — it’s important to fight for your own community of interest — but help as much as you can to have a fair and balanced redistricting townwide because what’s going on is not fair and it’s not balanced. My recommendation would be that everyone has to stay engaged.

What changes are you looking for in the coming weeks?

I think all six districts have a right to stay close to what they are currently. I recognize that Council District 2 is down a couple of thousand in terms of population, so you need to balance that. Council District 6 had a lot of growth, so you do have to remove some of the people there. But there shouldn’t be mischief in doing that.

What is your reaction to the committee’s recent meeting with David Schaefer, the mapmaker?

Last night [Aug. 18], we met with the mapmaker for the first time in a month and a half. We should have met with him at the outset, or at least after the first six public hearings. Because so few people showed up at the initial hearings, he should have at least asked us what our vision or goals were for the first map. To do a map without even talking to us is like an interior decorator designing your house without consulting you. 

I don’t think he’s politically motivated. I think he has good skills as a demographer and was pretty candid with us. But I do believe that he’s responding to some instructions. I think he’s data in/data out, and I don’t think you can do redistricting that way. Maybe he’s too much on the statistical side and not sufficiently understanding of communities.

Isn’t that the real purpose of redistricting? To balance out the populations but don’t destroy communities.

What is your understanding of the history of councilmanic districts in the Town of Brookhaven?

For years, the town used to elect its council people at large. There were always seven members — six board members and a supervisor — but they ran townwide. What happened was that they were not very responsive to local communities. You could vote against a community and still survive if you had the rest of the town, and it got very bad. 

A civic network was formed called ABCO, the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations, and it became huge. They would do a meeting and have dozens of civic organizations throughout the township meet to talk about how unresponsive the town was to their needs. It culminated in a movement for a referendum for council districts to divide the Town Council into six districts based on regional community interests. It went to a vote. The community was very organized, and they prevailed.

Council District 4 was seen as the most diverse district in the town. People saw it as the district that probably would be most successful at electing a diverse candidate, and both parties understood that. That was 2002, so for 20 years now, we’ve lived under these districts, more or less. 

I’m a bit taken aback by what’s happening in this redistricting. It’s pretty clear to me now that the goal is to change CD4 into a more favorable district, almost partisan gerrymandering to help the incumbent there [Councilman Michael Loguercio (R-Ridge)]. 

What are the risks of an overly analytical redistricting process that neglects the complex realities on the ground?

This is sort of a digression, but it has been over 75 years since splitting India into India and Pakistan. The map was done by a British guy who never went to India and just drew a straight line down the middle of the country following rivers, and over a million people died because the partition was done without any understanding of communities.

You can’t just do demographics without understanding the consequences of your mapmaking. I think [the mapmaker] has been much more on the statistical side, and I would like for the map to reflect a keener understanding of the communities of Brookhaven.

How changing political boundaries can have real consequences for voters and their representatives

An early political cartoon criticizing former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s practice of drawing bizarrely shaped state senate districts for partisan gain. Stock photo by Pixy

Redistricting is shaking up this election season.

Redistricting is the process by which new political boundaries are drawn to reflect the changes in populations across regions and states. New congressional districts, as well as state Senate and Assembly districts, are redrawn by state Legislatures every 10 years to accord with the most recent U.S. Census results.

‘Government at its worst.’

— Mario Mattera

This year, a cloud of uncertainty was placed over the electoral process when the state Court of Appeals blocked the New York State Legislature’s plans for redrawn district maps. The majority 4-3 decision sent the responsibility for redrawing the lines to an out-of-state independent commission.

State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James), whose District 2 was altered significantly under the new lines, accused the majority in the state Legislature of attempting to gerrymander his district.

“What happened was — and I’m going to say this — the Democrats went in and gerrymandered the lines in the Senate and the congressional lines,” he said.

Unlike the district lines for the state Assembly, which Mattera suggested were worked out through a series of compromises between party leaders, the state Senate could not find a working agreement for new lines. The state senator also said that the lines could have been revised before they went to court, but the majority objected, hoping to win a favorable opinion for its unfair district maps.

