Activists sue Buffalo over council redistricting

City voters and good government organizations are asking the courts to reject a redistricting proposal passed this summer, questioning the process and calling it “a plan to protect the incumbent.” Buffalo Common Council members might

City voters and good government organizations are asking the courts to reject a redistricting proposal passed this summer, questioning the process and calling it “a plan to protect the incumbent.”

Buffalo Common Council members might have thought this summer’s controversial redistricting was behind it all. If so, they were wrong.

This afternoon, 11 Buffalo voters and government organizations filed a complaint in State Supreme Court, asking a judge to overturn a redistricting plan passed by City Council in July and signed by Mayor Byron Brown in August.

The city’s redistricting process, led by the Council, “failed to meet the basic requirements of the law,” the s. 78 complaint alleges. meaningful to participate in the process, depending on the complaint.

The plaintiffs in the case are Our City Action Buffalo, the University District Block Club Coalition and nine city voters who say they were wronged by their exclusion from the process.

The defendants are the city of Buffalo, the council, the mayor and the Erie County Board of Elections, which is tasked with implementing the map in time for next year’s election cycle. All nine Council seats are up for filling next year and candidates will begin collecting signatures on nomination petitions in February. Also named is the Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Redistribution, which was formed by Council and the Mayor this spring to draw new district lines.

Our City Action and its allies have proposed an alternative redistricting plan, which they say does a better job of promoting racial equity and keeping neighborhoods intact than the commission’s plan, which passed with changes. minors by the council and the mayor.

The lawsuit centers on the process, which the plaintiffs describe as secret and led by council members more concerned with preserving their constituencies than serving the best interests of voters.

Lawyers Stephanie Cole Adams, Samantha White and Adam Bojak represent the plaintiffs.

“There was no real and meaningful way to provide your input into the common council, redistricting [commission] or the mayor,” White said in an August online meeting hosted by Our City Action to discuss the possibility of a trial.

“It was just a big old waste of time,” White said. “It was just a big old show.”

The process

Every 10 years, to take into account the demographic and demographic changes revealed by the American census, the legislative districts of the country are reconsidered and redrawn.

According to state and federal laws, the new districts must have roughly the same number of people — in the case of the Buffalo council districts, about 31,000 each. They should be “compact”, that is, fairly regular in shape, with no odd appendages. They should keep neighborhoods and communities of interest — especially minority communities — intact so as not to divide or dilute their electoral power.

The process is almost always political and partisan and dictated by strict deadlines. The release of the 2020 census data, however, was delayed by four and a half months due to Covid, which disrupted these deadlines in many municipalities.

Yet Brown and the Council were still later to get the ball rolling.

The city’s redistricting commission should have been formed by the end of February 2021, according to the city’s charter. But the Council didn’t even start soliciting nominations for members until August 1 this year – seven months late. Members were not confirmed until March 2022, more than a year late, leaving little time to commit to the task or seek public comment.

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The commission met once in April and twice in May, with little notice and without a published agenda or minutes, before unveiling a proposal at a public hearing on May 18. There is no evidence that the commission sought public input prior to the public hearing. There were no meetings in the community. No bouldering club or other organization was solicited for advice or opinions.

Indeed, the the committee’s webpage was only launched about an hour before the commission presented its plan. The minutes of the committee meetings did not appear online for a month and did not contain any documents or data taken into account by the committee in formulating a proposal.

Only two members of the public attended the commission’s public hearing on May 18. One of them, Art Robinson, a longtime Seneca-Babcock community activist, endorsed the commission’s proposal.

The other was Russell Weaver, a data geographer at the Cornell ILR School in Buffalo, who served on the council’s redistricting commission in 2011. Weaver was dismayed by the proposal, which left untouched gerrymandering of the Fillmore and Ellicott districts, against which he had voted ten years earlier. He was also amazed at the rush and secrecy of the process.

“I think the biggest problem is that they were a bit lazy,” Weaver later said of the commission’s proposal. “They took the quarters that we had in place for the last 10 years…then they just tinkered around the edges.”

Weaver began that evening writing a alternative proposalwhich he hoped the Council would consider before voting to adopt the commission’s plan.

