Staten Island Votes Whether to Study Possible Secession

STOP the city. Staten Island wants to get off. Informal polls suggest that a majority of voters here will say ``yes'' today to the first, most basic step in seceding from New York City. If the referendum is approved, a commission will be created to draft a charter for a new City of Staten Island.

Legally and economically, the question of whether this relatively affluent, suburban, and isolated borough could ever really strike off on its own is still a long way from resolution. The state Legislature, which last year approved a bill allowing today's vote, would have to give the final approval.

Supporters portray today's vote as essentially a study move rather than a firm commitment. ``It's a vote to look at the process and decide down the road,'' says Gary Johnson, a Staten Island lawyer who heads a nonprofit group called Staten Island-Vote Yes Inc. Under the current plan, Staten Island voters would return to the polls in 1993 to accept, reject, or urge revision of the drafted charter.

A straw poll published Oct. 28 by the Staten Island Advance, the island's main newspaper showed two-thirds favor the first step. This paper's editorials support the charter commission.

Even Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari, a former US congressman who has voiced considerable skepticism about whether the secession effort can and should succeed, says he will probably vote yes. He will ask the state for financial help to conduct a top professional study on the issue. The three studies done so far have not been satisfactory, he says.

The emotional appeal of secession has deep roots among ``islanders.'' They complain of unfair city treatment in everything from garbage to transport services. Most irritating to many islanders is the Fresh Kills landfill, the recipient of most New York City garbage.

Just recently city sanitation officials requested a permit to dump even more there - some 1,800 tons of incinerator ash every day.

Many islanders also complain that it costs too much and takes too long to commute to Manhattan. City zoning and development decisions also grate.

The spur for the move to put the secession issue on the ballot, however, was a 1989 ruling by the US Supreme Court. It held that the city's old Board of Estimate governing system, in which all boroughs had an equal voice, was unconstitutional. Under a new population-based method of decisionmaking, Staten Island, which has only 5 percent of the city's total population, will get at most three members on the proposed 51-member City Council.

``People feel - and I do, too - disenfranchised by what's happened,'' says Advance editor Les Trautmann.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo stresses the importance of the secession issue as a lesson in civic education. ``Our democracy is designed to work best when people use it, but people don't use it,'' he told students and politicians at an Advance-sponsored forum at Staten Island's Wagner College recently.

Perhaps the key question for most islanders is whether Staten Island, which has no industry, could survive economically without New York City. One recent study suggests that unless Staten Island keeps the dump open, the island could easily accrue an immediate $60 million deficit.

``We know that without the dump, taxes would go up,'' says David Goldfarb, president of the St. George Civic Association. As a commuter to Manhattan, he also feels a sense of social responsibility to stick by the city.

Whatever happens, most islanders hope that the questions they raise will at least make New York City pay more attention to Staten island. That message, they say, could be far more important than whether or not the island succeeds in getting a legal divorce from the city.

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