Franklin County is a year behind New York state in rejiggering its legislative districts in light of the U.S. census data, and in an ideal world, the extra time would have been spent listening to public input and making the current system as fair as possible.
That's not exactly what happened. The plan was developed in closed sessions by a small committee of political operatives: the two party chairs, the two partisan election commissioners and two legislators themselves, one from each party and from each end of the county: Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, and Guy "Tim" Smith, D-Fort Covington. No one else had a say - until now.
County legislators are scheduled to listen to your feedback on this redistricting plan at 5:30 p.m. today at Saranac Lake's Harrietstown Town Hall. That's actually the last thing on their agenda: They'll start with a work session at 3 p.m., move on to a full board meeting at 4 and then hold two hearings before the one on redistricting. The first, at 4:30, is on the county's preliminary, $99.7 million budget, which would raise the overall tax levy by 5.57 percent. The second hearing, at 5, is on a proposal to override the state-imposed 2 percent tax cap.
Franklin County’s seven legislative districts are shown as they are now, with population figures from the 2010 census. The proposal on the table would shift District 2’s sliver just south of District 4 into District 4; nothing else would change.
We strongly encourage Franklin County residents to attend and speak up, no matter how you feel about these things. It's rare that the Board of Legislators ventures down to our end of the county, and when it does, it needs to hear from us.
Also, please understand the stakes: On the redistricting, we'll have to live with whatever legislators approve for the next 10 years. If you don't speak up on it now, or at the final hearing Nov. 1 in Malone, you won't get another chance for a decade.
And on the budget, well, this is almost $100 million we're talking about. It pays for roads, welfare, Medicaid, the jail, North Country Community College and a whole lot more. And the four towns that make up the two southern districts - currently represented by Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake and Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake - have 56 percent of the county's taxable assessed property value (Harrietstown alone has almost 24 percent), according to the equalization table for this year. These four towns pay most of the county's property taxes, which are going up, and yet have only two-sevenths of the decision-making power.
The only change made to the district map was to move one Malone town election district from legislative District 2, represented now by David "Billy" Jones of Chateaugay, to legislative District 4, represented now by Marc "Tim" Lashomb of Malone. If the county must stick with a separate board of legislators instead of switching to what we'd prefer - a 19-member board of town supervisors with weighted voting - then this change makes sense for two reasons: It would shift people from the most populous district to the least populous, and it would take away one of Malone's three legislative districts. Until 2011, all three were represented by Malone residents, giving that town's interests an unfair advantage - on top of the extra attention the community already gets from being the county seat.
Some significant problems remain with this draft district map, however:
-Malone still has two legislators. It's the only part of the county where that kind of advantage is possible.
-One of those Malone districts is gerrymandered - the misshapen District 3, represented by Gordy Crossman, who is currently serving as board chairman. In Malone, it wraps around from the north side to the southwest, juts west to include Bangor and then drops south to Duane and Brighton. Brighton had 1,435 people in the 2010 census and paid 8.6 percent of the county's property tax levy this year, but it's a long drive from Mr. Crossman's home. And from everyone we've talked to over the years, it's safe to say he rarely makes it down there except during his re-election campaign every three years. That's just one example of why gerrymandered districts are bad deals.
-The south end has only two legislators while the north end has five - more taxation and less representation. The redistricting plan on the table would maintain that for another decade.
-Furthermore, this plan still has a lot of variation in the population of each district - overall, 9.2 percent from average - which means it's not all that good at preserving the one-person-one-vote principle. It is legally acceptable, but barely - 10 percent is the limit. Less than 5 percent is preferred.
There's no easy solution. If you start playing around with the district map, you'll find pretty quickly that these are hard problems to fix - if we keep a board of legislators.
A board of supervisors, however, would have many advantages:
-It would preserve the one-person-one-vote principle almost perfectly. Once each census' data is in, the weighting of each town supervisor's voting power would be readjusted. That's what happened in Essex County last year, and no one complained, even as towns like St. Armand and Jay gained voting power due to population gains.
-Therefore, it would eliminate the need for the questionable, political redistricting process every 10 years, which would make things easier on everyone.
-It would spread out the representation geographically, giving rural towns a voice even if Malone gets 80 times more voting power than Duane. In recent memory, each of the seven legislators has lived in a population hub.
-It would guarantee that the board members are grounded in the areas they represent and aware of local issues, so Brighton and many other towns' people would never again be able to say that their county rep is disconnected from them. It would be more like the reps reporting from each town to Malone, rather than from Malone to the townspeople.
-As in Essex County, town supervisors would have more opportunities to get out of their microclimates and to get better at their jobs by learning from each other and other government officials.
There are more reasons, many of them outlined in our Feb. 11 editorial on this subject. We urge people - especially the county legislators making this decision - to give the idea some serious thought. It may be too late for this decade, but maybe in 10 years folks will be ready for it.