Preisding Officer Rob Calarco has called another special meeting of the legislature to vote on the Democrats' redistricting plan. Photo: Video screenshot/Suffolk County Legislature website.

Suffolk County Democrats will try one last time to adopt their bitterly contested legislative redistricting plan at a special meeting of the county legislature on Friday — the last day the party will have majority control of the legislature.

Democrats have again obtained an appellate court order that allows them to act on a redistricting plan that Republicans decry as a “naked power grab” aimed at influencing county legislative elections in Democrats’ favor for the next decade.

The Democrats’ plan draws new legislative district lines that place sitting Republicans in the same district, creating two open seats — without incumbents — and forcing Republican primaries between incumbents in two other districts.

“It’s… a last ditch effort to hold onto power,” Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said this morning.

Republicans won an 11-7 majority in the November election, defeating both Presiding Officer Rob Calarco and Majority Leader Susan Berland, and winning an open seat presently occupied by Democrat William Spencer, a medical doctor indicted for allegedly trying to trade oxycodone pills for sex with a prostitute.

Under the Democrats’ plan, Trotta would find himself living in the same district as Legislator-elect Manual Esteban Sr., who defeated Berland in the 16th Legislative District in November.

If the Democrats’ plan is adopted and signed into law by County Executive Steve Bellone, the new district lines would be in effect for the 2023 general election.

In the New Year, Democrats will not have the votes to override a Bellone veto. Even if Bellone signs the plan into law, litigation — which has been ongoing this month — will surely continue.

The county charter requires the legislature to establish an eight-member reapportionment commission within 90 days of publication of the decennial census results. Four members are to be appointed by the majority leader and four are to be appointed by the minority leader.

The charter spells out rules of procedure for the commission, requiring it to hold at least four public hearings — two before devising a plan and two after publication of its proposal. It spells out a procedure for the revision of the commission’s proposal, and requires the legislature to vote on a local law to adopt the plan within 90 days after the commission files its plan with the clerk of the legislature. It also gives the legislature the power to develop the redistricting plan if the commission fails to submit a plan to the legislature by Feb. 1. In that case, the legislature would have until June 1 or 120 days after the state adopts a plan to reapportion State Senate and State Assembly districts, whichever date is later.

The charter is silent about what happens if the legislature fails to appoint the commission within 90 days of the release of census data — and that’s what happened this year.

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2020 redistricting data on Aug. 12, but neither the majority nor minority leaders appointed commission members before the 90-day deadline passed on Nov 10.

On Nov. 16, the presiding officer introduced a local law to adopt a reapportionment plan developed by the majority caucus.

Also on Nov. 16, Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey submitted his appointments to the commission. The majority leader, Berland, submitted one name to the presiding officer back in September, she said in an interview today.

The legislature set a Dec. 7 public hearing on the redistricting plan.

A ‘ping pong match’ begins

McCaffrey, joined by two of his commission appointees and a voter, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 7 seeking, initially, a restraining order to prevent the redistricting hearing from taking place, as well as a permanent injunction against proceeding on the majority caucus’ redistricting plan and a court order requiring the majority leader to appoint four members to the commission.

A State Supreme Court judge on Dec. 7 granted the Republicans’ petition and imposed a restraining order, preventing the legislature from taking an action — even holding a hearing — on the plan. The Democrats appealed and on the same day, an Appellate Division judge granted a stay of the trial court’s order, allowing the hearing to move forward.

That was the beginning of what Second District Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) on Monday called a “kind of a ping pong match happening between the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division on on our ability to act.”

The Democrats were set to adopt the redistricting plan on Dec. 21, at the legislature’s last general meeting of the year. But again, a State Supreme Court judge intervened that very day, signing an order barring the legislature from taking any action on the plan.

The Democrats again went to the Appellate Division in Brooklyn and again got a judge to set aside the lower court’s order.

The majority leader called a special meeting for Monday, Dec. 27, to vote on the local law adopting the redistricting plan. But that morning, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti, the trial court judge who imposed the Dec. 21 stay, signed a 14-page decision holding that the legislature lacked legal authority to adopt the plan and had acted in excess of its powers under the county charter.

Undeterred, the Democrats again went to the Appellate Division and yesterday won a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of Farneti’s Dec. 27 order pending a Jan. 10 hearing before the Appellate Division.

Calarco yesterday called another special meeting of the legislature for Dec. 31 at 9 a.m. to vote on the redistricting plan.

The Democrats’ maneuvering “flies in the face of the county charter and this is the exact reason they lost their majority this year,” Trotta said today. “I truly can’t even believe they would stoop so low.”

Correction: This article was amended to correct a typo in the date of the special meeting scheduled for Friday. It was also amended to state that the majority leader submitted one name to the presiding officer, contrary to what is stated in the Dec. 27 decision of State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti.

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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.