The final say?

by Hugh Reynolds
March 17, 2011 12:56 PM | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Monday afternoon, March 28, Supreme Court judge Kimberly O’Connor will hear oral arguments on reapportionment in Ulster County. The hearing is formally set for 12:30 p.m., but, as most lawyers appreciate, judges go by their own calendars.

Deceptively simple despite the legalese, the arguments come down to who has final authority on redistricting, a legislatively appointed charter commission as dictated by charter or the legislature itself.

Attorneys for the legislature, representing both political parties, and the county attorney agree it should be the elected legislature, not an appointed commission. John Parete, a former county Democratic chairman and election commissioner, and Tom Kadgen, so regular an attendee at legislature and committee meetings on behalf of the League of Woman Voters that he’s known as the “34th legislator,” joins Parete as a plaintiff.

Parete/Kadgen believe it was the clear intent of the 2006 charter commission to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and give final, binding authority to an independent bipartisan commission. Ironically, three of its members are politicians.

Unfortunately, the charter commission, rather than formalizing this important item in plain English, left a large loophole in recommending that the commission “present” its plan to the legislature.

Defense attorneys Bea Havranek (she represents the county on all lawsuits), Ken Gilligan (for the Republican majority) and Chris Ragucci (for the minority) in their written opinions don’t seem much concerned with the intent of the charter commission. Rather, their case is based on precedent, that redistricting plans are confirmed by legislatures via local law, as was the case of the present court ordered plan adopted in 2003.

Parete/Kadgen, represented by the wily Josh Koplovitz, former county attorney, will argue that the county charter created an entirely new form of government and that anything a prior legislature did is irrelevant.

It is hoped that judge O’Connor, given the time constraints — the commission aims to have a final plan to the legislature by April 19 — will decide swiftly. There is always the possibility of appeal.

But in some ways, the judge’s decision really doesn’t matter to the commission, which will produce a 23-member single-district plan on time regardless of court rulings.

Meanwhile, the commission is finishing up its field trips to town boards around the county. Absent census figures — due any day now — the commission had nothing to offer but open ears and assurances of “fairness.”

The towns, commissioners reported at their regular meeting last week, had plenty to say about redistricting, even if the commission had no idea what lines might look like.

Esopus town board members made it clear, for instance, that they wanted no part of Kingston in any shape or manner. Woodstock, lacking about 1700 residents to form a single district, was more interested in joining West Hurley or parts of Olive.

There also seemed to be wide-spread misunderstanding about what “single-member” districts would mean in practice.

A number of towns, commissioners reported, were laboring under the misconception that single-member meant each town got its own legislator. There is some common sense logic behind the idea, there being 20 towns and the city of Kingston and 23 districts to be drawn. Alas, “one town, one vote” is not the guiding principle of reapportionment.

There may have been a few oldtimers who harkened to 1967 when that was almost exactly the breakdown under the board of supervisor system. Dating to an earlier era, every town supervisor sat on the county board of supervisors (including 13 from the city’s 13 wards), comprising a body of 33.

But of course, it was hopelessly out of step with the one-man, one-vote dictate of the Supreme Court. In 1967, the supervisor of the town of Hardenburgh (population around 200) had the same voting power on the county board as the supervisor of the town of Saugerties (at least 16,000). Under a reapportionment plan dictated by population, Kingston got five legislators (instead of 13) and small towns like Hardenburgh, Denning and Kingston (town) got tacked on to larger districts. One can only imagine the howls from the disenfranchised.

While the 1968 reapportionment plan was no doubt rigged by ruling Republicans — they came out with an almost unbelievable 28-5 majority — there was some truth inside the numbers the authors of the present this plan should consider.

Concerns about “community interests,” which previous plans considered, were raised among some commissioners prior to their county tour, to be reinforced by some town boards. On another plane, some commissioners have questioned why there hasn’t been an African-American elected to the legislature for almost 40 years or that there is only one Hispanic (Hector Rodriquez of New Paltz) on the current legislature. Some see reapportionment as a possible remedy.

While most fair-minded people would probably like to see representative diversity in the legislature — women comprise 53 percent of the electorate, for instance, but only 21 percent of legislators — reapportionment should not be used as a tool for social engineering. (Even though the Supreme Court has upheld weird-looking districts in the south and in California designed to elect African-Americans or Hispanics.)

The commission, now very short on time, can spare itself much angst by sticking to the numbers.

Here and there

The 90-minute informational session on the Golden Hill nursing home between state officials and county legislators last week at the county office building Friday afternoon struck me as largely unnecessary, incredibly inconvenient — 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon? — and way late.

It was hard to believe the seminal questions raised by legislators about county nursing-home options couldn’t have been submitted in writing or e-mail to the state months ago. As the guy from the state said, they’ve heard most of it before and the rules (for now) are pretty much written in stone...

Marching with the crack Legion Post 150 American Legion color guard in the Kingston St. Patrick’s parades, all I get to see is the unit in front of us and cheering bystanders on the curb. But my spies are everywhere.

County comptroller Elliott Auerbach, 57, and Supreme Court judge Jim Gilpatric, 58, ran together in the Shamrock Run, which reportedly drew a record 4500 participants. As Gilpatric isn’t on the ballot until 2023, they’ll never run together for office.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a regular marcher, didn’t make it this year, but will probably be on the bandstand to sing Galway Bay at the annual Hooley on the Hudson on September 4.

For a change, politicians marched in the same direction, though rarely in step.

Mayoral candidate Dick Cahill sported a “Cahill for Mayor” t-shirt. Showing true leadership, he wisely wore a sweatshirt underneath. Temperatures hovered in the mid-40s, in gusty winds. Nonetheless, huge crowds turned out, no doubt sick of a long and grueling winter.

Mayoral candidate Shayne Gallo had “Gallo for Mayor” prominently placed. I thought I saw a nostalgic tear here and there, but it might have been the dust blowing off Broadway potholes.

Short shrift to a banker

I was surprised and saddened at the recent rather curt announcement of the retirement of Ulster Savings president Marge Rovereto. She is a most accomplished person, the bank’s first female president, taking office some four years ago at a time of crisis and scandal for the county’s largest independent bank. Then came the recession.

I find Rovereto engaging, competent and progressive, as she was in the several published interviews she granted during her brief tenure. Her enthusiastic commitment to community extended a long tradition. The circumstances surrounding her departure, now rife with rumor, remain a corporate secret. For clues, one might look to the bank board of directors which wielded the ax.

At just 59, a banker of her talent shouldn’t have any problem with future employment. ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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