Three Resolutions that will come before the Chemung County Legislature tonight have garnered a great deal of attention. The purpose of this post is to provide a factual overview of them, explain the opinions I have formed to this point, and solicit further input from the community to help the Legislature make the best decisions possible.
Where to find information
A full copy of the Agenda for tonight’s meeting can be found here.
The three Resolutions garnering interest are:
- 21-056 (Resolution establishing a “Legislative Redistricting and Efficiency of County Government Operations Advisory Committee” on behalf of the Chairman of the Legislature), found here;
- 21-085 (Resolution authorizing an agreement with the Center for Governmental Research on behalf of the Chairman of the Legislature), found here; and
- 21-113 (Resolution Adopting a “Chemung County Legislature Route Slip and Resolution Policy”), found here.
Meetings of the Legislature have not re-opened for in-person attendance by the public due to covid concerns, a decision that rests with Dave Manchester, the Legislature’s Chairperson. Chairperson Manchester told members of the Legislature he will have discussions with the Vice Chairperson and Majority/Minority Leaders soon to develop a re-opening plan. A description of the current meeting rules is found here.
However, the meeting will be broadcast via live-stream here starting at 7:00 pm. Please note the link for the live-stream will not appear until the moment the meeting begins.
Members of the public are permitted to submit “Public Comment” on these or any other issues involving the Legislature to email@example.com. All submissions will be read into the record at the start of the meeting.
A full copy of Chemung County’s Charter can be found here and is embedded below.
The proposed Redistricting & Efficiency Advisory Committee
The specific geographic boundaries of each Legislative District in Chemung County are set forth in 201.4 of Chemung County’s Charter. The only way they can be changed (redistricted) is through an amendment to our charter that is passed through a public referendum (a vote by the public) during a General Election.
Under Section 201.6 of Chemung County’s Charter, the Legislature must “reconsider its representation, and, if necessary, redraw legislative district boundaries” each time census data is released by the United States government.
New York State and United States statutes also impose the these duties on local governments following the release of federal census data.
In other words, every ten years the Chemung County Legislature is required to consider whether our population and its distribution require a reconfiguration of the legislative districts within Chemung County. If the Legislature determines changes need to be made, a proposed amendment to our charter must appear on the ballot in that year’s general election.
The 2021 timeline
As shown above, Section 201.6 of Chemung County’s Charter requires a redistricting amendment to appear on the ballot in the year census data is released.
However, this year the census data will be delayed greatly, with many state and county legislatures beginning to acknowledge it may not be available until June – or possibly even later. An article found here provides some details, and countless others can be found by searching “census delay.”
Ballots for the General Election in November are usually finalized by September so that they can be printed and distributed, particularly with the new election rules that allow for early voting. In my opinion, the delay in census data may require special state or local action to allow for adequate time to study redistricting depending on when the information is ultimately released.
(Of note, any delay into 2022 would cause even more significant problems as the entire Chemung County Legislature is up for reelection that year. In the event that census data is delayed so much that a restricting referendum does not occur until the 2022 General Election – the very same time the legislative races will be held – we could face some big problems. However, it’s not worth spending time and energy on this until we get better guidance from the federal government plans to release the data.)
Do we need 15 Legislative Districts?
Aside from the question of whether Chemung County’s population has shifted and therefore requires redrawing legislative district boundaries, a much tougher question must be asked after our census data is received. Does our population justify having 15 districts?
The Chemung County Legislature was created in 1972 at a time when our county’s population was roughly 101,537 according to an aggregation of census data found here. By 2019 it was estimated to have dropped to 83,456, a decline of nearly 18%.
A comparison of the 18 counties (out of a total of 62) across New York State that are established by a charter and have both a County Executive and Legislature shows Chemung County has among the lowest legislator/resident ratios.
I discussed this issue many times while running for my seat on the Chemung County Legislature and during my term in office. In my opinion, good stewardship of the money paid in taxes by county residents requires that this very difficult question be raised and answered after the 2020 Census data is released.
The proposed Redistricting & Efficiency Committee
In January, Chairperson Manchester proposed the creation of a committee to both look at the redistricting issue as required by our charter and also tackle even bigger issues associated with the way Chemung County conducts its business. As shown through a study by New York’s Association of Counties (NYSAC) found here, there are many different models for county government found across New York State.
A bit of history
*This section did not appear in the original post but was edited in because it’s so interesting.
Chemung County moved to its current form of government (County Executive and a 15-member County Legislature based on a written charter) in 1973. Prior to that time we had a 25-member Board of Supervisor that included a Chairperson.
The document below provides the background:
The problems with the proposal
Although in theory I agree with what Chairperson Manchester is attempting to accomplish through the proposed committee, in my opinion the proposal has three fundamental deficiencies: (a) lack of direct public involvement; (b) anticipated cost; and (c) timing.
