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HOW MANY LEGISLATORS?

June 7, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
As the constitutionally required enumeration of the nation approaches in 2010 Chautauqua County political rhetoric is abuzz for reducing the size of the Chautauqua County Legislature from its present 25 legislators to a number as few as nine. Many advocates for smaller representative bodies believe that such reductions will save money, reduce the size of government and make government more efficient. History has proven them wrong on all counts.

A few years ago Jamestown voters approved a referendum to reduce City Council from a 12 member legislative body to nine members. The referendum did not appear on the ballot as a result of a public outcry for smaller government; it was a political ploy that succeeded at the polls but failed in its political purpose of achieving a permanent Republican majority in city government. In the next election Democrats won seven of nine council seats and Republicans have only been a majority once or twice since.

Even the most casual observer of Jamestown’s political scene recognizes that any tax savings from reducing the size of city council are largely illusionary and no one can argue that the streamlined city council is more efficient. Jamestown’s city council, by charter, has three standing committees and by the numbers three members are on each committee. Sounds okay, but in real life council members take vacations, get sick and find other reasons to be absent from committee meetings. That does not make them bad representatives; it makes them human beings that must deal with life’s occurrences. As a result, the reduced numbers spreads Jamestown city council too thin. City Council all to often react instead of taking pro-active stands by establishing city policy.

I would even make the argument that reducing the size of city council and limiting departmental oversight has been enormously costly to city taxpayers. Since council was reduced to nine members Jamestown, including the BPU, has probably paid out more than $1,000,000 in lawsuits and settlements for improper practices and employer misconduct. The city does not release the figures, improperly I believe, because the parties agree to non-disclosure as part of any settlement. The court does not mandate non-disclosure rather; it is agreed to by the parties and enforced by the courts.

Based on 2000 census figures and subsequent reapportionment each of 25 county legislators represents approximately 5500 county residents and if a referendum to reduce the number to nine was put before the people I remain convinced it would be approved. But what would a nine member county legislature look like when each legislator represents approximately 15,500 residents?

Keep in mind that the majority political party controls the county legislature and creates the redistricting plan; a Democratic majority tries to draw a plan that favors Democrats and a Republican majority would attempt to develop a plan to favor Republicans. Take Legislative District 21, which includes four Towns, Clymer, French Creek, Mina and Ripley; slightly more than 5500 residents.

Democrats might reapportion the district to include two other Republican held districts. The new district might include the Towns of Clymer, French Creek, Mina, Ripley, Sherman and the Town of Westfield which is increasingly leaning more toward the Democrats. Politically that change would eliminate two Republican legislators.

On the other hand if the Republicans were in the majority they would probably combine Clymer, French Creek, Mina, and Ripley with Sherman and North Harmony. That combination would make for a stronger Republican legislative district, but either plan would eliminate two Republicans.

Dependent on Jamestown’s population the city probably would be entitled to one and a fraction instead of two legislators. If I were a Democrat and drawing the reapportionment plan I would include the Town of Carroll with the city. If I were a Republican and drawing the legislative districts I would include the Town of Kiantone and part of the Town of Busti with Jamestown; two areas that consistently lean Republican.

We can reduce the number of our representatives, but in every case, individual representation is lessened. Given the choice voters would probably approve a nine member county legislature. However, voters do not always behave rationally or in their best interest. There are times I suspect voters feel that if they can deprive a legislator of a pay increase or health insurance or limit terms or numbers that a punishment of a sort has been inflicted. We expect a lot from our elected officials—probably too much and at the same time we expect the worst outcomes as routine.

 
 

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