The Suffolk County Legislature's Rose Caracappa Auditorium in Hauppauge. Photo: Suffolk County Legislature website.

Democratic county legislators tried again today to adopt their own redistricting plan before losing majority control of the legislature on Jan. 1.

Their move to adopt the plan at a hastily called special meeting this morning was thwarted by a court decision issued moments after the meeting opened, that, among other things, prohibits the legislature from voting on its redistricting plan, which the court ruled “unlawful” for failure to comply with the reapportionment process spelled out in the county charter.

The Democrats may try one more time, though. During a long and sometimes heated discussion at today’s special meeting, some Democratic legislators said their caucus may indeed file another appeal and, if successful, would convene another special meeting before the end of this week to vote on the redistricting plan.

The appellate division has twice lifted trial court orders that prevented the legislature from adopting the proposed redistricting plan.

The third trial court order, issued this morning, goes well beyond imposing a “stay” on legislative action, as the two prior orders did. In a 14-page decision Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti today ordered the majority leader, Legislator Susan Berland, to “do her duty” and appoint four qualified members to the reapportionment commission as required by the county charter.

The order prohibits the legislature from independently preparing a reapportionment plan without the input and recommendation of the reapportionment commission, which the court said exceeds the authority of the legislature. It also prohibits the legislature from holding public hearings on, voting upon or enacting “any such unlwful reapportionment plan.”

The court also ruled that the legislature does not have the legal authority to do any of those things.

While there was little question about what the court order said, legislators debated for almost an hour whether the order allowed them to recess the meeting as opposed to closing it. Democrats, hoping to again successfully appeal the trial court order, would then reconvene the meeting by the end of the week for the purpose of voting on the redistricting plan. Otherwise, a new special meeting would have to be called, requiring 48 hours notice to all legislators. There was also some debate on whether coming out of recess would require 48 hours notice as well.

The debate on recessing the meeting was sparked by South Fork Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), who raised the question because, she said, the trial court order might not represent the final disposition of the matter, citing what she called “kind of a ping pong match happening between the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division on on our ability to act.”

Fleming raised the possibility the legislature might be “told in an hour that we should move forward” and said it “might be more appropriate until we get a sense of what the finality of this moment is.”

Acting Legislative Counsel Basia Braddish told members that the court order, in her opinion, did not allow them to recess the meeting, because that would be an action on the resolution. But Berland vehemently disagreed with that advice.

The motion to recess failed 9-9 in a messy vote repeatedly interrupted by further debate on the question. North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) broke ranks with his party and voted with the Republican caucus against the recess.

It is not clear whether the current majority will continue its gambit by appealing today’s court decision — or, if an appeal is taken, whether it would be decided in time to hold a meeting by Friday.

The county charter requires the legislature to appoint a reapportionment commission within 90 days of the release of decennial census data. Legislative district boundaries must be redrawn after the census to ensure a roughly equal number of constituents in each district. The county charter spells out procedures for reapportionment. They require the commission to hold four public hearings before recommending a plan to the legislature. The commission is required to recommend a plan by Feb. 1. The charter says if the commission does not present a plan to the legislature by Feb. 1, the legislature must adopt a plan by June 1. The charter does not address the failure of the legislature to appoint a commission, which is what happened this year. As soon as the 90-day deadline to appoint commission members passed, the presiding officer introduced a local law to adopt a reapportionment plan developed by the Democratic caucus.

Republicans, who said they were provided no opportunity for input, filed suit, arguing that the Democratic majority violated the explicit procedures of the charter. In court papers, the Republicans called the Democrats’ move a “naked power grab,” aimed at redrawing lines to favor Democrats for the next 10 years. The Democrats’ plan would have put two sitting Republican legislators in the same district in two of the legislature’s 18 districts — effectively forcing a Republican primary in those two districts and creating open seats in two other districts. See proposed maps here.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

SHARE
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.