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County officials rap state redistricting plan

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By BRIAN AMARAL

SYRACUSE — When it comes to representation in Albany, St. Lawrence County officials aren’t merry about the more of it that they might get.

A legislative task force has proposed splitting the big county across three Senate districts and four Assembly districts, drawing several officials and residents to attend a public hearing here Tuesday to voice their concern about the redistricting plan.

“We surely will not benefit from political filleting that ensures a lack of singular and powerful voices in Albany to champion our causes and issues,” said county Planning Office Director Keith J. Zimmerman, one of five St. Lawrence County officials who spoke at a meeting of a legislative task force called LATFOR.

While the St. Lawrence County state legislative caucus would be numerous, no state lawmaker who represented parts of the county would really have to pay attention to its concerns or even set up district offices there, the officials warned.

The event, and the testimony from the St. Lawrence County officials, served as just another drumbeat in the orchestra of criticism surrounding the task force’s district lines, which are criticized for having the interests of incumbent legislators, and not logical districts, in mind.

But with a possible veto, court interventions and negotiations looming, it’s not clear what effect Tuesday’s testimony will have, even as the chairpersons of the committee defended their work and said the public meeting in Syracuse would address the speakers’ concerns and officials prepared for a totally different set of maps.

State Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, co-chairman of the task force, defended the plan for St. Lawrence County in a question-and-answer session with reporters before it even became clear that the big county would represent about a quarter of all those testifying, more than any other municipality, even Syracuse.

Mr. Nozzolio said the state has to operate within certain population and geographic limits — the populations must be within 5 percent of the average district, and it cannot split towns.

“There is no such thing as a perfect plan,” Mr. Nozzolio said.

But the plan was so far from perfect as to make it “ridiculous,” Mr. Zimmerman said. The county is now represented by four legislators.

Indeed, Common Cause, a good-government group, drew its own district lines with even tougher population requirements. Its plan has two representatives — one state senator, one member of the Assembly — for St. Lawrence.

“Yes, it is that simple,” said Donald Goulet, a member of Common Cause who testified.

State law requires that the Legislature avoid slicing up counties into tiny bits, but that’s exactly what happened in St. Lawrence, officials there argue.

The three state senators who represent the counties wouldn’t lose very much support if they ignored the county, officials worry. Of its entire population, the 48th Senate District would be composed of roughly 19 percent St. Lawrence County residents — and that’s the highest of the three, according to Mr. Zimmerman’s analysis.

Of the four Assembly seats, the district with the most St. Lawrence County residents represents 52 percent of them.

“Surely, your task force can, and in our opinion should, do better,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “This intentional marginalization is unacceptable based on the principle of equal representation. The citizens of St. Lawrence County should be neither a political afterthought nor an accidental outcome of a thoughtful and intentional reapportionment process.”

Mr. Zimmerman attended the meeting at the request of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, a Democratic-majority body that passed a resolution Monday night calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto these lines. He has said that he will.

The ire in St. Lawrence County crossed party lines. County GOP Chairwoman Nancy K. Martin also criticized the districts.

“More representatives does not mean better representation,” she said, arguing that legislators who hail from higher population areas might not bother to set up district offices in St. Lawrence County. “I don’t see how any state legislator could represent this county.”

Assemblyman John J. “Jack” McEneney, the Democrat co-chairman of the task force, said the north country is home to many small towns.

“That makes it very difficult,” Mr. McEneney said.

The task force also heard from Rossie Town Councilwoman Kimberly A. Hutton, county Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, and Mark Hall, the supervisor of the town of Fine. Emery E. Webb, a town councilman in Edwards, submitted written testimony.

The continuing tug-of-war over state lines risks running up against plans for a congressional primary in late June and the possibility that the state’s primaries will be moved to that day, too. If that’s the case, the task force will have to accelerate its work, and the co-chairs assured attendees that their work would be done in time.

The group released the state lines in late January; they promptly were described by one good-government official as the most gerrymandered lines in recent memory. Gerrymandering is a term that combines a former Massachusetts governor’s name and the word “salamander,” which is what one of the districts was said to resemble.

In the coming weeks, the task force will also release a map of congressional districts; Jefferson County and Oswego County officials were there to request that the state maintain a north country congressional seat, which it is expected to do.

“I’m asking you to keep the Northern New York counties together,” said Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, the Jefferson County Legislature chairwoman. “Please don’t put us in the Central New York area.”

The 11-county 23rd Congressional District is now composed of Madison, Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Hamilton and parts of Essex, Fulton and Oneida counties. It’s the largest congressional district in New York state, but it needs to grow by about 50,000 people to keep up with constitutional requirements that keep districts at roughly equal sizes.

The task force could add all or parts of counties on the periphery, such as Herkimer and the rest of Essex. Or it could start dipping south into Syracuse. That large metropolitan area would take the focus of the congressional district away from rural areas, officials argued; and the areas in Onondaga County don’t share a common interest like the current district.

“Let’s look at fair redistricting,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. “Keep our counties together.”

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