Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule

By Karen Rubin Long Island Populist Examiner

After a heated and contentious public hearing on Monday, May 9, the Nassau County Legislature is poised to vote to adopt the redistricting map at its Monday, May 16 meeting.

The intention here, under the guise of preserving “one-man-one-vote,” especially in the 2nd Legislative District, where racial minorities and the majority, is to shift population around, eliminate one of the districts, now represented by a popular Democrat, David Denenberg, and create a new District 19, designed to emerge as a third minority/majority district, but one where the Republicans think they will be able to elect their own minority candidate. The calculation is to reach 13 out of 19 seats on the Legislature (as it is, the two minority Legislators, both democrats, have virtually no power because this body is not interested in compromise).

In fact, 544,000 people, or 44% of Nassau County’s 1.3 million population, would be shifted to a different district – a scale of shift that is unparalleled. In fact, in 2003, during the last reapportionment (under the Democratic Majority), only 50,000 voters were shifted. Nonetheless, the Republican legislators constantly attacked the Democrats for being “brutal” when they had the reins.

Republican Francis X. Becker, Jr. (LD 6), declared angrily that Valley Stream, East Rockaway and Rockville Center were “split by Democrats in the last redistricting. So it depends on who is doing the  gerrymandering” He actually admitted what the Republicans were doing was gerrymandering.

This is all being orchestrated by County Attorney John Ciampoli, who was brought in by County Executive Ed Mangano expressly for his considerable experience (which he boasted of during the late-night public hearing) reapportioning districts.

John Ciampoli made his bones as a political operative for the Republican party. As Counsel for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Albany, he was tasked with disenfranchising potential Democratic voters such as college students at Bard and Vassar and poorer people who may have moved residences in order to shift the balance to Republican candidates.

But during a public hearing lasting 14 hours and only winding up shortly before midnight, Ciampoli, speaking in velvet tones, presented himself as the noble knight protecting minority voting rights, preserving the cherished principle of “one man-one vote,” and the County’s guardian against a lawsuit which he contended would be imminent if the County did not address reapportionment.

He cited Sec 112 of the county’s charter, which requires that six months after receiving the Census data, the Legislature describe a plan for reapportionment.

That’s six months, not six weeks, as Ciampoli and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt are trying to do.

But the “race card” itself is a red-herring, designed to give cover and somehow avoid the smell test of gerrymandering when the plan comes to court, as the Republicans acknowledge is likely. This isn’t about preserving or creating minority representation – because even two or three minority members of the board would have no power to actually do anything. It is about carving out a Republican majority for generations. And how goes Nassau County may well go New York State and even the Congress and White House.

On April 25, just two weeks after unveiling the “map” for re-districting, prepared in secret by Ciampoli and two consultants he hired on his own without the Legislature’s knowledge or authorization, Schmitt called for one solitary public hearing, on May 9, at 10 a.m. Ostensibly, you are supposed to believe that Ciampoli only began work on the new map on April 15, after being entreated by Schmitt to save the County from a Constitutional catastrophe. That would be just 10 days to create a plan that shifts nearly half of the population into new districts, as described and defined in a 200-page bill.

Despite the fact the meeting was held when most people are at work and in a room with a capacity of only 251, huge contingents from Great Neck, Hempstead and the 2nd District turned out, filled the room, and during an extremely contentious hearing (at one point, police were called to threaten arrest after one man raised the specter of White Hoods and voter suppression), 150 people stood up to oppose the plan, including a few self-declared Republicans. (After 8 hours of public statements, there was only one statement of support, in the form of a letter which Schmitt read into the record).

While most of the speakers accused the Republicans of engineering districts that would “pack” and “crack” to dilute or weaken minority power, and otherwise gerrymander districts to weaken Democrats, what no one noted was that the aim was also to “pack” and “crack” Jewish votes. Besides Great Neck being severed in two, the plan is also to split the Five Towns (2 1/2 Towns), with Woodmere, Inwood and half of Cedarhurst put into a newly created “minority-influenced district” together with parts of Elmont and Valley Stream, leaving Hewlett, Lawrence and the rest of Cedarhurst in the district now represented by Republican Howard J. Kopel.

No one mentioned this. Apparently the fact that Jews are a mere 1% of the population doesn’t warrant consideration as a minority worthy of protection in terms of representation. But Jews are targeted as a political and financial base for Democrats. The Republican scheme – manifest across the country – is to weaken whatever source of Democratic influence there is. In Wisconsin and Indiana, it means going after public unions; in Michigan, it means empowering the governor to dissolve villages and install his own “manager”; in Florida, it is a new law making it harder to register and to vote. The reapportionment tactic was used very successfully by Tom DeLay in Texas, helping to turn a Democratic state into a Republican stronghold, which rippled into giving Republicans control of Congress, as well, in 2003.