Weaver’s alternate plan found a champion in Our City Action Buffaloa coalition of community activists founded in 2020 to “[build] power through grassroots political organization.

The Board released a form for submitting public comments following the May 18 meeting. All of these comments, worth 70 pages, opposed the commission’s proposal. Most expressed support for an alternative proposal prepared by Weaver and promoted by Our City Action.

About 70 people spoke at the Council June 28 controversial public hearing. All oppose the commission’s plan, which has been slightly modified by the members of the Council. Nearly 900 people have signed an online petition opposing the proposal.

The Council planned to adopt its proposed district plans three days later, but canceled a July 1 special session in the face of opposition organized by Our City Action and a series of withering editorials published by The Buffalo News.

While the Council was regrouping, Our City Action solicited public comment on Weaver’s alternative proposal and amended it in response. Essentially, Our City Action did what the Council’s redistricting commission was supposed to dobut in an even shorter time.

Finally, on July 19, the Council voted unanimously adopt the plan so many people opposed it. The plan was then sent to the mayor for acceptance or rejection, after another charter-mandated public hearing.

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The Mayor’s August 3 public hearing drew approximately 200 written comments, all opposed to Council’s plan, with many urging the mayor to veto it. About 70 people attended the meeting, held during working hours, and 30 spoke.

None spoke in favor of the Council’s proposal. One spoke out against Our City Action’s alternative proposal and questioned the group’s motives, but did not endorse the Council’s plan.

The mayor signed it anyway, saying in a press release that the dissidents did not “represent a ‘significant’ amount of Buffalo’s population.”

“[Brown] decided that residents who did not participate in the process must necessarily, by default, approve the Council map,” according to a summary compiled by Our City Action.

What happens next

The lawsuit asks the court for a preliminary injunction, restraining the Erie County Board of Elections from implementing district maps adopted by the board and signed by the mayor.

Plaintiffs will argue that the city’s redistricting process violated the city’s charter and deprived the community of an opportunity to provide meaningful input. If the court disagrees or finds an insufficient legal reason to reject the district maps adopted by the Council, those maps will be used in next year’s election.

If the court sides with the plaintiffs, one of three things could happen.

The court could:

  • Direct the Council to adopt the alternative Our City Action produced by Weaver.
  • Redraw the lines of the district itself or have a third party do it. That’s what a court did earlier this year to resolve controversy over a partisan redistricting of the state Legislature and congressional seats engineered by Democrats.
  • Order the Council to start the redistricting process from scratch.

The third possibility is cumbersome, given that next year’s election cycle begins in four months.

However, if the court orders the Council to backtrack, Our City Action and its allies hope it will emulate an example just hours from I-90.

On Monday evening, Our City Action hosted a webinar with members of the Syracuse Citizens Redistricting Commission. The Syracuse commission has been touted as a model of an independent, citizen-led process — one adopted by Syracuse voters in a 2019 referendum.

Its 15 members were selected through a two-step process designed to insulate members from political pressures. The top eight were randomly selected from a pool of over 100 applicants; these eight then chose seven others from the same group, based on their resumes.

The Syracuse commission held a dozen public meetings between March and July to gather public input and developed a strong marketing strategy to generate interest in their work.

Ultimately, after numerous proposals and amendments, the Syracuse commission produced a map that many outgoing council members quibbled with, but voted to adopt last month.

“The Syracuse Redistricting Commission has shown us that citizen-led, nonpartisan redistricting can work,” said the The Syracuse Post-Standard editorial board wrote before the vote, calling the committee “an experiment in democracy” in which “[v]others led the process.

“Their effort stands in stark contrast to the secretive, partisan, politician-led redistricting in Onondaga County and New York State.”

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“Secret” and “partisan” also describe Buffalo’s redistricting process, according to Our City Action.

“[O]Our history of gerrymandering along political and racial lines has created a concentration of power among Council members which has been used to advance their own agendas, and this year’s redistricting process has been a graphic illustration of how this ‘de facto’ ‘incumbent protection plan’ works,” Our City Action said in a press release announcing the filing of the lawsuit.

published 10 hours ago – October 18, 2022