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Mount Pleasant Sued for Alleged Racially Polarized Elections

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Mount Pleasant Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi.

The Town of Mount Pleasant is being sued by five town residents who have charged that the town’s at-large voting system for Town Board members creates racially and ethnically polarized elections.

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday in state Supreme Court in White Plains on behalf of Sergio Serratto, Anthony Aguirre, Ida Michael, Kathleen Siguenza and Silvana Tapia. They allege that the town is in violation of the New York Voting Rights Act, which is designed to end voting discrimination in the state. The measure was signed into law in 2022.

Although Mount Pleasant is 19 percent Hispanic, including 47 percent of the Village of Sleepy Hollow, which is part of the town, the candidates supported by most of that community almost always lose town elections, the litigation states. There has been only one Democrat elected in the last 35 years, a 2018 special election.

“Despite the Town’s significant Hispanic population, every person ever elected to the Mount Pleasant Town Board, which is the Town’s governing body, has, to plaintiffs’ knowledge, been white,” the suit states.

The suit comes about six weeks after the town held two public hearing sessions in November that are mandatory under the Voting Rights Act once a municipality is challenged.

David Imamura, an attorney from the White Plains law firm of Abrams Fensterman, which is handling the case for the plaintiffs, said he and his clients were hopeful that a lawsuit could be avoided after informing town officials last summer about potential steps that could be taken. Remedies could include instituting a ward system or introducing ranked-choice voting, among many other possibilities that would be compliant with the law.

Highly-respected election and voting rights consultants Dr. Lisa Handley and Jeffrey Wice were retained by the town in August, released a report nearly three months later stating that the current at-large system of voting for council members diluted the votes of the town’s Hispanic population.

However, as of Tuesday’s filing, the town had taken no action to propose or enact a remedy.

“We were very hopeful they were going to comply with the law, and I’m not going to speculate as to why the town does not appear to comply with the law now,” Imamura said. “But what I do know that is clear is that at least one town councilperson publicly was opposed to settling with us and publicly was saying things derogatorily to the Hispanic community, and given that the town did not take additional steps, we just felt we had no choice but to bring a lawsuit.”

Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi said Wednesday that the town reached out to the five residents in hopes of finding out how they felt disenfranchised but didn’t respond.

“The Town Board really felt that this was totally off-based, and I believe it’s unconstitutional what they’re doing,” Fulgenzi said. “This whole thing does not make any sense. In the suit they offered three remedies. None of them made any sense to use, remedies that they think should be done. It’s stuff you do in a city, not in a town.

“I don’t understand how they are saying people are being disenfranchised, and this is what we asked them. Show us where there’s been disenfranchisement.”

At Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, officials hired Baker Hostetler, a high-powered law firm that has represented Republicans in election and redistricting cases across the U.S., including defending the GOP-controlled legislature in Louisiana and political cases in Ohio.

When asked about the consultants’ conclusions, Fulgenzi dismissed their finding.

“I can get two other consultants to say the opposite thing,” he said. “You can always get a consultant to favor one side or the other. These two, I believe, are tilting to one side.”

In the 37-page filing, it specifically refers to comments during the hearing made by Councilman Mark Saracino, who had been elected in November and took office on Jan. 1.

“If you want to be a pioneer and you want to make a big difference, why have you not even considered that Sleepy Hollow should become the Town of Sleepy Hollow,” the suit quotes Saracino as saying. Instead of pursuing a lawsuit, “why not look at that, and say I’m going to make real change, legacy change.”

“Town Councilman Saracino’s statements are a stunning admission of the desire of at least one Town Board member to create a ‘whites-only’ community and highlights the desperate need for Sleepy Hollow and the Hispanic population to have representation on the Town Board,” the suit continued. “The fact that a Town Councilman would call for Sleepy Hollow to leave the Town rather than give Sleepy Hollow the representation its residents deserve is evidence that the Town Board is completely dismissive of the needs of the Hispanic population.”

In an e-mail response Wednesday afternoon, Saracino fired back, charging that what was included in the lawsuit, was cherrypicked out of context.

I am disheartened to see that, after giving a thoughtful, factual 10-minute presentation at the public hearing last November as a common resident (bear in mind, it was not in an official capacity, as I was not yet a Board member at the time of the meeting), it’s been reduced to sound bites and edited/curtailed partial sentences of mine, all of which have been taken out of context to fit a narrative that simply does not exist,” Saracino stated.

“Any suggestions I made at the public hearing – once again as a common resident as I was not a Board member at that time – were meant to empower the residents of Sleepy Hollow, and to demonstrate an alternative to litigation that perhaps could be beneficial to all residents of Sleepy Hollow and their local Village government.”

Imamura said that given the town’s hiring of Baker Hostetler the same day they were served, strongly suggests officials were never serious about complying with the law.

“It makes it even more so that they never really intended to negotiate,” he said.

The suit also points out the town’s ongoing battles with the JCCA’s Cottage School and a population that is predominantly youngsters of color.

Fulgenzi responded that the inclusion of that in the litigation is to falsely paint the town government as racists.

The supervisor said many residents have urged him and the board to do what’s necessary to fight the lawsuit, even if it becomes expensive.

“It could be a lengthy battle, but I can tell you that the entire Town Board feels that this is totally unconstitutional and we intend to fight it as far as we need to fight,” Fulgenzi said.

This is the first lawsuit in New York since the adoption of the state Voting Rights Act. However, two additional governmental bodies have also been notified by their constituents of racially polarized elections in their jurisdictions – the Nassau County Legislature and the Town of Cheektawaga, outside of Buffalo.

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