You may think that Ciampoli’s Machiavellian tactics here in Nassau County are just local politics, but already, we have seen how replacing Democrat Craig Johnson with Republican Jack Martins returned the State Senate to Republican control.

“Nassau is the linchpin for the state,” attorney Cynthia Kouril, of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, commented to me. “They are destroying the [Democratic] party.” Kouril, an expertise in election law, voter protection and fair elections who told the Legislature that Ciampoli “misrepresented the statute” in order to justify this rush to reapportion,  added it is inconceivable for a reapportionment plan to affect 44 percent of voters. “You would have had to have a cataclysm” like a Hurricane Katrina uprooting entire communities, to warrant that scale of redistribution.

While Ciampoli kept reiterating his refrain that his plan complies with the Constitution, and satisfies the requirements of “compact” and “contiguous,” Kourcil pointed to the map and the odd shapes of the newly drawn districts – a T-Rex, a telephone receiver –  the fact that in one district, you would have to travel over water (no bridge) and through two other districts to get to the other side – as the very definition of gerrymandering. (Later, Republican Legislator Francis X Becker admitted as much.)

Ciampoli and Schmitt kept insisting that the census shifts mandated the County act immediately to change the boundaries.

No one actually disputed that the new census figures required reapportionment. The only point that was made, over and over, is that the county charter allows six months for this first step (of a three-step process), and that the process requires input from local communities, with consideration for alternate plans. That’s what happened in 2001, when Democrat Judy Jacobs was in charge, with a final plan adopted in 2003 after a series of hearings and alternative plans with the result that 50,000 people were shifted, compared to 544,000 in this plan.

Ciampoli had pointed out that all around the state, counties had come up with new maps – but he failed to mention that each and every one, including Westchester, Rockland, Erie, Albany, had has many as 11 public hearings before adopting their new map.

After the public had cleared out, around 6 pm, the Legislature reconvened just after 8 pm. with Ciampoli now answering questions from the Legislators. None of the Republicans asked questions – reserving their comments to attacks on Democrats who did.

The Democrats attempted, with little success, to get at what process, what method was used to derive this map, when Ciampoli began the process and whether he had discussed reapportionment with the County Executive or Republican leadership at the county or state level.

Campoli conveyed the impression that the map and the 200-page legislation to define the new districts were accomplished in a mere three-weeks time, after the 2010 Census data was reported on April 1,  but gave contradictory statements. At one point he said he had been working on the plan for a year, then he said he had been “thinking about it” and studying case law, but began the process of actually re-drawing maps on his own initiative, before receiving an official request from Schmitt, on April 15. He at first said he had no discussions with Republican leadership and then said he probably did “in passing.”

But there were questions I wanted to ask, and I was disappointed that the Democrats didn’t. For example, Ciampoli indicated that he relied on more than the census data – demographics, ages of people – and was fully well aware of voter registrations and voting patterns in terms of “making sure” the sanctity of the minority/majority districts were preserved. He knew exactly what proportion of a district voted for Obama, Schumer, Rice, Weitzman in 2008 and under the new plan. But no one asked how he applied that information to redrawing Great Neck, the Five Towns, and the other Democratically-controlled districts, particularly the district represented by David Denenberg, who is a particular target for elimination.

In fact, no one has explored the difference between population – which is what the Census is all about – and voter numbers at all.

Indeed, LD2 district is being split so that black sections are being sent to a predominantly white (and affluent) district, while a section that is Hispanic and known to have a large non-citizen (therefore non-voting) population is being kept in.

As Legislator Judi Bosworth pointed out in her questioning of Ciampoli, the shifts proposed by his map, changing from a north-south to an east-west configuration, seemed more calculated, than just trying to reach the ideal population of 70,637.

“Our District 10, has 70,502 population, when 70,637 is the target, so it is off by 135 people, which is 0.2% deviation. So for a point-2 deviation, you are changing almost half the district,” she asserted.

“In District 11, where there is 72,724 population, the deviation is 3.2%, after redistricting. In fact, though the 10th actually was almost at ideal, after redistricting, there would now be difference of only  1,557 with a deviation of 2.2%, so it would be worse in the 10th, and the 11th would be only marginally better. So it is difficult to understand.”

Ciampoli argued that the overriding issue was to “protect town lines” – and reduce the number of cuts from 7 in the 2003 redistricting, to only 3.

Legislator Wayne Wink challenged Ciampoli on his justification of carving up districts in order to reduce the number of town “cuts,” noting that throughout New Yor State, most townships have 10,000 to 15,000 population – akin to Long Island villages – but here in Nassau, 250,000 is the smallest township. “This is not matter of town lines being sacrosanct, because village lines are more closely akin to town on state level, when village lines being severed, but that apparently doesn’t merit consideration by town attorney.”

