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The Erie County Ecumenical Council

The commission charged with conceiving a plan for reapportioning Erie County’s legislative districts to comply with 2010 Census numbers and, at the same time, reduce the number of districts from 15 to 11 held its first meeting on Monday morning.

Under the firm but gentle guidance of its chair, Hodgson Russ attorney Adam Perry, the commission spent an hour debating when it should meet next.

Perhaps that’s not a fair distillation of the debate that pitted Democratic appointees to the commission against their Republican counterparts, with Perry apparently in agreement with whatever point of view had been most recently articulated. Essentially, it went like this: Perry proposed that the commission schedule three public hearings on the issue of redistricting to be held after the commission receives the 2010 Census data it needs to draw the new lines; that data is supposed to arrive April 5.

The commission must make its recommendations to the Erie County Legislature within 60 days, and legislators must then approve a redistricting plan, after which the county executive must sign it into law. But petitions for candidates start to circulate June 7, argued Dennis Ward, a member of the commission and the Democratic commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections. The time frame is so short, Ward argued, that the commission could ill afford to wait until April to schedule meetings. What if the county executive vetoes the plan? What if the legislature cannot agree? What if the whole issue winds up in the courts?


Let’s start inviting the public to offer its feedback now, Ward suggested. We’ve no time to spare.

No way, responded Republican commission member Emilio Colaiacovo: What’s the point of having meetings before we have the 2010 Census data in hand? Why invite the public to comment on a matter, and be tempted to respond to that commentary, before the facts are available to us?

And so it went, back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, for an hour, with Ward and Colaiacovo in the leading roles. In the end, the commission agreed to hold an informational meeting for the public in two weeks, at which the reapportionment process would be described and public comments solicited. Meantime, Democratic commission members will independently schedule public meetings in their communities.

As I listened to the gentlemen argue, a thought occurred to me: The reduction from 15 to 11 seats cannot sit well with either party. It is bad for Democrats, especially for those whose seats are Buffalo-based, such as Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams. Miller-Williams must decide: Will she protect her own seat at the expense of the other predominantly African-American district, currently represented by Betty Jean Grant, and thus risk the sort of anger in the black community that spawned the Grassroots political club in opposition to Arthur Eve’s self-aggrandizement?

Republicans in the city’s inner ring of suburbs can’t feel sanguine, either, because their districts are likely to be sent an influx of Democrats. Only the Republicans in the corners of the county will be largely unaffected by the downsizing. They may well think it’s great, as does their county executive, who welcomes any measure that curtails the legislature.

So I wondered, as I considered these and other thorny issues, if many commission members on both sides of the political fence might secretly hope that time constraints would prevent the downsizing from occurring this year at all—that, come November, we will still have 15 legislators running along the current district lines, while the reapportionment process grinds slowly forward in the courts.

Is it possible that both parties might work independently toward ensuring that outcome? And if so, could this be Erie County’s great ecumenical moment?

geoff kelly

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