MAYVILLE - County Republicans were unfazed Wednesday night by the news that all reapportionment work will have to be done in the next two weeks.
Democrats were somewhat shocked that the majority party, which has been accused of dragging its heels, is now ready to take on the work of drawing new district lines and downsizing the legislature.
Republicans replied that such has been their plan all along, to wait for the census numbers and then begin the work - not vice versa.
Legislator Keith Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk, alleged Republicans of partisanship Wednesday and of beginning reapportionment work in caucus.
P-J photo by Nicholas L. Dean
Under the advisement of the county attorney, legislators voted to schedule a special meeting on April 20. If the legislature is going to downsize in time for the 2011 elections, a reapportionment plan will have to be passed by the body that night.
Further putting the five-member reapportionment commission under the gun is the fact that, in order to hold the meeting, the finished proposal, in all its details, will have to be mailed out to legislators by April 8.
"What happens if we're not done with the work of the redistricting committee," asked John Gullo, D-Fredonia.
According to County Attorney Steve Abdella, who drafted the emergency resolution to schedule the April 20 hearing, if the commission fails to finish its work, the meeting and public hearing will just be canceled. A failure to finish the reapportionment work by April 8 also means that the legislature will not be downsized in 2012 and will likely instead have to wait until the 2013 elections.
"We really should have done this two months ago," said Minority Leader Rudy Mueller, D-Lakewood. "I'm glad that the Republicans have seen the light to try to reduce the size of the legislature, but we could have set up this five-member committee two months ago with the legislation that we proposed in January."
Mueller continued on to say that legislators could have also already begun the work of drawing new district lines based on numbers from 2008. Other counties have already begun their reapportionment work in such a manner, he said. Then, with the new census numbers, all that would have been required had work already been started would be a minor tweaking of district lines.
"The county attorney has got his work cut out for him and so do we on the committee," Mueller said. "There's going to be a lot of work. We could have started in January. I'm glad that you've seen the light though. That's good."
Majority Leader Larry Barmore, R-Gerry, replied by repeating the Republican position that work should not have been begun until the new census numbers were in. H e continued on to say that with new software which has been ordered, Republicans have every intention of having a plan ready in the allotted amount of time.
That statement by Barmore sparked questions and criticism from the legislature's senior Democrats.
"I'm surprised that a five-member committee can look through this process in a couple of weeks," said Maria Kindberg, D-Jamestown. "I'm hoping that we do get a chance at this special meeting to vote on something, but I'm wondering, has work on this process already begun, Mr. Chairman? Is there anybody who has begun to draw lines?"
Croscut replied by saying that, to his knowledge, he can say that Republicans have not yet begun redistricting and reapportionment work.
But Dunkirk Democrat Keith Ahlstrom went back to Barmore's comments as inferring that Republicans have begun reapportionment work.
"It appears they have more than seen the light," Ahlstrom said. "They have been meeting and have plans. I believe his (Barmore's) words were, 'The software is ordered' or 'has been here.' Certainly there was not a discussion of the legislature to purchase software to do the reapportionment process, but, obviously, there was a discussion of the Republican caucus."
Ahlstrom continued on to point out that it was Democrats and members of the Independence Party as well as other county residents who have been pushing for the issue, bringing resolutions and local laws, and seeking an open discussion by the legislature on the issue.
"It appears that this has been taken as an issue and made once again political, where the Republicans already have a plan, supposedly," Ahlstrom said. "I mean, the word here today is that the plan is 19 is the number that's going to come. I put that as my prediction in the process, if anybody wants to have a pool, that will be proposed.
"From what Mr. Barmore says, he's not concerned that you can do this in 16 days," Ahlstrom continued. "I sat on the last reapportionment committee. I know that you can't do it in 16 days and do it right. So if it's done in 16 days, somebody's already done a lot of work on it. That is probably one of the more political things that has ever happened here since I've been here and it is 100 percent wrong to shut out the minority party from the discussions on this and to go into a process that is supposed to be an open process with the decision already made.
Croscut responded by attempting to assure Ahlstrom that Republicans haven't made any decisions, and that reapportionment is going to require bi-partisan support and cooperation between parties.
"Mr. Ahlstrom certainly is entitled to his opinion," Barmore said, "but we just heard within the last 48 hours that the census figures are ready to come out, and the Republican caucus has sprung into action just as we said that we would. We do not have any plans drawn. You know that. I know that. We're ready to go. We have software available out there that was not available 10 years ago. This allows us to get together and in just a few days time to come up with multiple proposals and district drawings to consider. And this is not going to cost the taxpayers of Chautauqua County a single dime. If it costs anybody any money, we'll open our wallets as a Republican caucus and we'll pay for it ourselves."
The five-person reapportionment committee will be comprised of Croscut, Barmore, Mueller, Gullo and Assistant Majority Leader David Himelein, R-Findley Lake.