Ciampoli replied, “Town lines are part of guidelines enshrined in state law; village lines don’t have the same deference, and accordingly I followed that hierarchy.”

“It’s hard to believe that though you are now respecting the town line, because you have not only cut Great Neck Peninsula in half, but also divide villages, which is unthinkable,” Bosworth retorted. Great Neck Plaza is just one-third square mile, but it is the downtown, the transportation and commercial hub for the entire Peninsula. Yet,  under Ciampoli’s plan, this tiny village is split along Middle Neck Road, the main shopping street and thoroughfare. “That is  very problematic for the mayor and one could understand why.”

Pleading for More Time, More Input

But that is the bigger point that all the opponents made during the course of this solitary public hearing:

“It might have been nice to see different choices, so with public input, we might have been able to avoid splitting Great Neck Plaza, Great Neck Estates and Thomaston in two, and splitting Lake Success off entirely. That’s of great concern to my community. This is what happens when you don’t have the benefit of proper community involvement, or understand new boundaries, which from my perspective, don’t have any rhyme or reason.”

She was being kind, suggesting it was just Ciampoli’s lack of familiarity with the communities he was slicing and dicing, rather than a more politically strategic intention.

Consider, though, what diluting Great Neck’s votes and our political clout that comes with being a unified community would mean: County Executive Ed Mangano would have been able to close the 6th Precinct and shut down Long Island Bus service (still a possibility with Mangano’s plan to privatize the service), and Tom Suozzi would have been able to force us to shut down our waste treatment plant here and pipe our waste to Cedar Creek on the south shore.

Ciampoli, the Karl Rove of Nassau County politics, knows that Great Neck Peninsula is one of the most unified communities in the country and splitting Great Neck also dilutes one of the most significant power bases for the Democratic party left on Long Island.

Legislator Judi Bosworth stated, “Mr. Schmitt and the caucus are attempting to rush redistricting whereby more than half-million voters, 44% would be moved to new district. It’s plain wrong, most likely illegal, and should not be lauded by the county attorney who has a long history of voter suppression.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Robert Troiano, Legislator for LD 2, with a sly smile at Vincent Muscarela, the Republican Legislator for LD 8, warned that he is in for a new world, should he pick up that portion of LD 2 that is presently virtually entirely minority.

Amazingly, with all the census data that Ciampoli said he used, he said he did not consider median income when drawing the new districts, and did not see any problem, whatsoever, in pulling out a portion of Old Westbury into LD2, the minority/majority district, or breaking off the Village of Hempstead, and putting it in the same district as Garden City.

Ciampoli tried to divert attention away from the process or underlying strategy used to create the new map, telling the lawmakers this was “irrelevant”. The only thing that should is relevant, he claimed, was the map itself, that it comply with constitutional requirements and standards for “one-man-one-vote” so that the County not be subject to a lawsuit. He said the fact that the 2nd LD, now represented by Democrat Robert Troiano, had a 14% deviation (that is, 14 percent more population than the ideal number of 70,637), was sufficient “crisis” to warrant immediate action – not even waiting the allowed six months, as per the County charter.

Legislator Wayne Wink, though, pointed out the flaw in that argument, citing Supreme Court decisions which disregarded the “deviation” (by as much as 80% in Wyoming), in favor of an opportunity for public input and due consideration. He said that the case law all pointed to the fact that Sec 112 required only that the county demonstrate that it was acting to remedy the disparities in the districts; that the creation of a bipartisan commission to create the new lines in a deliberative way, would be sufficient to shield the county from a lawsuit. but more significantly, Sec 112 which Ciampoli and Schmitt keep citing as the imperative to adopt the new map now, without bipartisan or public input, allows for six months to act.

“This is intended to be a roadmap with public participation, with a bipartisan commission, and you are obviating that by denying public participation outside the 18 hours today…and you expect 7 days from now we will make this law,” He called the public hearing “a charade” and then said Ciampoli’s legal “counsel” was suspect.

“Ever since the hearings to appoint you, we have heard time and again about voter suppression and voter intimidation you have participated in directly, that’s what taints this entire process,” Wink said. “You, without any public input, shift 44% of entire population, 544,000 shifted under your tutelage, your guidance, with no public input, and based on your record on voter intimation in Yonkers, at Bard College, and all over the state, that is what has pre-ordained the outcome of these lines- your involvement in them, your history.”

This prompted moans from the Republican side and a rebuke of Wink from John J. Ciotti (R-LD 3), who otherwise asked no other probing questions of the County Attorney.

