Schenectady County

Two Schenectady County charter veterans oppose weighted voting plan

Two people involved decades ago in the creation of the current Schenectady County legislative struct

Two people involved decades ago in the creation of the current Schenectady County legislative structure said they oppose a weighted vote system under consideration by the chamber’s majority Democrats.

Ruth Bergeron, vice president of the Schenectady County League of Women Voters in the 1960s, and Dr. Arnold Ritterband, a member of the Citizens for the Charter Commission, each worked to seek passage of the Schenectady County charter in a referendum in 1965. Both are Democrats.

Bergeron and Ritterband said in separate interviews on Monday that the county Legislature should adopt a nonpartisan redistricting approach to accommodate population changes in Schenectady County revealed by the 2010 Census, even if that involves adjusting current legislative boundaries.

“There is a big clamoring for objective redistricting,” Bergeron said. “The county should look at where the census tracks are and see what they can do to adjust the city.”

Ritterband said the Democrats’ proposal is “going way too fast. There ought to be discussions and this should be done in a nonpartisan fashion.”

County Democrats are proposing to amend the County Charter to allow the use of a weighted voting system. This proposal would keep the Legislature at 15 members, but would give each city representative a vote worth slightly more than one while giving each town representative a vote worth slightly less than one. In the end, each legislator would represent on average 10,315 people under the weighted vote system.

County Attorney Chris Gardner called weighted voting the most cost-effective, efficient way to achieve balance without adding to the cost of county government or adjusting district boundaries, which have remained unchanged since the charter’s adoption decades ago. He said the alternative is to add nine legislators to the board, at a cost of $14,000 each, or go to single member district, a process that could lead to gerrymandering.

The Legislature will conduct a public hearing on a local law in May to amend the charter with the goal of adopting it shortly thereafter. The law would take effect Jan. 1, 2012, subject to a permissive referendum.

Bergeron said, “in spirit, weighted voting violates ‘one man, one vote,’ ” is not fair and helps protect incumbents. Ritterband said fractional voting is uncommon anywhere in country.

Indeed, Gardner said if redistricting were to occur, all county legislators would have to run in 2012, and this could conceivably upset the control Democrats have maintained on the Legislature. They have 12 of 15 seats. The lone conservative caucuses with the Democrats, giving them 13 seats on the board.

“The suggestion that the only alternative is to increase the number of members is absolutely nonsensical. There is a more logical alternative, and that is simply to redistrict. You might have to add a district or two to an existing district to make it work,” Ritterband said.

Ironically, the Charter Commission in 1964 rejected the use of a weighted voting system when discussing how the new board of representatives would operate. The board of representatives, later the county Legislature, replaced a board of supervisors when the County Charter was adopted in 1965.

The board of supervisors consisted of 19 city ward supervisors and five town supervisors, giving the city an overwhelming majority, Bergeron said. The new board of representatives provided more balance through 14 legislators: four each in Districts 1 and 2, three in District 3 and three in District 4.

Bergeron said the Charter Commission spent hours devising “an adjustable formula that could change the number of representatives in a given district to fit the plus or minus of a small percentage and give real meaning to the ‘one man-one vote’ concept. It has worked up till now.”

The 1970 Census resulted in no changes to the county Legislature. In 1980, the Legislature shrunk to 13 members, with each city district losing a legislator and District 3 gaining a legislator. There was no change from the 1990 Census. In 2000, the Legislature grew to 15 members — its current configuration.

The 2010 Census showed that Schenectady County grew by some 8,000 residents, to 154,727 people. Most of the growth is in District 1, comprising the northern half of the city, and District 2, the southern half of the city. Niskayuna and Glenville, which make up District 3, saw the next largest growth. District 1 has 32,717 people; District 2 has 33,418; District 3 has 51,261 people; and District 4 has 37,331 people.

Under the current 15-member configuration, Districts 1, 2 and 4 have population variances that exceed the charter’s recommendation and those outlined under federal law. If left as is, a District 1 legislator would represent 10,905 people; a District 2 legislator, 11,139; a District 3 legislator, 10,252; and a District 4 legislator, 9,332.

The League of Women Voters of Schenectady does not have a position on the issue of weighted voting for the county Legislature, said President Joanne Tobiessen. “The league, however, is always for good government procedures. The county should not rush to a decision. We are concerned that the process be open and fair with substantial citizen input as well as expert opinion on the pros and cons of the various options before a vote is taken,” she said.

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