Islip residents believe they have found a loophole in the settlement reached last week in the federal lawsuit Flores v. Islip Town — and are claiming that the newly established district lines constitute as gerrymandering.
Brentwood residents Ana Flores, Rene Flores, Maria Magdalena Hernandez and Magali Roman, and two New York-based advocacy groups, sued Islip Town in 2018 and alleged that the town’s at-large system of electing town council members denied Latino representation on the board. They alleged that the system also violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The group was represented by Hempstead attorney Frederick K. Brewington in court, who over 20 years ago challenged Hempstead Town for its at-large system and won. Islip Town was represented by Washington, D.C.-based attorney Louis Fisher.
Last week, Islip Town’s at-large council election system switched to single-member districts after a tentative settlement was reached in the lawsuit.
Beginning next year, Islip will create four council districts, each represented by a town board member. One district will represent Brentwood, North Bay Shore and western Central Islip, where most Islip minorities reside.
Elections for the first two districts, which encompass the majority of the town and minority communities, will be held next year. Elections for the other two districts will take place in 2023.
While the settlement ensures that a Latino resident will represent communities on the town board, some residents said the case falls short of providing fair political representation throughout the town.
Sayville Citizens for Political Activation member James Bertsch said he’s “thrilled” by the likelihood of electing a Spanish-speaking councilperson from Brentwood – but feels Central Islip, which will be divided into three districts, is not appropriately represented under the new district map.
“Residents are divided into three districts, which dilutes their voting power even more than before the settlement,” said Bertsch, who works with SCFPA to create events for progressive politics.
Islip is the third-most populous town in New York State and is 34.5 percent Hispanic, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. The majority of Islip’s Latino community is located in Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore.
Because these areas are split into multiple districts, while Bayport, Brightwaters and Holbrook are not, it undermines the political power of Latino voters.
“This is a case of gerrymandering, of partisan politics at a very local level,” said Bertsch, who also serves on the Sayville Union Free School District school board. “The Town of Islip was created 300 years ago. I hope we don’t have to wait another 300 years for a government that puts people in front of politics.”
Leigh-Anne Barde, a Democrat who ran for town council in 2019 and lost, said there’s no arguing that the settlement was a win for Brentwood residents – “but it came at the cost of the rest of the map being gerrymandered.”
“The Democratic votes throughout Islip… have been diluted to just guarantee that Republicans will hold control of the board,” she said. “The one [elected] lone-man-out from Brentwood will have his hands tied. It’s an ear to the ground, and very little more.”
Barde, a Central Islip resident, said the map still puts Central Islip voters at a disadvantage. If an independent party not associated with the town split the map, it would’ve “looked very different.”
“We traded one racist system for the next,” Barde said.
West Sayville resident Carl Cangelosi is concerned with Sayville and West Sayville being split into two districts. Cangelosi said the split will cause an unnecessary divide between the unified communities.
“Splitting the [hamlet] without considering the geographic and educational interest of the affected communities… undermines the concept of responsive government,” Cangelosi said. “It diminishes constituent services by limiting the ability of citizens of the greater Sayville region to collectively advocate for issues unique to the area.”
Islip supervisor Angie Carpenter said the town board will continue its “unwavering commitment to represent and be accountable to all our residents in the Town of Islip, as the transition is made to councilmanic districts.”
The decision to settle last week was “difficult,” she said, especially considering the “town’s success in defending the 2019 preliminary injunction, by which plaintiffs sought to stop the 2019 town board elections.”
“Careful consideration was given to all the options, and when weighed against the escalating costs and inherent uncertainty of litigation, we believe that a settlement is the best and most responsible action which protects all interests, most especially our taxpayers, particularly in light of the current fiscal crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Carpenter said.
Islip is now one of four Long Island towns – including Brookhaven, Hempstead and North Hempstead – that have established council districts. All other towns have at-large councils.