Schmitt said he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

This is the guy who justifies cuts in programs that benefit the poor, the elderly, children, disabled, and would happily see cuts to bus service because Nassau county is broke (another “crisis”), and yet has money to fritter away on a failed lawsuit to keep out NIFA, and now a reapportionment plan where the new districts look like a Rorschach test.

Ciampoli indicated that with his handy-dandy computer program, he could probably make amendments to the map PDQ (“I live to serve,” he quipped in answer to a question from Legislator Kevan Abrahams). Schmitt, who during the hearing professed no understanding of the term “bloodsoaked” used by a Hempstead resident to reflect concern over loss of voting rights, also gave the barest hint that he might be open to making some changes in light of the virtually unanimous opposition expressed during the public hearing.

“Based on the outpouring of folks,  it’s quite possible you will be taking a look at different avenue?” Abrahams said hopefully “It’s quite possible,” Schmitt replied, possibly more to end the hearing. “I am well aware I am taking my cue from tenor and tone of public comment – the Democrats comments, Great Neck, Uniondale. They are not too happy with what is proposed, I am aware.”

But Schmitt also steeled himself, manifesting that wonderful (that is, obnoxious) machismo that Republicans are strutting around the country, saying d he fully expected a lawsuit over the reapportionment map, and in fact, “That’s fine with me too.”

At points, the public hearing disintegrated into a shouting match, and the comments turned on Schmitt and the way he was handling the hearing.

“I am shocked and appalled at how you have addressed the public with no concern for our needs,” declared Regis Thompson, NY Democratic club. “It shows me hatred, not love prevails on this committee… Your neighbors must be shocked you have taken off the sheets.”

To which Presiding Officer Schmitt retorted, “if you are the best that the Hempstead Democratic Club can offer….” sparking a huge uproar. Two Hempstead men rallied to her side, Ramel Smith and Dennis Jones and police were summoned, threatening to arrest them, and escorted them out to the lobby. The situation cooled off  and all three returned.

Later, Ramel Smith addressed the board from the podium saying, “My grandmother and grandfather were Gertude and  Johnny Smith. In the 1960s, they were beaten by police with bolts at the bottom of their clubs. They fought for me to have a right to have my vote heard, as well as my mother and my son. You telling me today, to hell with my grandparents, mother, son.”

More Highlights from the Hearing

Here are some highlights from the testimony at Monday’s sole public hearing on the plan for reapportionment:

Minority Leader Diane Yatauro: “As I look out at huge crowd gathered, I am both encouraged and deeply angered – encouraged to see so many of constituents care so deeply about what is about to transpire, and are here to fight to stop this madness: cynical, hastily drawn map, in secret by couple of Republican operatives, Ciampoli at the direction of County Executive Ed Mangano and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, angry at so-called public hearing is held at the County seat rather than out in the community, and on a weekday morning, when most can’t attend because of work, angry because this hearing is nothing but a farce. The Republican caucus are going to hear you out, make some nice dip0lomatic phrases.

“The move of over 44% of the population, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, ishurried in direct contradiction of the charter, but business as usual [for the Republicans]. This is how the self-serving Republican protection plan will play out.

“I know Schmitt will claim to be the great protector of minority, despite voting against their judges, commissioners and community interests… He would turn the Five Towns into 2 ½ towns, sever villages, dilute communities, and the rights of veterans, union workers…

“This will end up again, in court – that’s where we will fight. We want to use the right process – a nonpartisan redistricting commission, with hearings in the very communities that are affected and redraw the lines for 2013,” Yatauro said.

County Attorney John Ciampoli: “This is a historic moment in this County’s history. It presents an opportunity for enfranchisement and empowerment, this is not a county subject to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, yet this legislature pursuant to your directive has chosen to create a new minority/majority district in the western end, and to level the playing field in that part of the county to choose a representative of their choice.”

Valerie Fineman, Great Neck: “I appalled at what is being done here today… This redistricting is proposed with undue haste, rushing the allowed time available from the 6 months you have available…. It also demonstrates the blatant, unlawful, and illegal power grab…. This doesn’t represent the will of the people involved. The equal franchise is not represented by this plan, every community is hurt or divided by it. Time is needed to respond to local community needs and interests.”

Louise Hochberg, Great Neck United Parent Teacher Council: “The County Attorney relies on Sec 112, but it is Sec 113 that tells us how to accomplish the redistricting mandated by 112: 113 says there shall be a temporary redistricting advisory commission established each legislative term in which the legislature is required to apportion the county legislative districts as a result of the federal decennial… You can’t pick and choose which sections of the charter you will follow and when you will follow… Why are  you circumventing the bipartisan spirit in which our charter tells us to approach the redistricting issue?”

