Saturday, November 30, 2002
Board may be sued if redistricting doesn't happen soon
By Tom Grace
Cooperstown News Bureau
COOPERSTOWN - Henry "Hank" Nicols, chairman of Otsego County's Democratic Party, wants the county Board of Representatives to redistrict before the onset of its next election cycle in late spring 2003.
Nicols said Monday that if the board doesn't act expeditiously to draw fairer district lines conforming to the 2000 census, he and others may sue.
"I don't want to sue," Nicols said. "If it comes to that, I'll probably be part of a group of people who are reluctant to sue, but the county board must address this issue."
If a new redistricting plan isn't fashioned soon, the county board will elect members in 2003 who will serve through 2005 in districts that were far out of proportion in 2000, he said.
Earlier this month, Nicols and Patricia Carey of Laurens won a lawsuit against the county Board of Representatives over a faulty redistricting plan that was to go before county voters.
Nov. 4, the day before Election Day, state Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dowd of Norwich ordered the county's proposed plan be taken off the ballot. Dowd ruled that differences in population between the largest and smallest districts in the proposed plan violated legal guidelines.
That plan was one of many devised by the county's Planning Department for board members to consider. In their lawsuit, Nicols and Carey contended that the plan the board selected was not the best plan available.
Nicols said Monday he hopes the county board will consider a nine-member plan, also designed by the Planning Department and promoted by Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Milford.
"Of the plans I've seen, that one comes closest to creating even-sized districts," he said. As a bonus, it eliminates five of the 14 board members, which would save the county money that could be used to hire a county manager, he said.
During last week's board meeting, Nicols told representatives they need a full-time county manager "to prioritize necessary services and to be responsible for the daily operation of the county."
Board Chairman Carl Higgins, R-Edmeston, said Monday he detected "little enthusiasm" among board members to take up the redistricting question again right away.
"We've got serious budget problems we're trying to deal with," he said. "I can't speak for the board, but I don't think that's what we want to focus on now."
Higgins said he doubted the board would call for a special election by June to place a redistricting plan on the ballot.
Ronald Feldstein, D-Otego, chairs the county's Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the redistricting process. Feldstein said Monday if he remains IGA chairman when new committee assignments are announced in January, his committee will work on the issue.
Feldstein said it might be possible to redistrict without placing a plan before voters. Plans that change the number of representatives require voter approval. Those that do not change this number such as a weighted voting plan, may not need a referendum he noted.
Feldstein said he believes weighted voting is the best option the county board has. Under this plan, each representative's votes would be calibrated to the population of the district.
Joyce Hickling of Edmeston, a member of the League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area, said Monday the group is opposed to weighted voting. In the next several weeks, members of the League of Women Voters' Oneonta and Cooperstown chapters may meet to discuss how they will monitor the county's progress on the issue, she said.