News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.
In a first-of-its-kind challenge in New York, five Hispanic Mount Pleasant residents have alleged they are being disenfranchised because the town’s method of voting for at-large Town Board seats has denied them representation on the council.
The law firm of Abrams Fensterman in White Plains, representing residents Sergio Serratto, Kathleen Siguenza, Silvana Tapia, Anthony Aguirre and Ida Michael, sent a letter to town officials last month informing them that they hope to force the town to change its voting system under the New York State Voting Rights Act of 2022, because no Hispanic has ever been elected to the board.
Under the state law, which took effect in January, the group of residents argue that Mount Pleasant is in violation of the new statutes because years’ worth of election data reveals “significant and persistent patterns of racially polarized voting with regards to Hispanic voters,” according to the July 13 letter to the town on behalf of the five residents.
David Imamura, one of the attorneys for the residents, said the most recent U.S. Census data reveals that the town is about 19 percent Hispanic; however, half of the Village of Sleepy Hollow’s population, which is included within the town’s borders, is Hispanic.
“Politics is representation and no one should be denied a seat at the table because of the color of their skin,” said Imamura, the former chair of the state Independent Redistricting Commission and a current Westchester County legislator representing District 12, which takes in portions of Greenburgh. “It is clear in the town, where the Village of Sleepy Hollow is 50 percent Hispanic, and yet is unable to elect a candidate of their choice. I think it’s clear that Mount Pleasant needs to reform its election law system.”
Imamura said Mount Pleasant is the first municipality in the state to be hit with a challenge under the new Voting Rights Act because a historical review of the election results makes it obvious that Hispanic residents are disenfranchised. A Democrat has won an election for Town Board once in more than 35 years, a seat for a one-year unexpired term in 2018, when the vote was held in a congressional mid-term and gubernatorial election year.
“If you look at local elections in Mount Pleasant, it is clear that the Hispanic community is voting for candidates that are losing over and over and over again,” he said. “We should not have an electoral system where the Hispanic population once in a century is able to elect a candidate of their choice.”
Either a ward system or some alternative method would have to replace the at-large voting if the town were to be found in violation of the new statute or if local officials change the system voluntarily. If it doesn’t change the voting system, the residents could sue the town.
Last Friday morning, the Town Board held a special meeting to adopt a resolution that will review the current system, retaining well-respected election law experts Jeffrey Wice and Dr. Lisa Handley. The town needed to respond within 50 days of the Abrams Fensterman letter or run the risk of having to pay the residents’ legal bills if litigation were to commence and the town loses the case, said Town Attorney Darius Chafizadeh.
He urged the board to adopt the resolution, which effectively stops the clock. The board voted 3-0 to approve the resolution.
“(The resolution) doesn’t commit the board to anything at this point,” Chafizadeh said. “It’s part of the safe harbor provision set forth in the statute that allows us to analyze the data. That’s what we’re doing now, to analyze data. It’s a complicated issue, and it needs to be looked at closely by experts.”
Officials now have 90 days to enact a remedy or risk getting sued. A public hearing on the issue will be held within 30 days of last Friday’s meeting.
Reached late last week, Serratto, a Pleasantville resident and a former chair of the county’s Hispanic Advisory Board, where he is still a member, said he has fought for a different voting system for years. Serratto said that when community members never see a member from their background in a position, they tend to give up trying.
“The demographics changes and we had a Census and we can see the numbers,” Serratto said. “You compare the numbers of the Census with the actual representation, you soon realize that we are way behind in every spectrum, not just in the political spectrum.”
Of the few residents who attended last week’s special meeting, which took less than 10 minutes to complete, Jim Russell of Hawthorne was the only resident to speak on the issue. He urged the board against acting on the resolution and to find law scholars who would likely argue the town has not disenfranchised any of its residents.
“This (Voting Rights) act is just another piece of radical legislation from Gov. Hochul, and it appears that Mount Pleasant may have the distinction of being the first municipality in the state to be targeted with it,” Russell said. “Instead of having consultants that appear to be sympathetic to this legislation and anxious to change our traditional voting system, this board should reject the demands of the Abrams Fensterman law firm and instead seek the opinion of a conservative constitutional law scholar and the assistance of a conservative public interest law group.”
Imamura said a municipality that can point to election results that conform to their demographics will likely not be challenged.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/