Legislators tugged a contentious proposal forward to reduce its number of seats, but opponents questioned the bill’s timing and legality.
The Albany County Legislature voted 22-14 in favor of holding a public hearing Monday, Dec. 29, at 7:15 p.m., on amending the county charter to reduce the amount of legislators from 39 to 29 members. Chairman Shawn Morse and Majority Leader Frank Commisso initially proposed following the Charter Review Commission’s recommendation of cutting 14 seats, but reduced it to a 10-district reduction following a Democratic Party caucus held days before the legislature’s Monday, Dec. 8, meeting.
Legislator Gary Domalewicz, D-Albany, said he is interested in hearing what residents have to say about the proposed reduction.
“As far as the size of the legislature is going to go, we will be debating that at a future time,” said Domalewicz. “This is the first step in moving that process forward.”
Albany County has the largest county legislature statewide, with the amount of legislative districts unchanged since its formation in 1968. Prior to the forming the county legislature, it had a board of supervisor also with 39 members.
Minority Leader Lee Carman, R-Guilderland, said he supports the Charter Review Commission’s recommendations and has been waiting to vote on the complete package. Carman questioned however why the reduction proposal was moving forward while the county is embroiled in a lawsuit over its 2011 reapportionment.
“Can someone tell me what has legally changed since the Voting Rights Act litigation is still pending?” asked Carman. “If we put this ahead of the trail it would affect the county in the lawsuit.”
Morse said lawmakers tried to reach a settlement in that case, but it failed and the legislature was moving forward.
“As far as we were concerned we are out of that process now,” said Morse after the meeting. “We are just moving on to the next issue that needs to be resolved.”
Democrats could not secure enough votes during the legislature’s special meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 2, to approve a settlement in a voting rights lawsuit against the county. The resolution on the settlement was tabled. The lawsuit argues the recent redistricting is unfair to minority voters.
County Executive Dan McCoy had sued the legislature over its authority to even negotiate and reach settlement. McCoy previously criticized Democratic legislative leadership for not favoring the reduction earlier, but chided fellow party leaders for advancing it now.
“Now that we are in the trial process and possible settlement discussions … the majority legislative leadership is looking to derail any further settlement attempts,” McCoy previously said in a statement.
Mary Rozak, spokeswoman for the county, said McCoy could not comment on legislators approving to hold the public hearing because of the lawsuit against the county.
“We can’t talk about it while there is ongoing ligation … because they are connected,” said Rozak.
Legislator Christine Benedict, R-Colonie, argued the county is likely not even legally allowed to move forward any reduction for several years.
“Albany County appears to be barred from reducing the size of the legislature until 2020,” said Benedict. “By voting for this, I believe that we may be opening ourselves to a lawsuit.”
Legislator Charles Dawson, D-Glenmont, questioned what the difference is between “redistricting” and “restructuring.” Morse simply answered that the opinion he received from the county attorney was the “restructuring” being proposed is legal.
Dawson said in the Charter Review Commission’s recommendation there is case law cited regarding why the legislature would be unable to move forward with any change to legislative districts before the release of the 2020 U.S. Census.
The Commission cited the state Supreme Court’s decision in Rock v. Murphy, which ruled Rensselaer County change its legislative districts in 1984 after redistricting its legislature in 1981.
The decision pointed to Municipal Home Rule Law barring any local government from restructuring its legislative body more than once in each decade, which became effective in 1970.
“By its clear language, the statue permits only one restructuring in each 10 year,” said the decision.
Commission members also cited the 2007 state Supreme Court decision in Wright v. County of Cattaraugus, which surrounded similar circumstances, ruling the county could not restructure its legislature twice in each decade.