Revolt in Hempstead

After spending 10 years suing the Town of Hempstead, newly elected Town Councilor Dorothy Goosby may soon be in the unusual position of suing herself. And if you think that's odd, says her attorney Fred Brewington, "you haven't seen anything yet. Just hold onto your hat."

Brewington represents Goosby in the historic voting-rights suit she filed against traditionally Republican-controlled Hempstead in 1989, alleging that the town's method of electing all councilors at-large kept black candidates like Goosby from having much chance of winning and deprived minority residents of adequate representation. Though a federal judge decided in Goosby's favor two years ago, the town has continued to fight the verdict all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a landmark ruling: Goosby, a Democrat, went out Nov. 2 and got herself elected to the office Brewington had argued a person like her couldn't win.

Rather than giving up the class-action suit, Brewington says Goosby's new position in government only opens more avenues for attacking a system that is essentially racist. "I'm not frowning," he says. "The options have just multiplied-without any downside for the plaintiffs."

The next move in the decade-long legal battle belongs to town officials and their attorney. Town spokeswoman Marlene Kastleman declines comment and town attorney Evan Krinick didn't return calls. But on election night, Hempstead Supervisor Rich Guardino told Newsday that Goosby's victory "clearly disproves" the at-large system is discriminatory and argued that her win could be used to bolster the town's appeal.

Brewington says Guardino's claim won't pass legal muster, because appeals must be based on mistakes that occurred during earlier trials. Brewington says a single victory by an African-American candidate does not erase a century's pattern of barring minorities from taking part in government. Without the momentum of a countywide Democratic revolt, he says, Goosby would have finished with strong numbers in minority communities but still not enough votes to capture an office. "The continual history for the Town of Hempstead and its voting system is to shut people out any time they wanted to," he says. "[Goosby's victory] doesn't make one iota of difference."

Brewington says the town board has until Dec. 20 to either ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal or accept the ruling in Goosby's favor. Already, the town has burned through more than $1 million appealing to lower courts and stands to lose twice that amount by continuing to press the matter.

If the town gives in, Hempstead will have to carve out councilmanic voting districts and hold a special election for the board-a scenario in which Goosby would effectively have thrown herself out of office and forced herself to run again. But that outcome sounds relatively tame compared to what could happen if the town fights.

In two previous appeals, the formerly all-Republican board has decided to continue battling without seeking public input. After the January inauguration, the board will have at least two Democrats, and possibly three. Any decisions about the appeal will then have to go before a seven-person board that includes Democrats Goosby and Scott Banks-and, if her election night tally holds, Democrat Rita Kestenbaum. All three are on record saying they want to halt the town's appeal-even though it would mean all three would have to run again in a special election. "I think that we should stop the appeal," says Banks. "I campaigned on that, and I stand on that."

The Dems will still be outnumbered by at least 4-3, but they could force public scrutiny of an issue that has traditionally been handled in nearly complete secrecy. "We can call a press conference if we have any problems," Goosby says. "We will."

Typically, elected officials must refrain from taking part in debate or voting on matters in which they have a vested interest. But Brewington says Goosby may not have to step aside when it comes to her suit. Instead, Brewington says, Goosby and the other Democrats could take legal steps to dissent from the board's position. "If she finds as a defendant that she does not agree with the other defendants, she can separate from them," he says. "They could end up suing each other."

Goosby, for her part, is busy savoring her triumph and getting ready to step into her new leadership role. She says she's planning to attend zoning board and town council meetings to get acquainted with current issues. And she's hoping for the best when Hempstead's first bipartisan board starts meeting this winter. "I expect everybody to be on their best behavior, and I expect them to work very well with us," she says. "Because, you know, they're up for election next year."

 
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