“The judges ruled it gerrymandering, so it went to an outside commission called Special Masters, out of Pennsylvania, and it cost the taxpayers money to do this,” he said. 

Mattera expressed frustration at the process, which he said wasted time and taxpayer dollars unnecessarily. He called the recent redistricting process “government at its worst.”

‘I’m never disappointed when the process is done fairly and when it’s done by a bipartisan group that is drawing the lines.’ — Jodi Giglio

New boundaries, altered communities

Under the new district maps, people in communities throughout Long Island will see major changes this year in their political representation. Mattera, whose district currently includes Setauket, Stony Brook and Old Field, will no longer represent those areas after this year. 

“Even though, as a Republican, I wasn’t getting the best results out of Setauket and Stony Brook, I still loved my district,” he said. “I did very well in knowing the people and getting to know everybody, and now I’ve lost all of the Township of Brookhaven.”

Mattera is not alone in losing a significant portion of his current constituency. State leaders all across the Island have had their district lines redrawn as well.

“Southold in its entirety has been taken away from Assembly District 2 and has been placed in Assembly District 1,” said state Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead), who represents the 2nd District. 

Despite losing Southold, Giglio is not disappointed by the changes in her district. She considered the redrawing of the Assembly lines a product of bipartisan negotiations and was glad to pick up new constituencies elsewhere. 

“I’m never disappointed when the process is done fairly and when it’s done by a bipartisan group that is drawing the lines,” she said, adding, “I was pleased to pick up many people in the 2nd Assembly District and will continue to work for the people of Southold as I have grown very close to them.” 

‘It’s a fact of life.’

— Helmut Norpoth

Redistricting, past and future

Helmut Norpoth, professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University, detailed the long history of partisan squabbles over district lines. He said gerrymandering has existed since at least the early 19th century. 

The word “gerrymander” was created after the infamous Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and later vice president who first employed the tactic to create bizarrely shaped state senate districts. Norpoth said gerrymandering has been around “forever” and that “it’s a fact of life” whenever district maps are redrawn.

Norpoth and two of his students recently submitted a proposal to the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission. Their work is centered around making district maps fairer and elections more competitive. 

“One of the requirements that we followed in our proposal is to keep communities intact and minimize any splitting of a natural community into different districts,” Norpoth said. Districts “have to be contiguous, they have to be compact. They have to be as competitive as possible, so that the balance can give both parties a chance.” He added, “There are so many different angles that you have to abide by. It’s sort of a magic act to put it all together.”

‘It’s becoming clear that it’s easier to draw unfair districts.’ — Robert Kelly

While there are so many variables considered while drawing district lines, supercomputing may help to speed up and simplify the process. Robert Kelly, professor in the Department of Computer Science at SBU, focuses on automated redistricting, which uses a mathematical formulation to generate district lines based on a wide range of constraints.

“That allows us to look at, for a given state, what the constraints are in redistricting, whether they be constraints by the state constitution, state laws or constraints given by federal court rulings,” he said. “With that, we can formulate a way to evaluate the quality of the given redistricting plan and then we can try to optimize that result.” 

While advancements in computer programming and supercomputing are helping researchers improve redistricting models, Kelly acknowledged that they can also be used for nefarious purposes.

“It’s becoming clear that it’s easier to draw unfair districts,” he said. “The conclusion would be that with the availability of so much digital data that allows you to predict the voting patterns of individual voters and allows you to manipulate these district boundaries, it is creating a situation where more and more states are creating district boundaries that favor the political party that happens to be in power in the given state.”

With so much controversy today surrounding redistricting, it is questionable whether the problems of partisan gerrymandering will ever go away. Despite considerable effort by researchers like Norpoth and Kelly, conflict over district boundaries may be a feature inherent to any system that requires those lines to be redrawn.

When asked whether the redistricting process could ever become fairer, Kelly said, “Yes, I believe it could be more fair. … But would I predict that would ever happen? I would not bet on it.”