Continue reading on Nassau County GOP ram through redistricting plan aimed at securing majority rule – Long Island populist |

Long Island’s Special Taxing Districts

How outraged citizens are dumping the status quo

By Spencer Rumsey on Aug 19th, 2010

Two long Island women. One from Suffolk, the other from Nassau. One a Republican, the other a Democrat. Rosalie Hanson of Gordon Heights and Laura Mallay of South Hempstead didn’t know each other when they first found the cause that would change their lives, but it was this cause—fighting special districts—that eventually brought them together. 

Special districts are the lesser-known taxing entities that provide services such as water, fire protection and sanitation, for example, layered within the network of county, town and village municipalities. Nassau has more than 200 of them. As the Long Island Index, a nonprofit study funded each year by The Rauch Foundation, has pointed out, “Having so many separate taxing districts contributes to the high cost of living on Long Island.” With their own tax lines, these entities often operate like mini-fiefdoms hidden in the shadows.

As these women would discover, uncovering them is not easy; removing them is even harder. It’s a battle being waged throughout New York State, thanks to the recently enacted, attorney general-penned Citizen Empowerment Act, which enables residents fed up with exorbitant fees to simply dissolve the entities altogether. But even with this weapon, eliminating these costly entities is easier said than done, as the two unsuspecting friends would also soon find. 

Hanson’s Suffolk community has the distinction of paying the highest fire district taxes on Long Island. Carved out of Coram, Middle Island, Yaphank and Medford, Gordon Heights has four zip codes for its 1.7 square miles but one fire district with an average household tax charge of $1,500, quadruple the amount of nearby areas. Back in 2006, a couple of Hanson’s friends went to a conference on Nassau County’s special tax districts held at Hofstra University, where they heard Laura Mallay speak about paying twice what her Nassau neighbors pay for garbage service.

 The conference was the brain child of then-Nassau Comptroller Howard Weitzman, whose office the year before had audited five sanitary districts in three towns.

“Everyone needs garbage collected, clean drinking water and fire protection,” Weitzman said at the time. “But Nassau residents can pay two or three times as much for the same service depending on the district in which they live. Our audits unveiled millions of dollars of waste by some special districts, and a general lack of accountability, transparency and oversight.”

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Speaking to the Press while vacationing recently in the Canadian Rockies after overcoming a serious illness that hindered his re-election campaign last year, Weitzman summarized his studies: “We found that the taxpayers in the garbage districts in the Town of Hempstead could save approximately $20 million if their garbage costs were reduced to the garbage costs of the town,” he says.

Taking on special districts was far from Laura Mallay’s mind eight years ago when she was talking to a friend on the phone and looked out her kitchen window as a man leaped into her backyard and tried to steal one of her kids’ bicycles. “I was fit to be tied,” recalls the mother of five (she had only three children back then). She hung up and confronted the man. “He tells me, ‘These people are chasing me!’” She told him that the police would help him, and she called 911. It turned out the people chasing him were the police. The man had just invaded a nearby home and was on the run. “The guy had a gun! Who knew?” But it’s that kind of indomitable spirit that typifies Mallay even today. 

Trial By Fire
Those heroics impressed Mallay’s husband James, an electrician, and garnered support from her neighbors, who encouraged her to rekindle her block’s dormant civic association. Naturally, their biggest issue was their property taxes. And that interest led them to then-Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson, who had begun looking closely at the county’s taxing districts, particularly the South Hempstead Fire District and the Town of Hempstead Sanitary District No. 2, which he found charged more than similar districts. In the case of fire taxes, Levinson told the Press recently from his home in Florida, Mallay’s community was paying a tax rate of $46 while Manhasset was paying only $9.

“It’s $543 for garbage tax in Laura Mallay’s area,” Levinson says, “and if she lived in Merrick, she’d be paying $263.”

Mallay invited Levinson to talk about special tax districts at a town hall meeting in March 2005 at the elementary school with her group and two other civic associations from Baldwin Oaks and Birchwood, all three in the same sanitation and fire districts.

“The auditorium was packed to the brim,” Levinson recalls. “And what was parked outside? A big fire truck! And they had brought in firemen from Albany in full-dress uniform to picket me! That meeting got to be very, very tense because they were convinced I was trying to close the fire district.”

“They’re all in their gear, they’re all standing firm, and they’re not letting him speak,” Mallay says. “They’re yelling. It was crazy.”

For Mallay, it was a rude awakening. Although her father was active in the Nassau County Democratic Committee, she’d never realized how political fire departments can be. At the urging of the other civic association members, she decided to run for commissioner of her sanitation district.

“These mini-governments across Long Island are what is leading to these incredible taxes that we all pay,” Mallay tells the Press. “People have different feelings about fire, schools and water. But if you can’t fix garbage, you can’t fix any of it!”

The trash collectors see it differently.

