Brooklynites speak out on proposed council districts

January 16, 2013 Helen Klein
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The lack of an Asian-American majority council district in Bensonhurst was a sore spot for those who testified at the January 10 hearing of the New York City Districting Commission.

Another issue raised at the hearing was that the Bay Ridge Towers are not part of the Bay Ridge council district, but instead are included with Sunset Park.

The hearing – one of five taking place this month around the city — was held after the commission, charged with drawing district lines for the City Council, withdrew its earlier district map, citing the need to make sure  there was adequate input from voters.

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Election district maps are drawn every 10 years, after the results of the U.S. Census are published. Federal and state districts have already been redrawn. The first maps produced by the commission were criticized for splitting communities in peculiar ways; of particular concern in the first round was the division of Canarsie into two council districts, and the compression of Boro Park into a single district, but both issues were corrected in the revised maps presented in the fall.

“We are required by the City Charter to draw lines. Lines inherently divide. Depending on your perspective, you may see lines as being inclusive or exclusive,” said Romano, who told the crowd in St. Francis College’s Founders Hall, “We believe we are getting close to a map that reasonably as a whole accounts for all the factors set out in the City Charter.”

Among the requirements of the law, added Romano, is that any districting plan, “should keep neighborhoods and communities, with established ties of common interest and association, intact. The districts provided for in the plan should be compact and contiguous. Wherever possible, districts should be kept within a single borough and the plan should avoid diminishing the effective political representation of voters.”

But, said speakers, the lines proposed by the Districting Commission do not necessarily accomplish that. Dr. Wah Lee contended that, “ While the December 4 Districting Commission map is an improvement from the previous one, by keeping more the western/eastern portions of Bensonhurst together, it still divides the Asian community of common interest, in Bensonhurst, into four districts.”

One concern of Citizens Union, a good government group, is that the commission weighed incumbency heavily when deciding where to draw district lines. Noted Rachael Fauss, the group’s policy manager, “We are particularly concerned that the commission said that incumbency is a consideration in the decision to not create an Asian-American influence district. Given the large population growth, creation of an Asian influence district may be more desirable to the public, and we urge you to reconsider your decision to leave the districts largely the same and to fully explain your final decision.”

Linda Orlando, a resident of the Bay Ridge Towers, was one of those who asked the commission to move the towers into the Bay Ridge council district, stressing, “During the last 40 years, the shareholders and residents of the Towers have patronized every business in Bay Ridge. They visit all the doctors. Their children attended Bay Ridge schools. Their seniors are members of the senior center and veterans’ chapters. They have accounts in all the banks. They are members of all the Bay Ridge community organizations. They worship in the churches.

The shareholders frequent all the stores on 86th Street and Third Avenue. They are a community of interest in Bay Ridge. They should be represented by the same council member that represents all the businesses which are located in the Bay Ridge shopping areas.”

Other issues of concern that were brought up at the hearing was the severing of Brooklyn Heights from other areas of Brownstone Brooklyn, and the realignment in the northeastern part of the borough that would result in a portion of Bedford-Stuyvesant being tacked onto the council district containing Williamsburg.

But, the commission did not hear only criticism. The Russian-American community in southern Brooklyn praised the proposed district lines, contending, “They unite communities and neighborhoods of common interest and at the same time give a real chance for Russian-Americans to elect their first representative to the New York City Council,” in the words of Inna Stavitsky, president of American Association of Jews from the former USSR. The district as drawn was also praised by its Orthodox Jewish residents.

There was also much testimony in favor of keeping the council district representing Boro Park and a portion of Bensonhurst as drawn in the most recent maps. Previously, a so-called Super Jewish district had been drawn up, blending two current council districts, but there were numerous objections that such a district would dilute the influence of Orthodox Jews living in the area by reducing the number of councilmembers representing them from two to one, and the lines were redrawn.

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