A KIND OF COUP D’ETAT founded Nassau County. When some of the elite citizens of 1898 called a mass meeting at Mineola to discuss their plan to break away from Queens County, they were greeted with a largely unenthusiastic crowd. Many were downright hostile. Previous attempts at creating a new county had always included some of Western Suffolk, because Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay didn’t have the tax base to support a government on their own. Some of the Hempstead men, already stung by high taxes, demanded that the town governments be disbanded. The crowd insisted that another meeting be held at Hicksville, to include men from Huntington and Babylon. Here is what the movement leaders decided: No more public meetings. There never was a referendum on the matter, just state legislation. Within five years, the new county was bankrupt.
BAR QUIZ ANSWER: Atlantic Beach; Cold Spring Harbor; Elmont; Hicksville; Levittown; Roslyn Country Club; The Strathmores, Uniondale; Wantagh; Woodmere. The question: Name some unincorporated communities in which serious efforts were made since World War II to incorporate as a village or a city. I don’t just mean letters to the editor, but stuff like public meetings, town board hearings, official property owner petitions and, in some cases, lawsuits to unblock the roadblocks dropped by town governments. Atlantic Beach made it, though later lost negotiated zoning powers in court. In 1953, 6,242 Hicksville property owners signed petitions creating a village with the same borders as the school district; they were thrown out on a technicality in court.
THIS WILL SURPRISE many who are under the impression that the adoption of the misbegotten 1938 Nassau County charter killed off thoughts of creating new villages and cities because it stripped them of all meaningful powers.
AU CONTRAIRE, the Charter merely reserves zoning and land use powers for the existing towns and cities. New municipalities can’t form new police forces. Public opinion would force towns to negotiate (Hempstead and Atlantic Beach agreed to divide zoning powers geographically in 1962). Besides, the charter can be changed by legislation or referendum.
FOR A CENTURY AND A HALF, New York public schools used to teach “civics,” preparing future citizens for participation. It was taught, based on the State Constitution, that towns were a form of “involuntary” government and that villages and cities were “voluntary” government that citizens should create for the public good.
THERE ARE MANY FUNCTIONS that might be performed by a local government, even without zoning powers. Beautification, safety, education, recreation, transportation. A community-level government can bring community members together to work out new solutions. Most importantly, incorporated status gives the community a seat at the table, no matter what comes along. Note that many villages in New York only have one or two employees.
THE ENTIRE CONCEPT of local government in New York is outdated. There used to be extreme distinctions between powers and responsibilities of towns, cities and villages. Since 1965, virtually all differentiations are merely traditional. Extra layers, extra costs, extra hard to get anything done. A combination of cities and a county unit would be more than plenty (Nassau County Charter Commission report, March 1918). Ideas are floating around, in places where leaders are thinking about where they want their communities to be, Whatever Comes Next.
WHY NOW? The county is bankrupt. Our system rewards inertia and won’t allow reform. Citizens are way ahead in wanting major change (67 percent of Nassau residents would favor funding schools through income taxes, Siena Poll, January 2017). Because we don’t know what is coming next, but we may be running out of time.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.