In its special meeting on Oct. 24, the Chautauqua County Legislature approved a plan converting the former 25 legislative districts in Chautauqua County into 19. The plan that was approved was drawn up by Larry Barmore, a Republican legislator from Gerry, based on an earlier plan he had worked on with former legislator Dr. Rudy Mueller, a Democrat from Lakewood. Historically, that plan derived from one developed by a consultant hired by the Republican caucus in 2011.
The previous spring, the County Legislature had taken a brave step in authorizing a Reapportionment Commission consisting of a majority of independent citizen-members. The League of Women Voters supports independent commissions because too often, when new electoral boundaries are drawn by members of the legislature that will approve them, the districts are devised to keep the majority party in power - whichever party is in the majority at the time. The problem with such districts is that they discourage the candidacy of opponents and encourage voters to stay home on election day. Experience in other states has shown that an independent commission, using established principles, tends to create a more level playing field with more compact districts. Therefore, the League welcomed the Legislature's step in establishing a semi-independent commission.
The plan adopted on that evening was not the plan favored by the commission. There has been a lot of confusion about the commission's process, and as a citizen-member, I welcome the opportunity to clarify. I am speaking for myself, but I think I am reporting what actually happened.
The commission was co-chaired by Mr. Barmore and Tom DeJoe, a Democratic legislator from Portland. It began its work by looking at maps that had been drawn up before it was authorized.
Accordingly, it looked at Mr. Barmore's map, and also at a map that Mr. DeJoe subsequently presented. The independent members of the commission saw problems with both maps. It did not use either as a basis for the plan it developed over a series of meetings, but started again from scratch. I emphasize this point, because it has been implied that what is called the commission's plan is really Mr. DeJoe's in disguise.
Not so. We began all over again, starting with the south of the county, and working northwards.
Members of the commission deliberately chose to know nothing about where existing members of the Legislature lived. We operated on the principle that each district should have equal numbers of residents, within defined limits, that the districts should be compact, that they should keep communities of interest together as much as possible, and that they should divide as few small towns as possible. To this day, I don't know what parties my fellow commission members favor or are registered in. We worked collegially, and with common aims. We didn't succeed in preserving quite as many towns intact as we wished, but we thought we were meeting our other goals, and that in the last analysis community of interests was more important than town lines.
It was said at the meeting of the Legislature that the process was not as pure as I have described it. It was said that members of the commission consulted other people in the room, thus injecting politics into the process. There were other people in the room from time to time during our meetings. We did ask Steve Abdella, the attorney for the Legislature, several questions about procedures, and also asked the two election commissioners whether certain divisions would increase their costs by requiring additional polling places. I can recall no political questions, or private consultations with politicians in the room, and don't believe any political questions were asked by Commission members.
In the end, the commission produced a plan and voted to send it to the Legislature's party caucuses for comment. Mr. Barmore, meanwhile, had argued urgently for his plan, so we asked the caucuses to comment on both plans. At our next meeting, Mr. Barmore reported that the Republican caucus backed his plan without change and rejected the plan the Commission had been drawing up. Mr. DeJoe reported that his Democratic caucus suggested some changes to our plan and did not back Mr. Barmore's.
The question was what to report to the Legislature. We voted 4-2 to send the plan we had developed to the Legislature, without modification. At that point, Mr. Abdella informed us that since the Commission originally consisted of eight people, we needed a vote of five for any plan.
With only six members in attendance, we couldn't provide that majority, nor could there be such a majority for Mr. Barmore's plan. At an impasse, we voted to send both plans forward and let the Legislature decide. It has done so.
In retrospect, it was a poor decision to send both plans forward, since it caused a lot of confusion, though in the end, it made no difference. If we had had the five votes to send only one plan, ours, Mr. Barmore's party would have defeated it, he would then have introduced his plan, and the outcome would have been the same. The question is, why did we go through the charade of the commission?
I say that because the Legislature's decision made the commission's work a complete waste of time. It said, in effect, that the commission was mere window dressing behind which the majority implemented the plan it intended to implement all along.
The majority has sent a discouraging message about its commitment to transparent and nonpartisan processes, and about its willingness to waste the time of serious and committed citizens. It is a sad message to any people thinking of volunteering for difficult tasks on behalf of county government in future.
Minda Rae Amiran is a Fredonia resident and county League of Women Voters member.