ALBANY — During its monthly meeting on Monday, Aug. 8, the Albany County Legislature voted on three contentious bills containing proposed changes to the county charter: the downsizing of the legislature itself; the formation of an independent redistricting committee; and a measure containing a number of smaller amendments to the charter itself.
“There probably isn’t anything that’s been talked about more in this chamber over the last few months than this issue,” said Legislator Peter Crouse (R-24), who introduced three bills, co-sponsored by three of his Republican colleagues, that would amend parts of the county charter. “We all know that the genesis came from an independent charter review commission established in 2012.” The commission submitted a report, said Crouse, which was then reviewed by a special legislative committee. “That committee came up with recommendations,” he said. “There was a series of events, a few different votes and eventually the charter proposal went to the voters—not in its original format, but in the amended format.
“That charter vote was a negative vote from the residents of Albany County,” he continued. “Personally, I believe that was because one of the major issues that was discussed was whether or not citizens would be allowed to determine the size of this legislature—and that was eliminated when this proposal went to the voters . . . the authority to set the size remained with the legislature, and I believe that’s one of the reasons that the citizenry voted against that proposal.” In February, he said, he and his colleagues—members of a break-away minority caucus that sided with sitting leadership, opposing both reform-minded Democrats and six members of their own ten-member minority party, when the legislature elected leaders at the beginning of the year—decided to revisit the original charter proposals made by the independent commission.
“There are really three major issues,” Crouse said. “One, the size of the legislature. Two, the redistricting commission—which, of course, reflect upon what’s happened over the last three redistricting efforts by the county legislature.” (Each of the last three times the county has drawn new district boundaries following the federal census every ten years, it has been censured by the federal government for disenfranchising minorities and forced to pay considerable legal fees.) “And third, general improvements and corrections to update the county charter. We decided that it would be wise to split these into three separate local laws because we understood that there was some concern and fairly strong opposition to certain parts of that charter.” By splitting the proposal up, he said that they hoped that some of the generally agreed-upon aspects of the proposed charter amendments—which have to be approved in a public vote—could be enacted, even if others failed to pass public scrutiny. Allowing the public to determine the structuring of its own government, Crouse said, “is a basic point of democracy.”
“How can any of us be against that?” he asked his fellow legislators.
Ultimately, three local laws to amend the county charter were put forth by Crouse and legislators Brian Hogan (R-21), Peter Tunny (R-22) and Patrice Lockart (R-26). Under Local Law No. “F,” the legislature would have been reduced, but only to 29 members and over the course of two decades, decreasing the number of seats from 39 to 33 after the 2020 census and to 29 following the 2030 census. The reason for reducing the size of the legislature in two steps, said Crouse, were to address concerns raised by the minority community that fewer districts would result in reduced minority representation by making the cuts less drastic and giving the county time to evaluate their effects.
A second law, Local Law No. “G,” would have removed the redistricting process from the direct purview of legislators, instead drawing a seven member general commission to be chosen from a pool of interested community members solicited through a public campaign, four of whom are chosen by the leaders of both parties and three of whom are chosen by the initial four. It would also provide for a minority-majority subcommittee—ostensibly to ensure representation of minority residents—chosen by the representatives of such districts, with the chairman given the deciding vote in the event of a tie resulting from an even number of minority-majority districts (those with a majority of eligible minority voters). “We believe that this empowers the minority community to actually have a say in how their districts are drawn,” said Crouse. Detractors have argued that the selection process does not ensure enough independence and have argued in favor of other options, one of which would select members from a pool of retired judges. “We have to have a process that is independent from the legislators,” said Legislator Andrew Joyce (D-9).
The third and final piece of legislation, Local Law No. “H,” makes a series of changes to the language of the charter, clarifying requirements and revising outdated language, as well as incorporating the county probation department and board of elections. Most of the changes were largely uncontroversial, with the exception of the coroner clause. The four county coroners are currently appointed and do not need to be certified, requiring medical professionals to sign death certificates. While the commission recommended a medical examiner, this local law would merely require coroners to become certified within two years of taking office.
Acknowledging that his fellow legislators might not be inclined to vote in favor of all three laws, Crouse asked them to consider one question: “Where is the harm in letting the voters of Albany County decide this question?”
