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Suffolk lawmaker proposes shrinking size of Legislature

COURTESY PHOTO Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay is calling for a radical shake up of the governing body.

COURTESY PHOTO Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay is calling for a radical shake up of the governing body.

A Suffolk County legislator is calling on county officials to let the public vote on reducing the size of the legislature, a proposal that has received mixed reaction from East End officials.

Legislator Bill Lindsay III (D-Holbrook) introduced legislation last week to schedule a 2017 referendum asking Suffolk voters if they want to reduce the size of the legislature from 18 seats to 13. Two of the 18 current members represent the East End.

Mr. Lindsay, whose father was the Legislature’s longest-tenured presiding officer, serving eight years, said the county’s budgetary woes and fiscal challenges influenced his proposal, which he says “will reduce redundancies, increase transparency and promote greater government efficiency.”

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, a Democrat, wasn’t buying it. “There are no redundancies in the slim representation the East End has in the county Legislature,” Mr. Dougherty said. He added that the East End’s representation is “two of 18, while we send disproportionately larger — huge really — tax dollars to Haupauge, which the 16 West End Legislators gleefully use for their local projects.”

Mr. Dougherty called Mr. Lindsay’s initiative “deficit-motivated and there are many other more responsible ways — instead of crippling democracy — to close this county deficit … There is waste indeed at the county level but raiding the relatively modest amounts spent to ensure folks have some say in county affairs is not one of them.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, a Republican, had another take. “I think it’s fantastic,” Mr. Walter said. “I would abolish the entire county Legislature. The average resident has no idea who their county legislator is or what they do.”

Mr. Walter, who ran unsuccessfully for a legislative seat in 2014, said Connecticut has no system of county government, something he thinks Suffolk County should adopt.

“Return to the towns what belongs to the towns and send the rest back to the state,” Mr. Walter said.

For 200 years, Suffolk County was governed by a board of supervisors comprising the 10 town supervisors.

In 1970 , that board was abolished in favor of a Legislature following a lawsuit challenging the notion of a large town like Brookhaven and a small one like Shelter Island having the same voting power.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, also a Republican, questioned whether the change would benefit the East End.

“My inner Republican self should say that smaller government is better,” Mr. Russell said. “My practical self says that, if this happens, our unique concerns and issues will be eclipsed rather quickly by the concerns and issues of the vastly larger communities to the west.”

County Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), who represents Shelter Island said she doesn’t think her district could be any bigger. Currently about 240 square miles, it covers not only the Island, but the entire towns of Southampton and East Hampton and part of Brookhaven Town, plus seven incorporated villages.

“I love my job, don’t get me wrong,” Ms. Fleming said. “But it would be very difficult to have a larger district and still do a good job.”

Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), the North Fork’s representative in the county Legislature, thinks it should be reduced to 10 members, with each member representing one of Suffolk’s 10 towns.

“We just have to make sure the East End doesn’t lose any positions,” he said. “The last time [in 1970], the East End lost a lot.”

Mr. Krupski, who defeated Mr. Walter in 2014, said he doesn’t support doing away with the Legislature altogether.

“I think the Legislature plays a valuable role,” he said.

The bill will initially require public hearings on the proposed referendum to be held December 6 in Riverhead and December 20 in Hauppauge. If Mr. Lindsay’s proposal is approved by his colleagues, a countywide referendum would take place in November 2017 on whether to reduce the size of the Legislature.

If the voters approve, a reapportionment committee would advise the county on how to configure the 13 legislative districts evenly based on 2020 census data. The new legislative districts wouldn’t actually take effect until 2021, according to Mr. Lindsay.

“Suffolk County has 13 more elected county representatives than the most populous county [in America], Los Angeles,” Mr. Lindsay said.

Suffolk County’s population is about 1.5 million. Los Angeles County, with a population of 9.8 million, which includes the city of Los Angeles, is governed by a five-member board of supervisors.

In fact, of the 25 most populated counties in the nation, only Nassau County has more legislators than Suffolk, Mr. Lindsay said.

“Our residents pay for 18 legislators to receive a $100,000 a year in salary, 18 individual district offices with two county centers, [and] other benefits of a county car and cellphone and other incentives,” he said.

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