“The vast majority of [the disparity in household fees] is the level of service and the assessment,” says Bob Noble, the secretary to the board of commissioners at Sanitary District No. 2, where he began working 31 years ago on the back of a garbage truck. “This special district has the lowest assessment. We have a very small commercial base in Baldwin and it’s non-existent in South Hempstead.”

Levison disagrees.

“The Sanitary District No. 2 in Baldwin is what I call an invisible government,” says Levinson, adding that most residents don’t even know that it imposes a different tax rate from the town’s. “The way to relieve some of the tax burden,” he says, “is to have the district dissolve itself. As long as that sanitary district is around, it has to have a tax rate.” He said most of the sanitation workers would keep their jobs with the town because “garbage is a growth industry.”

Bob Noble is the sanitary district’s secretary to the Board of Commissioners and a volunteer Baldwin fireman.

So Laura Mallay threw her hat in the ring, so to speak, and challenged Gerard Brown for sanitary commissioner in 2005.

“They came after me hard,” she recalls, shaking her head and sighing. “They were terrible to my children. Certain kids weren’t allowed to play with my kids anymore!” As she remembers the friends who stopped talking to her, a steely resolve seals her hazel eyes

“You know, they did me a favor. If somebody is going to turn their back on you over a difference in beliefs, then they’re not really somebody you want in your life anymore or around your children, right?”

She lost big, but her struggle brought her an invitation to speak at Weitzman’s conference at Hofstra, where she met friends of Rosalie Hanson, who had been confronting Gordon Heights’ onerous fire district taxes for almost two decades.

Up In Smoke
When Rosalie Hanson moved about a mile and a half up the road from Coram in 1986 and bought a new three-bedroom ranch in Gordon Heights with her husband Alex, she was shocked to find out that she’d be paying $1,000 more for fire service than her sister, who had just bought a house in the same Medford zip code. A year later the Hansons got the state comptroller to audit the district, originally set up in 1952, and learned “there’s nothing you can do about it,” she recalls.

“As the community grows, the tax rate would go down, we were told,” says Hanson, a registered Republican. “Even though we added more homes, our taxes still went up.”

And so they fumed until 2006, when their district’s plight landed on the Sunday cover of Long Island’s daily newspaper.

“My husband came home with the paper, and I shouted, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Gordon Heights!’” Hanson recalls. “I reached out to some neighbors and we were off and running.”

An April protest demanding special district audits gathers outside Nassau Comptroller George Maragos’ office in Mineola.

They formed a group and educated themselves. They learned about a Brookhaven Town law that would let them dissolve their special tax district if they collected enough signatures on a petition to put the referendum to a vote. The catch, she says, was that “those who signed the petition had to represent 50 percent of the assessed value of the area.” It was daunting, but since her district had about 900 homes, Hanson’s group thought they could pull it off.

“It took six solid months,” Hanson says. “Some people would not sign out of fear. They thought some other emergency services would blacklist them, so I had to work twice as hard for those people who live in fear, you know?”

Her group turned in the petitions in August 2006, only to learn in October it was denied on a formal technicality. But that rejection only spurred them on. The following year, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer set up a Commission on Local Government Efficiency “to devise a plan to consolidate some of the 4,200 independent taxing districts statewide and to make the remaining districts more cost-efficient,” his press release said. The commission held a public forum at Hofstra University where Laura Mallay, who by that time had formed a nonprofit group called Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD), invited Rosalie Hanson to speak. And so the connection was forged.

Huntington-based attorney Paul Sabatino II, who’s worked in Suffolk County government for many years and is now in private practice, got involved in Rosalie Hanson’s struggle in 2008 after the Town of Brookhaven had rejected her group’s petitions. Sabatino still remembers the shock he felt when he first saw the residents’ tax bills.

“Nobody in the State of New York should be paying what those people are paying,” Sabatino says. “You look at that and you say there’s got to be a remedy.”

In rejecting the group’s petitions the town had cited New York State election law, “which has nothing to do with it,” Sabatino says. “I think the reason beneath the surface was that it was a hot potato, and they didn’t want to confront the issue head-on.”

State Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point), a former Brookhaven Town supervisor, explains the town’s quandary: “You have some neighbors pitted against others,” he says. “The fire department has been the focal point of that community…for decades. The town is trying to be as prudent as they can on this one.”

A picture from inside Rosalie Hanson’s living room, where the battle against special districts is being waged.

In a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve in 2008, Hanson’s group delivered their new petitions to town hall, still having to ensure that the signers represented at least 50 percent of the district’s assessed valuation.

