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NINETEEN? WHY?

June 25, 2011 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Since I was sidelined I have spent a lot of time catching up on news that I missed, particularly local news. Perusing past issues of the Post-Journal I found many interesting stories but it was a series of three (March-April) articles by Norman Carlson regarding downsizing the County Legislature that caught my attention.

Mr. Carlson’s editorial response was sparked by the County Legislature’s tortuous efforts to amputate as many members as possible from that body yet have it continue to resemble a unicameral legislative assembly.

Proponents for a smaller legislature make the amorphous argument that a smaller legislature will streamline county government and make it more efficient. To the contrary, Mr. Carlson is right; reducing the size of the County Legislature will further diminish representation for the poor, the dispossessed and the exocentric and any costs savings are illusory.

Supporters for reduction argue as long as there is an equal division of single member districts, regardless of the number of legislators; representation is equal and mathematically fair. However, disparities in representation for the poor the dispossessed and the exocentric are subtler—more systemic—than deliberate.

Legislators—elected officials of all sorts—will never accept that they fail to represent the poor the disposed and the exocentric and most, I believe, are being honest when they make that claim. Perhaps it is human nature, but Mr. or Ms. Prominent Citizen always seem to be first to get the attention of lawmakers, but not so much the underclass.

There were probably others, but I can only recall one case where the dispossessed received extraordinary representation during the eighties when I was an employee of the Chautauqua County Legislature. At that time the Legislature routinely voted to approve the sale of tax foreclosed properties, usually to the highest bidder, and on the recommendation of the appropriate Standing Committee.

The Governmental Affairs Committee voted to sell a tax foreclosed house to the highest bidder, a person who offered substantially more than the taxes owed and who was a frequent buyer of foreclosed properties. The committee vote was unanimous until a Jamestown Legislator, the late Joseph Nalbone, saw a picture of the property with three children playing in the yard.

Nearly every day for two weeks Legislator Nalbone drove to Mayville to lobby legislators, the County Executive and the Tax Department until an agreement was reached to keep the house in the hands of the tax delinquent owner. Legislator Nalbone neither knew the owner nor the exact location of the property in question.

There was nothing sinister or malevolent about the actions of the legislators that at first voted to sell the foreclosed property to the highest bidder—one might even argue that county taxpayers were ill served by the legislature for not accepting the highest bid. But, had it not been for one legislator among twenty-five a family might have lost their house. The legislature has finally adopted nineteen as the proper number of representatives for the people of Chautauqua County. That number that will appear on the ballot this fall in the form of a question for the voters to decide. The measure will probably pass—a pity I think. I admit that I do not know what the proper number of representatives ought to be—nineteen is as arbitrary as twenty-five, but in the absence of a bicameral (two houses) legislature more eyes on government is the better course.

I wonder what would have happened in aforementioned case if Mr. Nalbone had been one of six members reduced out of the County Legislature—from 25 to 19 members? There will be fewer representatives to serve on oversight committees and legislators will become even more dependent upon the Executive Branch and Department Heads.

I favor increasing the size of our Legislature, thirty-one maybe even thirty-five. Expensive you say? Perhaps not; we can pay them something or nothing at all—school boards work without pay.

 
 

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THE LATE JOSEPH NALBONE