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Brookhaven Voters Vote to Adopt Council Districts

In a close 51.1% to 48.9 election, the voters of the town of Brookhaven have chosen direct, district-based representation over the outdated "at-large" system.

After a decade of work by the Neighborhood Network and partners such as ABCO (Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations), and other citizens organizations, and after seemingly endless roadblocks and delaying techniques from the Brookhaven Town Board, the residents of Brookhaven finally had the opportunity to choose between electing Town Council members by districts, or a "at large." In a close vote, the voters chose to make their Town Board members elected by, and accountable to particular communities.

Council Districts, also called the "ward" system will bring town board members closer to citizens.

One of the basic principles of representative democracy is that the closer an elected officials is to constituents, the better they will be represented. Unfortunately, most people in Brookhaven are more likely to know their County Legislator, State Assemblyperson, or even their State Senator, than any of their Town Board members. This is due, in large part, to the "at large" method of electing the Town Board. Rather than each board member representing his or her neighbors in a specific district, all are elected town-wide. The result has been corruption scandals, overdevelopment, congested roads, and unresponsive town government.

How Many People
Your Elected Officials Represent

Suffolk County Legislator 73,000
NY State Assemblyperson 120,000
NY State Senator 293,000
Brookhaven Town Board member elected "at large" 430,000
Brookhaven Town Board member if elected by districts 72,000


Brookhaven's vast size means that your vote carries less weight in town-wide elections. Your individual vote means more to your Suffolk County Legislator, New York State Assemblyperson, and even your New York State Senator than it does to any of the Brookhaven Town Board Members.

Voting by districts will not increase the number of board members or the size of town government. Council Districts will not require the Town to provide district offices for council members. No town in New York State that has adopted Council Districts pays for district offices.

Council Districts will make it possible for community leaders and true citizen candidates to challenge party-machine politicians, and it will ensure that you and your community have a board member who is directly responsible to you.

Brookhaven Residents --Will Now Have Directly Accountable Representation on the Town Board!

See the Newsday articles below, for more details.

Voters Say Yes To Districting
Referendum to create districts in Brookhaven narrowly passes
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; Jan 23, 2002; Ann Givens. STAFF WRITER;

In a squeaker of an election, Brookhaven residents yesterday approved a measure that will divide their town into six voting districts.

With all voting districts counted, the vote to approve council districts led 51.12 percent to 48.88 percent, or 17,656 votes to 16,881. The results of the election will not be final until votes are recounted, along with absentee ballots, sometime next week.

If the vote holds, beginning in November 2003, each resident will vote for only two town board members - the supervisor and the member to represent his or her neighborhood.

The results could affect the Republican Party's two-decades-long grip on town government.

"The people spoke out today at the polls," said Lori Baldassere, one of the leaders of the pro-district campaign. "They want their own voice and their own representative."

Brookhaven Supervisor John Jay LaValle said he will accept the election results despite the close numbers.

"I'm disappointed because I'm concerned about the effect this will have on the community," he said. "But I'm here to work for the residents, and this is the choice they made, and I'm ready to move ahead."

Council district supporters said the 13.84 percent turnout, which was greater than expected, was a tribute to residents' enthusiasm for the issue.

"I think there was a lot of hope and optimism that this would be a good change," said Suffolk Legis. Vivian Fisher (D-Stony Brook).

Proponents of the existing at-large system said council districts will be divisive, causing council members to put the good of their own constituents above the good of the town.

They also have said that council districts will be expensive because council members are likely to want field offices before long. The pro-district camp strongly disputes this claim, saying none of the 11 towns in New York that have council districts have established field offices.

The debate over council districts goes back 30 years in Brookhaven. In 1972, residents voted to approve council districts, but the vote was overturned on a technicality. When the vote was retaken a year later, the at- large system prevailed.

Even this election was a long time coming, with Brookhaven Town Board members objecting to the referendum until a State Supreme Court Appellate Division panel ruled in November that town law could not block a public vote.

Both sides pulled out all the stops to win, spending upwards of $150,000 each to fill local mailboxes and air waves with campaign material.

Other Long Island towns, including Southampton, Babylon and Oyster Bay, have voted on council districts before, but the measures have failed. The only Long Island town that has council districts is Hempstead, where a judge ordered that districts be formed on the grounds that the at-large system discriminated against racial minorities.

It has been years since there has been so much at stake in a Brook- haven election.