Lack of direct public involvement
The proposed committee is set forth in tonight’s Agenda Item 21-056, found here and embedded below.
As described in the Resolution, the proposal calls for Chairperson Manchester to appoint five members of the Legislature who, after conducting research and agreeing upon recommendations, will report their findings to him.
This is simply unworkable. A committee tasked with examining very difficult questions such as whether one or more legislative districts should be eliminated or whether we should have a County Executive/Legislature type of government at all cannot be expected to be objective if it is comprised solely of people who occupy seats on the very body that is being examined.
Section 203 (j) of Chemung County’s Charter allows for the creation of “temporary citizen advisory committees” to assist the Legislature in “studies and investigations it deems are in the best interest of the County.”
Given the significance of the topics proposed to be studied and investigated, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate time to form a Citizen Advisory Committee.
The anticipated cost to hire a consultant to assist the proposed committee with research is set forth in tonight’s Agenda Item 21-085, found here and embedded below.
As with the lack of public involvement, an expenditure of $48,000 for a consultant is simply also simply unworkable. The Legislature just came out of a very tough budget season where cuts were made to many organizations and County Executive Chris Moss looked everywhere he could to save money given the significant revenue shortfalls in 2020 due to the pandemic and great uncertainty about what lies ahead as economic recovery begins to take shape.
In my opinion, the solution here is the same as above. Forming a Citizen Advisory Committee would allow the Legislature to tap into some of the talent we have right here in our community by asking members of the public to use their backgrounds, skills and knowledge to help Chemung County. At a time when many people are feeling disenfranchised and isolated, this opportunity could have many positive impacts that stretch beyond a study of government.
(It should be noted that there appears to be some difference of opinion between County Executive Moss and members of the Legislature about whether our charter allows the Legislature to make the type of appropriation proposed here. My take is that our charter allows for it, but the debate is unnecessary because we should not spend $48,000 on a consultant right now.)
Finally, I am not convinced it is necessary for the committee to consider any issues aside from redistricting this year. With the pandemic still ongoing, our focus should remain squarely on public health and local business recovery. We can always revisit these big issues once our community returns to come sort of normalcy.
What are other counties doing?
All counties in New York State are required to consider redistricting when census data is released. An examination shows many of them do so with direct public involvement.
In 2010 Broome County, organized as a County Executive/Legislature charter form of government, formed an “Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee” that included members of the public
Ulster and Dutchess Counties
Ulster and Dutchess Counties, both of which are organized as County Executive/Legislature charter forms of government, have undertaken what is perhaps the best approach to the entire redistricting issue by forming “Independent Redistricting Committees.” Many articles about them can be found, including here, here, here and here.
In general, an Independent Redistricting Committee is made up of people from the community, none of whom sit on the Legislature, who are tasked with considering redistricting issues and presenting a report to the Legislature and the public.
However, the creation of an Independent Redistricting Committee in Chemung County would require a referendum to change our charter, just as it did in Ulster and Dutchess. As such, this is not something Chemung County could undertake now, but absolutely should look to put on the ballot for consideration before the 2030 census to avoid revisiting the current issues.
A description by Ulster County after the referendum was successful, found here and embedded below, provides a good overview.
Finally, Albany County, also organized as a County Executive/Legislature charter form of government, recently put out a notice to its residents that it is looking for volunteers to participate in redistricting after the 2020 census data is received. Information can be found here and is embedded below.
Distrust in government at each level is perhaps at an all-time high across our state and nation right now. Direct public involvement in redistricting not only allows us to avoid spending money at a time when we should be as frugal as possible, but also allows us to help build trust by promoting a genuine partnership with the public on this issue.
The other item up for consideration tonight that is receiving a lot of information involves the way items are placed on the Legisalture’s Agenda. It is Resolution 21-113, found here and embedded below.
Although it is surprising to learn that the Chairperson of the Legislature yields this much of power – something I did not fully appreciate until I began serving – the proposed resolution does not change the way the Legislature does business in any way. Intead, it merely creates a written policy so that anyone in county government who wishes to submit a Route Slip can understand exactly how the process works.
Do I think we can and should create a better system that does not give unilateral control to the Chairperson? Yes, but that requires a change to the Rules of the Legislature. In other words, if this Resolution passes, nothing about the way the Legislature functions will change at all. (This is, of course, simply my understanding. If anyone has an opinion to the contrary, please share it.)
I intend, however, to vote no because I would like to see either (a) the Rules Committee look at changing this process; or (b) the Efficiency Committee described above look at it should that committee form. Passing a policy right now would add another layer of changes that would need to be made.
Please comment here, on the Chemung County Matters Facebook page, or through any email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. These are very important issues.