Southold’s Democrats are pushing for a major change in the way Town Board members are elected and serve by creating councilmatic districts, in which board members represent specific communities rather than running at-large.
The change wouldn’t be easy to accomplish, requiring an act of the state Legislature followed by approval in a townwide referendum.
The town’s Democratic Committee voted without objection during a special meeting at the Red Rooster restaurant in Cutchogue Saturday afternoon to ask the Town Board to set the change in motion.
But the only Democrat on the Town Board, Councilman Al Krupski, opposes the change, which he called unnecessary and divisive.
Town Democratic Chairman Art Tillman said there’s ample precedent for the district system.
“Basically we’re asking for a Town Board similar to the county Legislature, state Legislature and Congress,” he said.
He argued that making the switch to councilmatic districts will improve local representation as well as increase his party’s chances to cut into the GOP’s lopsided Town Board majority.
Under the at-large system, Town Board candidates must aim their message at all of Southold’s 16,000 registered voters, Mr. Tillman added.
“That’s daunting, if not impossible to do, and expensive,” said the chairman.
Running in smaller districts, candidates would need to reach only 4,000 voters.
Democrats also believe they could pick up a seat in the Greenport, East Marion and Orient parts of town, which lean Democratic.
The political downside is the potential for creating heavily Republican districts.
“Is it a risk? You’re darn right,” Mr. Tillman told party members. “But the opportunities and benefits far outweigh the risks.”
Committee member Dan Durett of Greenport said council districts “bring democracy, the Democratic process, to my front door, to your front door.”
“I think it’s going to stir the pot a little bit,” said Benja Schwartz of Cutchogue, filling in for his wife, a committee member. “Who knows? If we succeed, this may break the Republican stranglehold.”
(All town offices to be decided in this year’s elections are held by Republican incumbents. See separate story.)
Councilman Krupski, one of only two elected Democrats in Southold, said he sees no benefit in the district approach.
“Southold Town is one unit,” he said during the meeting. “You really have to look at the town as a whole.”
Rather than foster better communication, he added, “if anything, it would cause friction.”
Committee member Sydney Abbott said she spoke for former Democratic Councilman Tom Wickham, who also opposes the district system.
In an interview following the meeting, Mr. Wickham said the geographic divisions in the legislatures and Congress Mr. Tillman mentioned cause them to be less effective forms of government.
“I don’t want to see the Town of Southold divided into fighting fiefdoms,” he said. “There’s already too much parochialism, not just in Southold, but across the nation.”
Mr. Wickham pointed to the service of Fishers Island Justice Louisa Evans, who he said is informed and involved in issues all across Southold, not just on the island. The island’s judgeship is decided by all Southold voters, not just islanders.
Former Democratic Councilman Dan Ross’ legal challenge to the state law giving Fishers Island’s judge a seat on the Town Board will continue in Albany on April 26 when the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will hear arguments one of two lower court rulings upholding the seat’s dual nature.
Mr. Ross maintains that it’s unconstitutional for Fishers Island to hold a dedicated Town Board seat. In a decision later upheld in the first appeal, a state Supreme Court justice ruled that given the island’s location, the judge’s special status is reasonable.