“It was reviewed forever,” Sabatino says of the town’s process. For months the group heard nothing. Then one morning last October Sabatino says he got “a frantic call” that one of the town’s attorneys was reportedly telling people at a public meeting in Gordon Heights “how you can take your name off the petition,” he recalls. “So much time was going by, and then to hear that they were actually giving advice on how people could take their names off the petition! I went ballistic.”

Later that month a reporter from the North Shore Sun, which had named Hanson its “person of the year,” asked her reaction to the story he was working on: the Town of Brookhaven had accepted her group’s petition. Apparently, she was not the first to know.

“They sent me a certified letter of rejection in 2006, so why wouldn’t they send me a certified letter in 2009?” Hanson asks, incredulity rising in her voice.

Subsequently, the town hired Emergency Service Consultants International, a consulting firm headquartered in Oregon with an office in North Carolina, to conduct a $91,000 feasibility study of consolidating Gordon Heights. The study finally began this June, and the final report was supposed to be done by October. But Phil Kouwe, the project manager, told the Press his firm is still waiting for data from the county and the state, particularly regarding Gordon Heights’ emergency response time and the volume of calls, so the study can be completed. He blames “the wheels of government” for the delay. 

“I’m not freaking out by how long it’s taking,” he adds.

Nor is Rosalie Hanson, who remains eternally upbeat.

“For the past five years it’s been total dedication,” she says. “It’s time, energy and money out of my own pocket but I feel it’s worth it in the long run. It will give the people in this community a better quality of life because they’ll have more money in their wallets to spend on their families.”

Sabatino has nothing but admiration for the perseverance of Hanson’s group.

“If the average citizen knew what they went through, they’d be held up as heroes!” says Sabatino. “Every obstacle was put in their way.”

The Gordon Heights fire district is still charging its high tax rates, but Hanson’s struggle to reverse course has already produced one stunning success in the realm of real government reform: the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, which became effective March 21. The attorney general’s office reportedly followed up recommendations from Spitzer’s 2007 commission, which had heard Hanson recount her efforts.

“I was told by his office that our plight was the inspiration for him to change the law,” Hanson tells the Press.

“I have to give [Andrew] Cuomo a lot of credit,” Sabatino says, “because he not only saw the issue but rather than grandstanding on it and just having a press release or two like a guy like [Steve] Levy does, he actually followed through and pursued it to its end, and he fought off all the attempts to amend it. And the Gordon Heights story is so egregious it became the catalyst for the reform legislation.”

Pros And Cons
The Citizen Empowerment Act, shorthand for the new legislation, provides three routes to consolidation or dissolution: the county executive and the county legislature can submit a master plan to a county-wide referendum; the taxing district’s own board could initiate the process (as some small villages upstate have done) and put up its plan to a referendum; or the residents within the district could launch a petition drive to get a referendum on the ballot, provided they obtained 10 percent of the district’s voters or 5,000 voters (whichever number is smaller) to sign the petition.

“When a majority of electors vote yes to consolidate,” explains Andrew Calderaro, project director of the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project, set up by the nonprofit Long Island Progressive Coalition to work with grassroots’ groups like RESD to implement the law, “the governing body must meet within 30 days of the certification of the vote and create a plan within 180 days of the certification. This plan is subject to public hearings, must appear in newspapers of general circulation, and must appear on the governing body’s website.”

To repudiate that plan, citizens would have to launch another petition drive but gather more signatures than were required before: 25 percent or 15,000 of the registered voters. If voters reject the referendum the first time it comes up for a vote, there’s a four-year moratorium on any new attempts to dissolve or consolidate the particular district.

In the first week of June 2009, the bill passed overwhelmingly thanks to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who extinguished a push to eliminate fire districts from the law.

But the pushback began immediately. State Sens. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) and Foley, plus Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) have proposed a bill that would exclude fire districts as well as protect towns and villages by raising the required number of petition signatures, prolonging the time-table for government action and mandating that a study of the possible financial impact of the change be made available to the voters as part of the initial process, rather than after the referendum.

“I view the Cuomo legislation as really a threat to the way of life for the residents who live in my district and really for the residents who live throughout Long Island,” says Johnson, whose district includes 33 villages and several special taxing districts. “It’s poorly drafted, it’s poorly constructed, and it won’t really provide any tangible savings.”

Firefighters and mayors want the chapter amendments but for different reasons. Ostensibly the fire districts say that doing away with volunteers would require replacing them with full-time paid fire fighters, which would raise the costs to the taxpayers who dissolved their district, as well as adding to the emergency response time.

“If in the process I might disenfranchise 55 or 65 volunteers, and I have to pay to replace them,” says Kirby Hannan, a lobbyist for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which represents the volunteer fire districts, “then I didn’t save any money. As a taxpayer I want to be able to make an informed decision. And we don’t think the bill does that right now.”

“I am all for empowering the people but it’s got to be informed consent,” says Schimel. 