Since the 1970s, Republicans have had unfettered control of the town board. Experts say this is in large part because of the town's at-large voting system, which makes it nearly impossible for a minority party candidate to generate the money and name recognition to run an effective townwide campaign.

Candidates will now have to run in 70,000-person districts rather than at-large in the 430,000-person town. This would give minority party candidates a better shot at winning, experts said.

Caption: Newsday Photo/David L. Pokress - A Brookhaven resident prepares to cast his ballot on the council districting referendum yesterday at the Wenonah School in Lake Grove.

(Copyright Newsday Inc., 2002)


In Brookhaven, What's Next?
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; Jan 24, 2002; Ann Givens. STAFF WRITER;

"Today in Brookhaven the world has changed," Chris O'Connor, of the Long Island Neighborhood Network, said at a town hall rally yesterday. "We have council districts, and that is the political reality."
Proponents of councilmanic districts see their victory in Brookhaven as a sign of what's possible in other towns. O'Connor said his group will next turn its attention to North Hempstead Town, where a similar proposal is being considered.
Newsday Photo/David L. Pokress - SUNY Stony Brook political science professor Howard Scarrow, left, and Camille Johnson hug yesterday in celebration of their victory for council districts in Brookhaven.
Full Text:
(Copyright Newsday Inc., 2002)

Even as they fought what would become the most effective political campaign against Brookhaven's Republican establishment in years, many council district advocates said yesterday they did not truly believe they would win.

Thus, the day after a special election in which a referendum to establish voting districts passed by a slim but seemingly solid margin, ward system advocates had one question on their minds: What now?

"Today in Brookhaven the world has changed," Chris O'Connor, of the Long Island Neighborhood Network, said at a town hall rally yesterday. "We have council districts, and that is the political reality."

It was a day for which council district advocates in Brookhaven had worked for years.

They first passed a council district referendum back in 1972, but the vote was later overturned. Efforts to get the measure back on the ballot took decades, and were not successful until a few months ago when a State Supreme Court appellate panel ruled a town law blocking a public vote was invalid.

"I was not very optimistic," said council district proponent Regina Seltzer, a former Democratic town board member. "I was convinced that the Republicans would pull out all the stops and we wouldn't have the necessary funding."

From the outset, council district advocates framed their fight as a grassroots campaign against the town's Republican machine. "The goal was to bring people together to build a better government," said local activist Connie Kepert.

But so much was at stake on both sides of the issue that the battle quickly grew bigger than that. Both camps raised upward of $150,000 to pay for slick radio ads and mailers. Each accused the other of taking potshots and, in some cases, telling lies.

Yesterday, Republicans were divided about the reasons for the loss of the at-large system at the polls. Supervisor John Jay LaValle said he thought residents may have been looking for a change because of past scandals in the town.

"The success of the initiative was based on 30 years of the town's sporadic history," LaValle said. He added that with only about 13 percent voter turnout and the tight margin, the results were "not a decisive win."

Republican town board member Edward Hennessey said he thought the at-large camp lost because the party's most loyal supporters are accustomed to going out on general elections. "Our core loyal supporters come on the first Tuesday in November," he said. "This was a special election at a very odd time."

The next step will be a recount of the votes, including absentee and military ballots, at the Suffolk Board of Elections, and certification is expected late next week. But despite the extremely close numbers (pro-district folks won a mere 2 percent) neither side expects the results to change.

In the long term, both sides expect the political jockeying to continue, first as the district lines are drawn by the county's two election commissioners, one a Republican and one a Democrat, and later as the leadership for both parties position themselves within those districts for a November 2003 campaign.

Proponents of councilmanic districts see their victory in Brookhaven as a sign of what's possible in other towns. O'Connor said his group will next turn its attention to North Hempstead Town, where a similar proposal is being considered.

North Hempstead Supervisor May Newburger, a Democrat with no Republicans on the town board, said she continues to favor councilmanic districts in her town, despite criticism that it has taken too long to implement them.

"I think what is important is how you design the districts, so that there is enough balance and no one portion of the community overwhelms the system," Newburger said yesterday.

In Brookhaven, for now, the campaign's war of words is behind them, and both sides are promising bipartisanship.

"My challenge would be to make the new structure of government as effective if not more effective than the current structure," LaValle said. "It's a monumental challenge but I am ready for it."

Staff writer Vctor Manuel Ramos contributed to this story.

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