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Franklin County would be better off with a board of supervisors

February 11, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

It's fine that Franklin County officials don't plan to mess with the county's legislative districts this time around, but seeing these odd district lines again rekindles in our minds the strong opinion that Franklin County would be better off with a board of supervisors and weighted voting, like Essex County has, than with its board of separately elected legislators.

Franklin and Essex counties divide the Tri-Lakes area in half - the line runs right down the middle of Saranac Lake - and for many years we observed their dynamics with open minds, without preference for one system over the other. But gradually, it has became apparent to us that Essex County's system is superior.

All counties in New York used to have boards of supervisors until the 1960s, when the state forced every county to either adopt weighted voting or switch to a board of legislators. Essex did the former, Franklin the latter. At the time, it may have been hard to predict which option would work better, but now it has become clear - to us, at least.

Article Photos

This map shows the seven Franklin County legislative districts and the towns’ 2010 census population numbers.

Here are several reasons why:

-It would negate the need for redistricting, a thorny process at every level since it often means politicians get to redraw their own district lines, inviting corruption or the suspicion thereof. In Essex County, data from each 10-year census prompts only a recalculation of the weighted voting; there's no need to redraw maps. Between 2000 and 2010, for instance, the Essex County towns of St. Armand, Wilmington and Jay increased greatly in population and therefore gained voting power. That power shift took place with perfect fairness and without incident since all it involved was math - no politics.

-A board of supervisors allows more voices in decisions. In Franklin County, the decisions are made by just seven people, each representing a district with different kinds of places and different interests. Essex County, however, has 18 town supervisors at the decision table, so sparsely populated towns like Newcomb can still be heard, although they have a fraction of the voting power of big ones like North Elba. More localized interests and concerns are represented. That pluralism is nicely balanced by weighted voting, which upholds the "one person, one vote" principle.

-With weighted voting, a board of supervisors is more accurate at preserving "one person, one vote." In Franklin County, the districts vary widely in population - about 10 percent from the average, with the largest having 21 percent more people than the smallest - yet each district has an equal vote.

-Town supervisors are more representative of the people, partly because they're more localized and partly because they're more tied to local people through town business:

1. A supervisor is actually from the town he or she is speaking for. Meanwhile, people in the town of Brighton must rely on a legislator who lives in Malone and only shows up in Gabriels and Paul Smiths once every three years, right before Election Day. The rural town of Franklin must rely on a legislator from the much bigger village of Saranac Lake, which has different concerns, and the forest dwellers of Owls Head and Mountain View, in the town of Bellmont, are served by a legislator from the dairy farm country of Chateaugay - a different kind of place in many ways. Sure, a town can lump together different kinds of communities, too - Lake Placid and part of Saranac Lake in North Elba, for example - but the differences are much less.

2. Supervisors are more connected and accountable to the people, by virtue of working with them at the town level. People can contact supervisors in their town offices or at regular town board meetings. Even the most accessible and responsive county legislator has an easier time avoiding public scrutiny. If something goes wrong with a town road project, for example, the supervisor is likely to get an earful at the next town board meeting, but if something goes wrong with social services, it isn't as obvious how one would get a hold of one's legislator. No matter how accessible a legislator tries to be, he or she is going to be more removed from the public than a town supervisor. Therefore, we believe legislators are under less public pressure than town supervisors.

-Perhaps as a result of this, Essex County's property taxes are much lower than Franklin County's, even with additional services like a fish hatchery, a much better website and annual property assessments for every town.

-In general, Essex County's system gives town leaders the opportunity and pressure to become better at their jobs. In learning about the mechanics of their town, their county and the state, they often gain a wider perspective than Franklin County's town supervisors and a more ground-level sense than Franklin County's legislators. In Essex County, supervisors of small towns like Jay, Keene and Moriah have made multiple trips to Albany to lobby the governor on various issues. The contacts, understanding and communications skills they gained on those trips were useful when those towns needed help after spring floods and Tropical Storm Irene, and will further benefit their towns in the future. In Franklin County, it's easier for a town supervisor to become isolated. It's a horizontal structure, with separate tiers, rather than Essex County's vertical one, in which a local rep reaches straight through all the levels.

-We believe towns and counties will have to do more in the future to cut costs by sharing and consolidating services - maybe by merging town highway departments into the county's, or doing something creative with courts. A board of supervisors' crossover of town and county leaders makes that more possible, in our view. If you make various public servants work together in the same place, it's more likely that common sense will prevail.

-Our sparsely populated part of the world has too small a pool of qualified leaders for the many elected positions our system requires us to fill: county boards, town boards, school boards, village boards, judges on many levels, sheriffs, highway superintendents, clerks, etc. As a result, many of these elections are uncontested or under-contested. We have too many local politicians for the average person to keep track of. Eliminating county legislators would simplify our lives, make supervisor elections more meaningful and focus our electoral energy there.

Overall, we believe Essex County's single set of full-time town-county leaders is a more effective conduit for the will of the people than Franklin County's separate sets of part-timers.

We urge Franklin County residents to petition their leaders for a referendum on changing their system to a board of supervisors with weighted voting. They should do so fairly soon, too; this November would be a good time for such a referendum, for two reasons: No legislators are up for election this year, so it wouldn't affect any of them unfairly, and it is a presidential election year, so there will be more people voting.


(Editor's note: This editorial has been corrected to reflect that Franklin County legislators serve three-year terms.)



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