Village officials say they’re worried that voters might support a referendum without knowing how much it might truly cost to get rid of their municipality.

“The law is intended to empower the voters,” says Barbara Van Epps, deputy director of the New York Conference of Mayors. “But we would argue that it’s tough to empower them without educating them at the same time,” she says. “So our fundamental concern is the fact that the vote takes place before the study. And we have some real concerns about that.”

The mayors also worry that a bunch of disgruntled citizens emboldened by the low threshold of petition signatures could subject the villages to a constant barrage of harassment. As an aide to one of the amendment’s sponsors said, “Have you ever gone to a town board meeting? Do you know how many crazy people show up? Let’s be honest.”

The aide understood the rationale for the law, but still found fault with it. “If it’s going to be more democratic, fine, but it also took some power away from the local entities themselves.”

Doing that seems to be Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s intention, echoing the time-honored sentiment of Oliver Cromwell, who told the Rump Parliament in 1653, “Be gone, rogues, you have sat long enough!”

In his campaign for governor, Cuomo has a compelling riff on the suffocating layers of the Empire State’s taxing bureaucracies. Take this spiel from his acceptance speech at the state’s Democratic Convention in Rye: “There are 10,000 local governments in the State of New York. Ten thousand! Town, village, lighting district, water district, sewer district, a special district to count the other districts in case you missed a district!”

Given the staggering problems facing our state (another multi-billion dollar budget deficit on tap for next year), it’s unlikely the amendments to Cuomo’s law will rank high on the legislative agenda. But if they do come up for a vote, they might pass, considering that even the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Lisa Tyson wouldn’t mind.

“We have no problem with fire departments and villages being left out of the law,” she tells the Press. “Those are not the special taxing districts we’re talking about. It’s the garbage, the sewer, the water. Those are the ones with the real abuses.”

Her group intends to launch a petition drive to dissolve either Sanitary No. 2 or Sanitary No. 6 later this month, once the local grassroots’ group is ready to hit the street.

Tyson agrees with Schimel’s desire to prolong the study process, finding the 180-day time frame “ridiculous.”
“Governments can’t tie their shoes in that amount of time!” she says. “If they create a crappy plan, then what’s the point? We don’t want to make things worse!”

But she does have one overriding concern, she admits, and it has to do with the ambition of the man himself who helped draft the law.

“Cuomo won’t be in the attorney general’s office next year,” Tyson says. “How much will the attorney general’s office really help if it’s a bad plan? How much will they really get involved?” She says advocates can’t rely on an aggressive comptroller’s office.

“Auditing is great,” she says, “but it doesn’t change policy.”

Some supporters of the Cuomo law like it just the way it is. They say the amendments are intended to water it down for the special interests. 

Sabatino has little patience for those trying to amend Cuomo’s law.

“I’ve tried to understand the arguments that they’ve raised but it’s nothing more than a defense of the status quo,” he says. “I think [Cuomo] did a brilliant job of providing uniformity and simplicity.”

Predictably, Foley took umbrage at that assessment.

“Even the most brilliant laws need improvements!” he counters. “Let me put it this way: I didn’t run for office and spend time away from my family to go to Albany to protect the status quo!”

The People Squeak
One thing that does protect the status quo is citizens’ inertia, and it may work against those who want to put the Cuomo law into action.

“To get people to come out to vote, they have to be angry about something, and very few people are angry about, for example, their garbage collection,” says Weitzman, the former Nassau comptroller. “In fact, we found that most people are very satisfied with their garbage collection—even when we pointed out that they were paying extra money for the same level of collection than other people were paying. It was almost like: ‘Consolidation should take place but not in my backyard!’ But with that kind of attitude we’re never going to be able to do anything about our high tax structure.”

Charles Zettek, vice president and director of government management services for the Center for Government Research in Albany, agrees with Weitzman’s analysis.

“It’s the classic conundrum across the country but it plays itself out brutally in New York State. People complain bitterly about high taxes and yet are not willing to give up the services those taxes are paying for. They want their taxes to be cut by somebody else giving up something but not them.”

Zettek is paying close attention to the efforts to dissolve small villages upstate; two referenda are on the ballot this week, and another is up later this month. Out of a handful of so far, only the one in Seneca Falls passed, 51-49, a “flip of the coin,” Zettek says, adding that research showed that its residents would save about $1,000 a year in taxes. “That’s how powerful the no-change impetus is,” he adds.

“It goes back to Machiavelli: How do you change things?” asks Zettek. “Empowering local citizens is going to make some changes but it’s going to come piecemeal. The fault that citizens don’t take the authority they’ve been given constitutionally and actually act upon it is not the fault of the districts. It’s the fault of the citizens not taking their government seriously.”