CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) – Calling for the chance to elect town board representatives by district, Latinos living in Islip, New York, brought a federal complaint to overhaul the town’s at-large voting system.
“This lawsuit has been a long time coming,” Lucas Sanchez, Long Island director of New York Communities for Change, said in a phone interview. “The Latino and Latina community and other communities of color in the town of Islip have been invisible for decades in the town of Islip, and that time is over.”
Represented by the Manhattan firms Paul Weiss and Newman Ferrara, as well as the Hempstead attorney Frederick Brewington, Sanchez’s group brought the complaint on June 18 along with four voters and the Latino advocacy organization Make the Road New York.
They say Latinos make up nearly a third of Islip’s population, but a minority resident has never been elected to the town board, and no town board member has ever called a Latino community of Islip home. Islip’s one exception to that rule, according to the complaint, “was a Republican town board member who owned three residences, one of which was in a Latino community.”
“Without any electoral accountability, the town has been and continues to be unresponsive to the needs of both its large Latino community and other minority communities, and fails to serve their community,” the complaint states.
Several examples of failings that blight Islip’s Latino community are recounted in the 61-page filing. “From denying them adequate street cleaning and garbage removal, to ignoring their requests to repair potholes and broken street lights, to failing to respond to waste being dumped in their parks, the town has repeatedly failed to afford its Latino communities the same rights and services that it provides to its more affluent communities, and in fact has affirmatively treated Latino communities worse than other communities,” the complaint states.
To achieve true relief, Make the Road New York and the other plaintiffs say they need to break up the town into single-member districts. Islip’s current system of at-large voting is described in the complaint as having allowed the town’s “white majority, by voting as a bloc, to deprive the town’s Latino residents their right to elect their candidate of choice in every seat in every election for the town board.”
“As a long-time resident of Islip, I’ve seen time and again how the town board has treated the Latino community like second-class citizens,” lead plaintiff Maria Magdalena Hernandez said Tuesday in a statement through Make the Road. “Until our community can elect a representative of our own, the town will never listen to us.”
Representatives at the Suffolk County Board of Elections declined to comment, saying they had only just received Monday’s complaint. No representative for the town responded to a similar request.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, lawsuits in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and California have blamed at-large voting for denying minority groups the opportunity to elect candidates who can represent their interests.
Sanchez of New York Communities for Change noted that Long Island as a whole has been seeing a tidal change demographically.
“We hope this is the beginning of communities of color flexing their electoral muscle more and more,” Sanchez said.
As described in the complaint, the ramifications of inadequate representation for Islip Latinos can be seen at their schools, where resources are scarce and dropout rates are high; in the food deserts of Brentwood; in discriminatory policing practices; and in the concentration of Islip summer camps and town festivals in the town’s white neighborhoods.
Roads in Brentwood and Central Islip, another Latino community of Islip, are “covered in potholes and damage, lack proper street lighting, and lack traffic lights or stop signs at key intersections,” the complaint states.
“It stands to reason that the town board is unresponsive to the needs of Islip’s Latino community,” the complaint states, “given that members of the Town Board do not live in Islip’s minority communities. … Over the last three decades, none of the 30 residences belonging to members of town board has been located in Brentwood.”
As for policing, the complaint notes that Long Island has become President Donald Trump’s public battleground against the MS-13 gang, but the town has failed to act on requests for basic protection and support from gang activity. Studies show meanwhile that Latino immigrants accounted for more than half of Suffolk County’s motor vehicle code violations, despite making up only 14 percent of the population.
The complaint also refers to the hazardous waste dumping scandal in Roberto Clemente Park, which caused property values to drop after “the dumping effectively poisoned the drinking water in the Brentwood community.”
Islip is a prime candidate for district voting, the plaintiffs say, since it is the third-biggest town by population in the state of New York.
Fred Brewington, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, noted in Make the Road’s press release that the underrepresentation of Latinos in Islip caught the eye in 1988 of then-Supervisor Frank Jones. Jones had said “the representation of the Latino community in the town was ‘not in proportion to the influential numbers growing in the in the community. We need to do more,’” Brewington quoted.
“Since then, the town has done absolutely nothing to remedy this situation and has turned its back on its Latino residents,” Brewington continued.