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REPRESENTATION IS THE ISSUE

October 10, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
There is talk of reducing the size of the Chautauqua County Legislature from the present arbitrary number of 25 to an equally arbitrary but lesser number. Regardless of the merits of that idea and its underlying arguments consider another reason that never rises to the level of public discourse but simmers just below the surface.

Of the 25 legislators only a small number of legislators--policy wonks really dig in and carry on the hard work of legislating. Six, seven, maybe eight legislators work diligently to learn the complexities of government, and we should not kid ourselves, government is complex. Thus it has always been, a few do the heavy lifting while others are engaged to lesser degrees.

That condition spilled over to the floor of the Legislature recently when some members complained that they were voting on measures they did not understand, had never seen before and had never discussed possible ramifications. Other members who had put in hours, even weeks and months researching and carrying the same resolutions through multiple committees of jurisdiction resented the legislature dissolving into a committee of the whole to haggle and rehash questions previously entertained.

Occasional frustrations over divisions of labor are inevitable and usually conjures up images of a much smaller and more efficient legislature. The fallacy with that thinking is that there is no evidence that a smaller legislature would be more efficient or that fewer members would work any harder than they do now. One thing is for certain; fewer legislators diminishes representation. The issue is not hard working, dedicated legislators, the issue is representation and if representation is what we are after why not increase the size of the legislature; perhaps thirty, forty why not double the numbers, why not fifty county legislators?

Representation is such a concern nationally that advocates at opposite ends of the political spectrum have called for a major increase in the size of the House of Representatives. George Will, a conservative columnist of national repute, has suggested a Congress with 1000 House Members. The original House of Representatives had 65 members; one representative for 33,000 residents. However, in 1920 a surge of immigration prompted Congress to fix the number of representatives at 435 which resulted in expanding the size of each Congressional District. However, enlarging the size of Congressional Districts has created inequities that violates the principle of one man one vote.

At the national level the concern is fairness, parity in representation as opposed to economics. The New York Times pointed out that according to the latest US Census America’s most populous District is Nevada’s Third where 960,000 people have one representative in the House. The state of Montana has a population of 958,000 and one Representative and one vote. In stark contrast Wyoming with only 523,000 people has the same voting power and Rhode Island has 527,000 and 521,000 in each of two Congressional Districts.

That 400,000 vote disparity has sparked a lawsuit in Federal Court to fix the problem by expanding the House of Representative from 435 to at least 932 or as many as 1761 members. Some experts say that might create a more equitable system but one less governable. However, the greatest opposition to expanding the House comes from incumbents who jealously guard their authority and do not want to see their personal power diluted. There are benefits to be gained by increasing the number of representatives; retail politics would be restored with the potential for eliminating multimillion dollar Congressional campaigns and making it easier for more ordinary folk to step forward.

The most common argument advanced in Chautauqua County for a smaller county legislature is expressed in economic terms--too much money spent on salaries and health insurance for part-time legislators. Economics are always a concern but instead of diminishing representation by reducing the size of the county legislature why not reduce the annual stipend for members? After all, we the people have the option of setting the salaries for elected representatives. Why pay them anything, or per-diem or only expenses? School board members across the state are not paid regular salaries or even a stipend and school boards frequently meet once a week.

What is the proper representation for the Chautauqua County Legislature? Currently one county legislator represents approximately 5500 residents, fifty legislators would individually represent approximately 2750 residents. A County Legislature with fifty members would make campaigns less expensive and would make door to door campaigns--retail politics easier, particularly in rural districts.

Would fifty legislators make the work of the County Executive and other elected officials more difficult? Yes, but would that be all that bad? Another objection might be that the Legislative Chambers in Mayville are not large enough to accommodate fifty legislators. That is true, but I bet that could fixed in a short time. What do we want, a smaller legislature with behind the scenes power in the hands of the few, or a larger number of legislators with expanded representation that would give each individual a greater voice in local government?

For those elected legislators, the hard working few who might take umbrage and feel insulted that their work is unappreciated--not so, if you are highly valued by the voters in your district you will probably continue to be elected.

 
 

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