Former East End Assembly members give their take on redistricting

JOHN GRIFFIN FILE PHOTO | Marc Alessi is one of four former Assembly members we reached out to this week for their thoughts on the current redistricting plan.

Four former members of the state Assembly who at one time represented the North Fork have added their voices to those opposing a redistricting proposal that would — once again — unite the North and South forks into a single seat.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) would become Southold and Shelter Island’s new representative if a redistricting proposal released Jan. 26 by a state legislative committee takes effect. Riverhead would be part of the new 2nd Assembly District and incumbent Republican Dan Losquadro would be the incumbent.

The once-a-decade redistricting, which is to be in place by this November’s election, would change the boundaries of the 1st and 2nd Assembly Districts. The new district boundaries were suggested by the state Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.

The last time the five East End Towns (Southold, Shelter Island, Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton) were represented in the same district was when John Behan, a Montauk Republican, was in office.

Mr. Behan won an Assembly seat in 1979. About three years later, the North and South forks were split into separate districts. At that time, Southold native Joseph Sawicki was elected to the newly created 1st District seat to represent the North Fork.

Mr. Behan continued to serve the South Fork as 2nd District representative. Mr. Thiele, who worked for Mr. Behan at that time, took over his Assembly seat in 1995.

In an interview this week, Mr. Behan said the only positive aspect of the redistricting plan is that Long Island would gain another seat in the Assembly. But overall, he’s against lumping the two forks together. Before his district was split, he said, some of his constituents had to take two ferries to visit him at his East Hampton office.

“To me, it’s like going backward to 1979,” he said.

Pat Acampora, the former Republican assemblywoman who represented the 1st District from 1993 until 2005, agrees that combining the two forks is “a bad idea.” Removing Riverhead from the East End district, she added, is “insulting.”

“We have a lot of older seniors and they are usually the ones that are coming to talk to you,” she said. “Why would we make our constituents cross two bodies of water to visit their representative?”

Marc Alessi, a Democrat who represented the 1st Assembly District from 2005 until he lost his seat to Mr. Losquadro in the 2010 election, said he also disagreed with splitting Riverhead Town from the East End.

“The North Fork is one community and Riverhead Town is a part of it,” he said. “Having two representatives for one community can get confusing.”

Mr. Sawicki, a Republican who represented the North Fork for 11 years before leaving the state Assembly in 1993, said he also disagreed with separating Riverhead Town from Southold Town and lumping it together with its western neighbor, Brookhaven Town.

“Taking Riverhead out of the mix is the real sin of this plan,” he said. “They should always be together … You can’t just cut the North Fork in half.”

Ideally, Mr. Sawicki said, he believes the five East End towns should become one district because they have the same concerns about most state matters, including farming, fishing and transportation.

“If we drew an Assembly district as a Peconic County, it would really give the East End its identity,” he said.

The redistricting process occurs every 10 years to coincide with updated population data. Based on figures from the 2010 census, each Assembly district should include about 129,089 residents. Mr. Thiele’s district is currently 13,744 residents over the average.

The new district would have a population of 128,929 residents, 160 fewer than the average.

Until they were split in 1982, the two forks had been in the same district for over 200 years.

A public hearing on the proposed redistricting will be held Thursday, Feb. 9, at 11 a.m. in the auditorium of Suffolk’s William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge.

The state Legislature votes on the final district lines, which then go to the governor for approval.

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