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

In a straight party-line vote at a special meeting on the last day of the year, Suffolk County legislators this morning approved a controversial redistricting plan prepared by Democrats and vehemently opposed by Republicans.

The two sides have been fighting in court over the legislature’s right to independently adopt a redistricting plan without a recommendation from a bipartisan reapportionment commission, as called for in the county charter.

If the local law adopting the plan is signed by County Executive Steve Bellone, and if the law survives pending — or future — court challenges, the new plan will put two sitting Republican legislators in the same legislative district in two instances, forcing a party primary and creating two open seats in the next general election of legislators in November 2023.

Republican legislators in interviews have expressed hope that Bellone will veto the law, citing a Dec. 11 memorandum by the county attorney to the county executive that concludes that a court “would undoubtedly find that the Suffolk County Legislature must wait until February 1, 2022 before imposing its own revisions to the legislative boundaries” — as Republican legislators have argued during meetings, as their attorneys have argued in court, and as State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti ruled in a 14-page decision on Dec. 27.

The next day, Presiding Officer Rob Calarco and Majority Leader Susan Berland obtained a stay of the Farneti decision from an Appellate Division judge, which allowed the legislature to move forward with adopting the redistricting plan. Calarco then called this morning’s special meeting.

Besides Calarco, who was present in the legislative auditorium in Hauppauge, all legislators attended the meeting via Zoom. Unlike the last few times the legislature took up the resolution approving the redistricting plan, today’s debate was mostly civil and focused on procedural issues.

Republican Legislator Tom Cilmi, who is leaving the legislature today due to term limits, expressed regrets about the conclusion of his 12-year career as a legislator. In a measured voice, he implored his Democratic colleagues, who until tonight have a 10-member majority on the 18-member body, to reject the plan in the spirit of bipartisanship.

“It’s disappointing that in literally the last action I will take as a member of this body will be to vote on what is so obviously a political move by the majority to somehow wrest control from decisions that were made by the voters in this year’s elections,” Cilmi said.

“The spirit of bipartisanship that each and every one of us talks about — it’s not just a cliche. That spirit of bipartisanship was written into the charter, specifically, with respect to this process, to avoid exactly what is happening today,” Cilmi said.

“And it looks to me like there was no interest whatsoever in living up to that spirit of bipartisanship that was written into the charter with respect to this process,” he said. “There was no attempt to discuss with the minority, the drawing of these district lines and what the districts would look like to to collaboratively review the data that was allegedly provided,” Cilmi said.

“It’s perhaps naive of me to to believe that we could rise above politics in this body despite the fact that we talk about it all the time. But I’m asking my colleagues to do just that day. I’m asking each and every one of you to rise above politics. I know that for at least some of you in your hearts, you do not want to vote yes on this resolution,” Cilmi said.

“So I’m asking you to dig deep and be true to what you believe in your hearts and vote no on this resolution,” he urged. There may be “some short-term political consequences to that but…you’ll be able to put your head on the pillow at night and know at the end of the day, that you did the right thing.”

In an equally measured tone, Calarco spoke in defense of the Democrats’ action.

“Back in the summer, we were being contacted by organizations saying that we needed to amend the charter to give the the commission more time because they knew the census data was going to be coming out late,” he said.

Calarco said he didn’t think that there was a need to extend the timeline “as long as everybody was reasonable in their actions in terms of trying to make sure that we did our job.”

He recalled past redistricting efforts. The first one he witnessed as 20 years ago as a legislative staffer.

“Populations had shifted quite a bit. There was quite a bit of growth in minority communities of Brentwood and Central Islip. And we actually were sued and were forced to create a minority majority district,” Calarco recalled.

“Republicans controlled the legislature at that time,” he said. And they split the district of the legislator he worked for, Jenny Fields, three ways, Calarco said, which placed her in the same district as Legislator Bill Lindsay. “We could say that it was intentional to you know, knock out a Democrat,” he said, “…but it is what happens — populations shift, you have to adjust accordingly. And the maps change,” Calarco said.

Calarco said that while Suffolk lost population in the 2020 Census count, because of people moving off Long Island, the population grew in the immigrant community and grew on the East End, which he said was a result of “the flight of New York City residents to the East End during the pandemic.” The population of the South Fork grew by nearly 20,000 people and the North Fork grew by by nearly 5,000 people, he said, and “Brentwood and Central Islip and all those communities grew again as well.”

As a result, he said, the lines had to be changed as mandated by law, which requires a roughly equal population within each of the 18 legislative districts. Legislative District No. 2 had to shrink to keep its population in line with the rest of the districts. Districts in the western part of the county had to be reconfigured also.

Calarco said the maps prepared by the Democrats have lines drawn that comply with all legal requirements. “Districts need to be compact. They need to keep communities of likeness together. We need to address the minority population growth where it has occurred. And we need to follow the actual boundaries including timelines,” Calarco said.

“And the one thing that we were told explicitly in the law is that we can’t draw lines specifically to take into consideration the political situations as they exist, meaning it doesn’t matter where any sitting legislator lives,” he said. “The districts have to be drawn as the districts have to be drawn.”

After Calarco ruled against Republican challenges to the sufficiency of the meeting notice, the Democratic caucus voted unanimously to reject the Democrats’ motion to table the resolution and then to approve the redistricting map. The Republican caucus was also unanimous in its vote to table the resolution and in the vote to reject the Democrats’ map. The motion to table failed with eight votes in support. The resolution approving the redistricting plan passed 10-8.

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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.