Democrats in Orleans file legal challenge for redistricting of County Legislature

Photo by Ginny Kropf: These members of the Orleans County Democratic Committee held a news conference outside the County Courthouse this morning. Pictured form left include: Jeffrey Lewis, chairman of the Orleans County Democratic Committee; James Renfrew, vice chair of the committee; Jack Gilman, committee member; and Jess Marciano, committee member.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 January 2023 at 10:55 am

A legal challenge from Democrats in Orleans County seeks redistricting of the legislative districts in County Legislature.

Democrats say the districts are out of balance in size and the boundaries need to be modified after some population shifts in the county.

The legal challenge was filed in the State Supreme Court by Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Lewis of Carlton, former party chairwoman Jeanne Crane of Crane, Jonathon Gilman of Kendall, Rev. James Renfrew of Clarendon, Agnes Recco of Lyndonville and Jessica Marciano of Medina.

They name in the lawsuit the Legislature Chairwoman Lynne Johnson, Majority Leader Don Allport, Minority Leader Fred Miller, Clerk of Legislature Lisa Stenshorn, and County Chief Administrative Officer Jack Welch.

The county shifted from a former Board of Supervisors among the 10 towns to a seven member Legislature in 1980. There are four districts and three at-large or countywide positions. With the at-large positions, one must live in the east end of the county, another from the central section, and the other from the west end.

Chart from legal filing by Orleans County Democrats.

The four legislative districts are each about 10,000 people, but Democrats say there is too much of a population variance to meet the standard of “one person, one vote” with equal representation among the districts with voting. With some districts larger than other in population, some residents have their influence on the Legislature “minimized or diluted,” the petition alleges.

Democrats say a 10 percent deviation is allowed, but the Orleans legislative districts exceed that.

Democrats in the legal filing note the 2020 census showed a drop of about 2,500 people in the county or a 6 percent reduction since 2010. The two most populous towns in the county both saw declines, but the drop was steeper in Albion compared to Ridgeway. Democrats say that degree of change is just one example of the districts no longer being close to uniform.

The Legislature about a decade ago did tweak two of the districts. The district for the towns of Ridgeway and Yates (represented by Lynne Johnson) was shifted slightly into Shelby to make it closer in population to the other three legislative districts. That gave more people to Yates and Ridgeway, while subtracting some from the district (represented by Bill Eick) that includes that towns of Shelby, Barre and Clarendon.

The Democratic Party leaders contend the districts are gerrymandered, in “favor of one particular party over all others.” There are six Republicans on the Legislature. Fred Miller is the lone Democrat and represents the district that includes the towns of Albion and Gaines. Miller has run unopposed in recent elections without a Republican challenger.

These charts from the Democrats are in a lawsuit saying there is too much variation among the districts.

The Democrats are seeking to have the districts reapportioned to be nearly the same size by population and not have “unacceptably high population deviations between the legislative districts.”

The Democrats, specifically, contend there is a more than 30 percent difference in population, comparing the east side of the county, the central towns and the west end.

The Democrats who filed the lawsuit are represented by the Penberthy Law Group of Buffalo.

County looking to engage company to help determine if redistricting needed

UPDATE at 1:11 p.m.: Jack Welch, the county’s chief administrative officer, said the county started the process of redistricting, an effort that was not the result of the lawsuit from the Democrats.

The county authorized the Planning Department to enter into an agreement to review the 2020 census data to conform with election law.  The agreement was with The Research Foundation of the State University of New York which is connected to SUNY New Paltz and The Benjamin Center, Welch said.

However, the person assigned to the job took another position in Albany and won’t be able to do the redistricting review.

The county on Dec. 14 reached out to CGR, a research firm in Rochester but the company is unable to do the work right away, Welch said

The county is working on an agreement with Skyline Demographics Consultants, Inc. to determine if changes are needed to the legislative districts to be compliant with NYS Election Law, Welch said.

“We are working with Skyline Demographics to adjust the districts which are outside of the 2.5 percent deviation that is allowed by the law,” he said. “A 1 percent change is roughly 100 residents so this new law will require some adjustments between Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the issue at a public hearing the near future, he said.

“The timing of this change is dependent upon the scheduling of public hearing, the time required to inform the public of proposed changes and the time petitions are due for the for these districts and if there is agreement in a proposed map,” Welch said in an email. “There are a lot of moving parts to have the final districts in place for an election.”