Democrats speak out against County Legislature redistricting plan

Photo by Tom Rivers: Several people spoke at a public hearing on Thursday evening about a redistricting proposal for the Orleans County Legislature. Pictured from left include Jason Dragon of Albion, Jess Marciano of Medina and Jim Renfrew of Clarendon.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 10 February 2023 at 10:09 am

ALBION – Several Democrats, including the party’s chairman and vice chairman, asked the Orleans County Legislature to try again with a redistricting proposal, and eliminate three at-large or countywide positions.

The Democrats’ leadership said the current makeup of the Legislature – four district positions and three at-large posts – should be changed to seven district positions with no at-large legislators.

“At-large districts, due to their larger size, tend to make it much more difficult for a candidate with limited resources to prevail in an election,” said Jim Renfrew, vice chairman of the Democratic Party. “We believe that at-large districts look too much like a strategy to marginalize minority views.”

Jeff Lewis, chairman of the Orleans County Democratic Party, speaks during Thursday’s public hearing at the legislative chambers of the Orleans County Office Building. He asked the Legislature to eliminate the three at-large positions and instead have seven districts of the same population.

Democrats, which are outnumbered by registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 ratio in the county, are at a competitive disadvantage in county-wide races. Having smaller district positions would make the races less daunting for Democrats and other candidates. In some elections, the entire seven-member Legislature is unopposed. Rarely do more than two legislators have opposition.

“Orleans is the only county in New York that has at-large legislative districts,” Renfrew said. “While there may have been a reason for designing them this way fifty years ago, they diminish democracy in the present time. I think there should be seven districts of equal population, and none of them at-large.”

The redistricting proposal keeps the three at-large positions. There is an at-large legislator from the east end (currently Ed Morgan of Murray), one from the central (currently Don Allport of Gaines) and one from the west end (currently Skip Draper of Shelby.

The county’s population in the 2020 census was 40,343.  For redistricting, the 1,456 population in the two state prisons is taken out. That puts the county total at 38,891 for redistricting. Dividing that by the four legislative districts puts the ideal district at 9,723.

With the current district boundaries there would be an 11.7 percent population variance, which is above the 5 percent threshold allowed.

The county worked with Skyline Demographic Consultants, Inc. to bring the four legislative districts within an acceptably close size.

Courtesy of Orleans County Legislature: This map shows a plan for four of the districts for the Orleans County Legislature.

David Schaefer, vice president with Skyline, went over the changes in the districts to bring them within an acceptable size.

The county is looking to add part of western Murray to a district that currently is the towns of Albion and Gaines (currently filled by Fred Miller, the lone Democrat on the Legislature). That gives the Albion-Gaines (District 3) more people and also takes away from District 4 that includes Murray, Kendall and Carlton (currently filled by John Fitzak). The Murray section that is added to District 3 includes 522 people from Murray’s election district 5.

During the last redistricting about a decade ago, the county added a small part of Shelby to District 2 that included Yates and Ridgeway (currently served by Lynne Johnson). This time the county is looking to move more of that area back into District 1, the Shelby-Barre-Clarendon district (represented by Bill Eick). That represents a shift of 418 people.

The three at-large countywide positions don’t legally require any changes because they represent the same population – the entire county.

The Legislature is expected to vote on the redistricting changes during its 4:30 p.m. meeting on Feb. 21. The county is under pressure to get the changes approved because candidates for the position are already going through the endorsement process and soon will be circulating petitions to run.

The Orleans County Democratic Party in December filed a lawsuit to demand the county move forward with redistricting. County officials said the process was already under way before the lawsuit was filed.

“Why a lawsuit?” Renfrew said during the public hearing. “It shows that we are very serious about our concerns, and it gets your attention.”

Jeff Lewis, the Democratic Party chairman, asked the Legislature to “go back to the drawing board” and have a Legislature with seven equally sized districts. He said those districts would be more “community centric where people would know their representative.”

Jason Dragon of the Village of Albion said the current Legislature pushes projects outside the villages. He would like to see districts with a stronger voice for villages. The county, for example, does little to assist villages with their very high tax rates, Dragon said.

Dennis Seekins of Lyndonville urges the Legislature to change the makeup into seven legislative districts instead of the current four with three at-large positions.

Jess Marciano, a Medina village trustee and Democratic Committee member, said eliminating the at-large districts and having more legislative districts would result in smaller areas for the legislators. Instead of districts with an ideal size of 9,723 with four districts they would be 5,556 with seven districts. Marciano said eliminating the at-large positions and having more districts might result in smaller populated towns, such as Barre and Clarendon, having a legislator from that town.

The current makeup includes two legislators from Shelby, two from Gaines, and one each from Yates, Carlton and Murray. Renfrew said it’s odd with the current setup that some towns can have two people on the Legislature while one end of the county (the east side) has one person total.

Marciano asked that there be a non-partisan commission with county residents to determine the lines for the districts, without the county relying solely on a consultant.