Suffolk Closeup: Smaller is not better

COURTESY PHOTO | Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming.
COURTESY PHOTO | Legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming.

A resolution has been introduced at the Suffolk County Legislature to reduce the number of its members from 18 to 13. A good idea? No way.

For Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) whose district includes Shelter Island, East Hampton and Southampton towns and part of Brookhaven, the proposed cut in membership could mean her district would extend further west which, she says, would add greater difficulties to her job.

Moreover, it would be further dilution of what is supposed to be largely an East End district.
As the only journalist still around who covered Suffolk’s previous governing body, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, and then, starting in 1970, the Suffolk County Legislature, I have a perspective on the issue — and having a legislature with 18 members has been, I’d say, a good move for Suffolk.

It’s comparable to the number of members of legislatures in nearby counties.

Neighboring Nassau has a 19-member legislature. The Westchester County Legislature has 17. The Dutchess County Legislature has 25.

With smaller districts, there can be elections based on the personal touch — a candidate can go door-to-door to meet voters. That’s much better than being barraged, as we increasingly have been, in campaigns for countywide, state and particularly federal offices by incessant TV commercials and obnoxious robo-calls.

There have been instances in Suffolk of extraordinarily uphill campaigns run by candidates for the Legislature who achieved victory after going door-to-door.

With Suffolk’s population at 1.5 million, legislative districts each contain about 80,000 people, or approximately 20,000 households. That’s a lot of doors to knock on, but by being selective, it can still be a route to winning. Upping each district’s population to 115,000 by reducing the legislature to 13 districts might seem as if it could still provide for personal campaigning. I wonder.

Beyond campaigns, having relatively small legislative districts is a way citizens can have more of an impact on her or his legislator, and the elected official can represent each community in her or his district more effectively. In Suffolk County, communities are typically different. There is great variety among our towns, hamlets and villages. Having a legislator representing too large a district — as Legislator Fleming’s district could become — would impair this representation of unique communities, and no area in Suffolk is as unique as Shelter Island.

The measure to reduce the number of districts to 13 has been put forward by Legislator Bill Lindsay III (D-Holbrook). Mr. Lindsay cites cost-savings in his bill. It states that “reducing the number of legislative districts from 18 to 13 would produce a commensurate reduction in costs and those savings could be passed on to the county’s taxpayers.” Further, it says “while a smaller legislative body would result in districts with marginally larger populations, these districts would still be small enough to allow underfunded candidates to compete effectively.”

A countywide referendum would be required for the measure to be enacted.

Some background: Suffolk County got a legislature after centuries of having a Board of Supervisors. The end of the board — as well as similar boards in Nassau, Westchester, Dutchess, indeed across the nation — came because the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-person-one-vote decisions of the 1960s. They were centered on the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. In Suffolk, a lawsuit based on those rulings was brought. Highlighted, was how the Suffolk board consisted of the 10 supervisors of each of Suffolk’s towns and the supervisor of a small East End town — Shelter Island was especially singled out — had the same one vote as a supervisor of a significantly more populated western Suffolk town.

Thus came the Suffolk Legislature in 1970, with 18 selected as the right number.
Some aspects of the Suffolk Board of Supervisors continues with the Suffolk Legislature. The board, for example, made sure members of the public had an opportunity to speak out at its meetings. And it saw itself as a legislative body in check-and-balance with the county executive.

The county executive used to sit with the board and then also sat with the legislature at its horseshoe table, until 1975. That year, Democrats gained a legislative majority and the late Suffolk Democratic Chairman Dominic Baranello — in a wrong-headed move, in my view — decided that sitting in at legislative meetings provided Suffolk County Executive John V. N. Klein, a highly articulate Republican, with too much attention. He got the Democratic majority to kick out the county executive from meetings.

That system should be brought back and the check-and-balance between legislature and county executive in Suffolk be out in the open again.

The 10 supervisors of which the board was made up were, on the other hand, was largely concerned with running their towns, not the county. County oversight was a secondary duty, but Suffolk legislators are there now to be county lawmakers. And 18 has been a productive number.

As Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty wisely told the Reporter about the Lindsay gambit: It is “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.”