ALBANY COUNTY — Members of the Albany County Legislature’s Majority-Minority District (MMD) Caucus announced on Thursday, July 7, that they are opposed to lowering the number of legislative districts and creating redistricting commissions until after the 2020 Census is completed.
Suggesting that downsizing would dilute minority representation across the county, Albany County Democrats Deputy Majority Leader Lucille McKnight (D-1), Merton Simpson (D-2), Wanda Willingham (D-3), Norma Chapman (D-4), Samuel Fein (D-6) and William Clay (D-12) said that they “will use all legal means to stop public hearings and related efforts to enact local laws that downsize the number of legislative districts.”
Two different pieces of legislation that would reduce the size of the 39-member body—across different time frames and to different ultimate sizes—are being put before the legislature for approval to be introduced to the public on July 26 for a public hearing during which residents can voice concerns and ask questions. The six legislators claimed that minority voices would be diminished and stated their concern that the county might, for the fourth consecutive decade, face legal challenges and hefty fines for violating the federal Voting Rights Act. Most recently, US Judge Lawrence Kahn ordered the county to pay $1.7 million in legal costs and maintain at least five majority minority districts.
“Downsizing the number of legislators will reduce the voice of the minority community,” said Fein. “Residents of my district want more representation – not less. They like smaller districts because they value having a representative who has the time to attend their community meetings and personally address their concerns.”
Simpson said downsizing the legislature would be destructive to the collective good. “Downsizing advocates argue that a 29- or 25-member legislature would save money and create more efficiency, but studies show that isn’t true because many smaller legislatures spend more on staff to reach constituents,” Simpson said. “If there are less legislators, there will be less voices representing majority minority districts at a time when there will be more needs.”
Calling the proposed legislation a “premature action by a few members of my body,” McKnight said, “You see, the county government has a mission; we have a duty to perform. Most of the duties that are performed, due to state mandates and municipal laws, are important in majority-minority districts. We’re talking about homelessness and early childhood issues and premature deaths—those all come under social services and issues like that in county government. In suburban areas like Bethlehem and Guilderland, you don’t have those issues.”
“I was shocked when I found out how many staffers there are. It’s too much bureaucracy, too much cost,” said Legislator Mark Grimm of Guilderland (R-29). “Our legislature is too big and it needs to be downsized. Everything else is fluff.” Grimm supports legislation put forth by Legislator Chris Higgins (D-5) that would downsize the legislature to 25 seats after the next census in 2020. “Nobody can decide on the right number,” he said, adding that he thought 13 wouldn’t even be an unreasonable number. “The reason that we settled on that one is that 25 is the number that the citizen’s commission came up with. They actually did their job and weren’t political, which doesn’t happen very often, and that’s the number that they came up with and so I’m okay with that.”
A citizen’s charter review commission was tasked several years ago with recommending ways to improve county government and, among other things, suggested that the legislature should be downsized. Currently, it is the largest in the state; the commission’s report pointed out that counties with larger populations than Albany all have significantly smaller legislatures—such as Suffolk (18), Nassau (19), Westchester (17), Erie (11), and Monroe (29) counties. “This feature of Albany County government has long been a subject of public interest and debate,” said the report.
The Albany County Charter Review Commission’s January 2014 report stated that they “carefully deliberated over whether the residents of Albany County would be better served by reducing the size of their County Legislature. The Commission has been mindful that for nearly a century the county has been governed by a legislative body of 39 members.
“Nevertheless,” the report continues, “the Commission believes that a 14-member reduction in the size of the County Legislature, from 39 to 25 members, is appropriate and necessary. The Commission has no doubt that the County Legislature could function at least as effectively as it now does if it was composed of 25 members. Such a reduction would produce several benefits, too, including an overall savings in the cost of governance. Additionally, a reduction would be in keeping with the current trend in New York State to reduce the size of county legislative bodies, as a means of achieving improved efficiency, performance and accountability.”
An effort to pass charter reform legislation last November failed after the legislature failed to take the recommendations of the commission and chose to retain control of redistricting, rather than appoint an independent commission for the task, as well as whether or not to reduce the size of the body.
“They don’t think government is too expensive,” said McKnight of her constituents and others who have come to public hearings on the issue. “They think they have a cheap government; we get a good bang for our buck with the size of our body.
“In my heart,” she said. “I really want to vote no on even entertaining a public hearing, I really don’t see the need to have all these people come out for a public hearing when there’s really no need until 2019.” McKnight said that Judge Kahn specifically said that the idea of downsizing should not be addressed until after the next census. She also said that things within county government “are not always as they seem.”
“Are you trying to make a name for yourself, Mr. Crouse (R-24)?” she asked rhetorically of the sponsor of legislation that would downsize the legislature to 29 seats over the course of two decades. “Mr. Crouse wasn’t even wanted by his GOP colleagues to be their new leader. . . . So now he’s leading a charge to try to lead and set up a whole legislative district for the next ten years. So he must have some personal interest in this, that’s how I look at it. What are they looking for? Everybody wants something in this game and it’s not what the judge, Judge Kahn, wants. No, it’s what they want. What do you want out of this, Mr. Crouse, or you Mr. Tunny (R-22), Mr. Hogan (R-21) or Ms. Lockart (R-26) – what do you guys want?… What does Mr. Higgins want? Mr Higgins’ district is close to being considered a majority-minority district. The governor’s mansion should be in a majority-minority district.” She added that Higgins, as a lawyer, should know that no downsizing can occur until after the 2020 census.
“You have to do the census before cutting the districts,” said Grimm, “so we need the data before we can do that, but our plan is to do it right in 2020. Crouse came out with something that was 18 years; you’ve got to be kidding me.” Grimm laughed. “Eighteen years to do it? That’s fake reform. And, our legislature is too bureaucratic and too costly and we need to downsize it as soon as possible.”
“Many of the legislators believe that the public should be able to consider a variety of options when it comes to downsizing,” said Higgins. Legislators decide on Monday, July 11, whether or not to schedule the public hearings, which would then take place on the evening of Tuesday, July 26. One legislator said that he believed the majority caucus intended to set a public hearing for the Crouse legislation and send the Higgins law to committee for review; Higgins said it would remain to be seen at the July 11 meeting.
Update, July 12: After several voices were raised at last night’s legislative meeting, legislators voted 22-17 against an amendment to allow the local law introduced by Higgins to be heard at the July 26 public hearing. All three laws introduced by Crouse will be heard, and legislators expect to set additional dates in the future to allow the public to hear other downsizing options after review by committee.