After Crouse spoke on the proposed legislation, Legislator Christopher Higgins (D-5) stood up to introduce an amendment to Local Law No. “F” that would replace the language with that of another proposed local law, introduced by himself and co-sponsored by 14 of his colleagues from both parties, which would reduce the size of the legislature to 25 members following the next census. “That’s specifically the recommendation that was made by the charter review commission,” said Higgins. “That’s the proposal that I believe Mr. Crouse should be putting before the voters.
“Many of my colleagues campaigned on this issue,” he said. “They campaigned specifically on the recommendations made by this commission, downsizing in particular, and many of them were elected to seats in this house.”
Legislator Merton Simpson (D-2), a representative of one of five minority-majority county districts and an opponent of any measure to downsize the legislative body, took the floor next. “I just wonder how many times we’re going to keep digging up this dead horse and beating it,” he said. “Prior to tonight, we’ve had at least six hearings on these particular issues and, with the exception of the League of Women Voters, there have been very few people who are actually in favor of downsizing at all.”
“Right now, we are so gerrymandered,” he said, calling the issue a geographical one. The urban districts that hold a majority of minority voters, he said, are already very close together, and to reduce the number of all districts could cause the county to risk “running afoul” of the most recent federal sanctions, as well as the American Voting Rights Act—for the fourth time.
Legislator Paul Burgdorf (R-23) then stood up and seconded Higgins’ amendment. “People keep talking about all these meetings that have happened. I was never invited to a meeting, I was never asked my opinion.” Neither, he said, were most of the co-sponsors of Higgins’ downsizing proposal. “We would have told you that we wanted to go with the citizen’s commission’s recommendations.” He went on to argue that fewer districts would actually result in greater minority representation. “If, with 25 legislators, you had four [minority-majority districts],” he said, “you would be at 16 percent representation, not 12.8.” (12.8 percent is the current minority district representation in the 39-district legislature.)
“I don’t want anyone to say that downsizing is an affront to the minority community,” Burgdorf said. “There may be fewer seats, but there is greater representation.”
“I want to bring up one important fact,” said Legislator Richard Mendick (R-36). “In January of 2014, when this was a very hot topic, the Times Union did a survey and the question was: ‘Do you want to downsize the Albany County Legislature?’” Of a little more than 400 responses, he said, more than 92 percent were in favor of downsizing.
Legislator Doug Bullock (D-7) responded that the Times Union had waged a campaign in favor of downsizing and that its survey was biased. “You’re losing representation if you’re voting for downsizing,” he said.
“I just don’t see any reason that less representation would be more efficient or serve the constituents better,” said Simpson. “I don’t see any objective evidence to support that.”
Legislator Mark Grimm (R-29), who rose in favor of downsizing, said, “I can appreciate the minority members’ concern. It’s a legitimate concern and they’ve been in lawsuits for years. But the idea that downsizing will result in poor minority representation is a false premise. It’s not about the numbers of our members, it’s about how they cut the map. That’s where the ballgame is. If we don’t have independent redistricting, minority rights are threatened and small town rights are threatened.” Grimm, who also spoke in favor of Higgins’ amendment, later introduced his own amendment to Local Law No. “G,” saying, “We actually had a commission to do this, a commission that acted independently. They came back with recommendations about an independent commission and that’s what I’m putting forward today.”
“[Legislator Wanda] Willingham pointed out that the minority community has been victimized by redistricting for several decades,” said Legislator William Reinhardt (D-33). “That is true and it has nothing to do with the size of the legislature. It has to do with the process of redistricting—that is a critical thing that has to be addressed.” If that issue goes unaddressed, he said, the county is likely to continue to run into the same problems.
After Reinhardt spoke, Chairman Sean Ward called for a roll call vote on Higgins’ amendment. The final tally was 22 opposed, 14 in favor (3 members were not in attendance). The subsequent roll call vote on the original Local Law No. “F” resulted in a 31-5 vote against that particular downsizing measure. The four co-sponsors were joined by Dennis Feeney (D-28).
Grimm’s amendment to implement the measures recommended by the charter review commission then underwent a roll call call vote and failed by 27 to 9; Legislators Frank Mauriello (R-27), Travis Stevens (D-31), Todd Drake (R-19), and Lynne Lekakis (D-8) joined the others who had spoken in favor of downsizing and a more independent redistricting commission. Local Law No. “G” was close, with 19 in favor and 17 opposed—one vote short of the 20 needed to pass.
After an amendment to Local Law No. “H,” introduced by Drake, that would also more closely reflect the charter review commission’s recommendations, was defeated, the proposed law itself then passed the legislature with a vote of 15 to 20, with Mauriello abstaining.