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NY Legislative maps might be set


CANTON - Concerned that the plans in store for St. Lawrence County’s state legislative districts would do its residents a grave disservice, about a half-dozen St. Lawrence County officials descended on a public hearing in Syracuse and practically begged a state task force to reconsider its proposal.

The maps, drawn every 10 years to account for shifts in population, cut St. Lawrence County into four Assembly districts and three Senate districts, even though with its population, it could just as well have had one senator and one member of the Assembly serving its interests.

But when the task force came out with a revised proposal, St. Lawrence was still chopped up among those seven districts, with only minor changes or no changes at all. And as a deal nears, it seems that only Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s veto pen could change the math for St. Lawrence County and Jefferson County, which appears less likely with a deal on changing the process for next time around.

“Having three senators and four assembly persons representing 110,000 people all but assures that none of this county’s representatives will feel a mandate to lead on our behalf in Albany, despite their best intentions,” Keith J. Zimmerman, the St. Lawrence County Planning Department director, said in an email. He was one of five who spoke at the public hearing in Syracuse. “This still feels like we have been artfully fileted out of the political process.”

As deals near and others fall apart, it appears that the original proposals for the state Senate and Assembly districts, as well as a judicial proposal for the congressional district, could become a reality without changes to reflect the complaints.

This year, the process was supposed to be better. Most lawmakers signed a pledge saying they would give the process over to an independent panel that would draw the lines without political interests in mind —the only legislator who responded to requests for comment for this article was the sole north country legislator who did not sign the pledge, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. Mr. Cuomo also signed the pledge.

Senate Republicans raised concerns last year that a law carrying out the pledge’s wishes would need to be accomplished by a constitutional amendment — but because of the way the state’s constitution works, it would only go into effect for the next round of redistricting, in 2022.

So with time running short for state lines to be drawn, the Legislature and the governor could be nearing a deal that would change the process for 2022, but would let the legislator-drawn lines — including the problems in St. Lawrence County — stand.

But is that change to the constitution good enough? Some government watchdogs think not.

They include Edward I. Koch, the former New York City mayor who corralled all the redistricting pledge-signers in the first place; and Bill Mahoney, an official at the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“These not only fail to live up to not only the high expectations set for 2012, but they’re worse than what we saw for 2002,” Mr. Mahoney said. “I would strongly encourage them to revisit the lines. I don’t know what the likelihood will be.”

For example, the proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t tighten the amount that a district can deviate by. The smallest Senate district can be 10 percent smaller, by population, than the largest Senate district.

And with that 10 percent fluctuation, Republicans in the Senate have made the districts up north vastly underpopulated. On a district-by-district basis, it’s a few thousand fewer people than the average, but when you add it all up, there should be one fewer district in Republican upstate and one more in Democratic New York City. Democrats in the Assembly manipulate the figures in much the same way.

Mr. Cuomo’s original proposal, which Senate Republicans didn’t act on in 2011, would have allowed only a 2 percent deviation.

“The reason we care, it goes back to the principles of one person, one vote,” Mr. Mahoney said. “We think that every New Yorker, no matter what your county’s partisan enrollment is, should have the same power in Albany.”

The League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, on the other hand, have endorsed the constitutional amendment.

Mr. Cuomo said in a radio interview Tuesday morning that something needs to be done to “end the madness.”

“This is prescribed in the constitution,” he said. “This is what the law says. We live with the law. To end the madness, change the constitution.”

Mr. Cuomo added that “there is no panacea” to cure the redistricting ails.

“This is a highly partisan political debate,” Mr. Cuomo said. “You have a lot of hypocrisy on every side.”

Mrs. Russell, the Democratic assemblywoman of Theresa, said that the task force’s proposal would likely stand as is.

Her district did not change much. She still covers a long swath of the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties; she added Hounsfield, De Peyster and Rossie to her district.

She acknowledged that four members of the Assembly representing St. Lawrence County could pose some logistical challenges.

“However the lines in the north country end up being, I’m still going to give it 110 percent,” she said. “I still am going to have an office in the county seat, in Canton.”

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, was the only lawmaker who saw his district change dramatically from his current outlay to the task force’s new proposal; he was also the only legislator whose district changed much from the task force’s first proposal to its second (some Republicans in the north country pointed to this as evidence that the majority parties — the Democrats in the Assembly, in this case— drew the lines for partisan advantage).

Originally, the task force drew him a district that retreated out of St. Lawrence County but for one town. Right now, he represents more than two-thirds of the county’s land mass.

In the task force’s second proposal, Mr. Blankenbush took back six more towns, including Gouverneur.

Brian Peck, Mr. Blankenbush’s chief of staff, said that he was glad to get back some of St. Lawrence County.

“Regardless of where the lines are, he’d be happy to serve the people he’s going to represent in the future,” Mr. Peck said.

Other members of the Assembly with districts that stretch into St. Lawrence County are Assemblywoman Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru, and Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport. The county would be split among three Senate districts — represented by Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Elizabeth O.C. Little, R-Queensbury. Mrs. Ritchie and Mr. Griffo did not respond to requests for comment.

Jefferson County would be split among three Assembly districts — Mrs. Russell, Mr. Blankenbush, and Assemblyman William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski — and one Senate district belonging to Mrs. Ritchie.

According to a report in the Buffalo News, congressional lines aren’t likely to change from Magistrate Roanne Mann’s proposal because the Senate and Assembly can’t come together on a deal.

That would mean the north country’s congressional seat would recede out of Oswego, Madison and Oneida counties, and stretch into Herkimer, Washington, Warren and Saratoga.

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