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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 19, 2011

Shrink legislature to suit ingrained boundaries

Hilltowners made a convincing case Tuesday that they should not be divided in their representation in the county legislature. As John Elberfeld writes to us this week, residents of Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville share a common heritage, common problems, and common interests.

“We consider each other neighbors, even if we live miles apart,” Hilltowner Dawn Jordan told the committee that has drawn up a plan to reshape legislative districts.

The county looks at its district lines every 10 years after the federal census figures are released. In 2010, the population of Albany County increased 3 percent over the decade before to 304,204.

The Hilltowners weren’t alone in their complaints. Herb Reilly, who represents a chunk of New Scotland, complained that the village of Voorheesville is being split in half.

This seems absurd on the face of it.

The answer from the head of the committee that drew up the new lines was even more absurd.

“Voorheesville was split in half, but some other places were split in fours. I lost 150 people who live right on my same street, and 17 members of my family can no longer vote for me because the census block changed – it is what it is,” said Shawn Morse.

The reason for the misshapen districts is different than the scenario that gave us the word “gerrymander.” In 1812, so the story goes, the painter Gilbert Stuart saw a map hanging in a newspaper office; it depicted a strangely shaped election district created by members of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party. With a flourish, Stuart drew claws, wings, and a head on the map, declaring it a salamander. “Gerrymander,” replied the editor, and the word came to mean shaping a district for political advantage.

Morse blamed the county’s computer program that records data and then maps out the district lines for the present debacle.

“We have a $25,000 computer system that basically takes all of the information and does the work for you, and you try to put the human element in it,” said Morse.

The human element was missing, though, because, Morse said, hardly anyone showed up at the 10 public meetings that the committee held over the past several months.

People are showing up now — so many that the county postponed its decision and continued Tuesday’s public hearing until May 19.

We have a simple suggestion that would keep the Hilltowners together while reuniting Voorheesville and other neighborhoods and villages that have been divided.

It may not be popular with the legislators themselves but they owe it to the public to consider something the committee didn’t — reduce the size of  the legislature.

We’ve written about downsizing — or as its proponents call it, rightsizing — for nearly a decade since Guilderland’s Paul Laudato proposed reducing the number of legislators from 39 to 21. With the current economic downturn, the time is right.

Albany County’s ratio of citizens to representatives is one of the most generous in the state. Other counties operate efficiently with far leaner ratios. Erie County, for example, with a population of about 900,000, recently approved cutting back from 15 to 11 representatives in its county legislature. The vote in favor of the reduction was greater than 4 to 1.

In Onondaga County, over three-quarters of the voters approved streamlining from 19 to 17 members. Recent referendums have also reduced the numbers of legislators in Monroe and Oswego counties.

With each Albany County legislator paid $21,000 along with $7,000 in benefits, the savings would be substantial. But, more importantly, the new districts could keep areas that have a common identity together, so that representation works at its best.

To give a simple example — without a computer program or an artist’s flourish — let’s envision a county legislature with 10 members, each representing roughly 30,420 citizens. The city of Albany would have three representatives, as would the town of Colonie. The towns of Guilderland and Bethlehem would each have one representative. The Hilltowns of Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville would be grouped together with Coeymans and New Scotland for one representative, and the city of Cohoes, Green Island, Menands, and Watervliet would be grouped together with one representative.

This system would preserve already established boundaries and common interests. If it seems too drastic a cut, double the number and make it odd, for a tie-breaker, bringing us back to Laudato’s proposal of 21 a decade ago.

No one wants to eliminate his or her own job, but the county legislature owes the public a chance to vote on the matter.

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