I intend that this opinion essay address the important issues that concern downsizing the Chautauqua County Legislature. I admit that I believe that it must be downsized for the reasons set forth. I invite any opposing view on these matters to respond so that the public is fully informed.
The Chautauqua County Legislature has 25 members, elected every two years. The base salary is $9,000 and legislators get a bit more for chairing a committee or taking a leadership role. No health insurance is included. We have a staff of four persons: a clerk, two secretaries and a financial analyst. Our actual expenditures in 2010 appear to have been a total of $417,839.
Legislators attend, at minimum, one legislative meeting each month, plus one or two committee meetings ach month. It is clear that some legislators spend extra time that is related to being a legislator. Some of that is politics and some is making sure they get re-elected. Some of it is actual work on behalf of the county or constituents.
Each legislator chooses her/his own manner of service. Some, like my friend Mr. Barmore, devote substantial time to important tax and real property matters outside of the actual meetings. Others, like my friend Mr. Gould, are heavily involved in the water and soil conservancy matters that concern this county. Still others, such as my friend Mr. DeJoe, devote substantial time to veterans affairs. As you might imagine, this list could go on at great length.
We have 25 members of the legislature because that number was selected in the 1970s. It is not a magic number.
Only the legislature can change the number of legislators, and it takes 17 votes to do it. Period. No public referendum unless 17 members agree to do it.
Each legislative district must be created in accord with New York and federal law. They cannot be drawn to harm any group, or help any group. They cannot be arbitrary. They must contain approximately the same number of citizens.
If we have 25 legislators, each district contains around 5,200 persons. If we shrink to 17 legislators, each district will have around 7,600 persons.
I believe there are at least three good reasons for the Chautauqua County Legislature to downsize.
Elected officials must be held accountable.
We have very few competitive elections for the legislature. Many legislators know that unless they do something extreme, they will get re-elected as long as they wish.
Twenty-five members makes it easy to "hide" your vote. No one remembers who voted for what. The two local newspapers have done a very nice job of printing who voted which way on things. Do you remember what your legislator voted for or against?
If we have fewer legislators, each of them will need to be more careful of their vote and that it serves a somewhat broader spectrum of their constituents. More of their votes will be remembered at election time.
And, with fewer legislators, the sitting legislators will have fewer people to blame when things go badly.
If you have 25 cooks in the kitchen preparing an elaborate meal, and the meal is a disaster, is it ever obvious which ones are to blame? I want it to be obvious who is to blame.
The Legislature does not operate efficiently.
We have 25 legislators who attend one or two committee meetings each month. These meetings last an hour or two. Then, each committee member reports to her/his caucus on the matter to aid the others in making a decision. Of course, a legislator is free to research each matter separately, but I am reasonably sure few ever actually do, except infrequently or in a special circumstance.
It is a common occurrence each meeting for a legislator to ask a question as to pending legislation that was already asked and answered at a committee meeting. And, more than once, I have seen folks vote on a matter and later learned that they did not really understand the issues at all.
With fewer legislators, we would of necessity combine committees, possibly into a committee of the whole body. We would have better informed legislators and there is absolutely no doubt that fewer legislators can perform the legitimate functions quite well, without more time or expense.
Fewer legislators will lower the cost of government. If we cut to 17, the savings would be at least $72,000 out of a budget of around $400,000.
I know that some folks make arguments against downsizing and I want to address them briefly.
We want more representation, not less. My answer: We have too much government, not too little. Towns, villages, cities, county, state, federal. Layer upon layer.
We need to wait for the census. My answer: This is only a delay tactic. We must pick the number of legislators and then draw lines, not the other way around. What possible difference could it really make if we learn that each district will have 7,500 persons or 7,600?
This is a plot by "city" Democrats. My answer: This cannot possibly be true because the election district outlines must still be set by the legislature, the number of persons in each district will still be equal and the result of fewer districts will, over time, reflect the same proportions of each party being elected. The number of legislators is a neutral term in the equation. Where the lines are drawn is not neutral and that is controlled by a simple majority of the legislature, and the Republicans are in the majority, not the Democrats.
Very large rural election districts are bad. My answer: I can agree to an extent, but only because I agree it would be hard to campaign door to door. Once elected, however, large rural districts are not unusual or untenable. I don't think this is a good enough reason to allow our broken system to continue.
Fewer legislators will mean more work for them. Probably true, and that's a good thing.
It wont save that much money. Every little bit counts.
I can only offer my own theory on why some folks in the legislature are actually opposed to reducing the number of legislators. I believe that it is simple self-preservation. Why would you want a competitive election? Additionally, the newly drawn and larger district might include the residences of two legislators from the same political party. They don't want to run against each other and don't want to retire either.
So, how can the number of legislators be reduced? By law, any solution requires 17 legislators to agree to it. 17 is the magic number. Those 17 legislators could agree to a different number or agree to put the matter up for a public referendum. That is the only way.
John P. Gullo II of Fredonia represents Legislative District 25.