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St. Lawrence County legislative redistricting plan comes to public hearing

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Population shifts noted in the last census will result in the city of Ogdensburg being represented by two St. Lawrence County legislators rather than three and Canton having three representatives rather than two.

How the districts will be created will be the subject of a public hearing at 5 p.m. May 21 as county legislators consider two competing plans.

The changes are caused mostly by a state decision that prison inmates cannot be counted as local residents, which creates population losses in Ogdensburg, home to Riverview Correctional Facility and Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, and in Gouverneur, which has Gouverneur Correctional Facility. At the same time, census workers did a better job at counting the Amish and college students.

“What that did, it pushed the numbers more toward the center of the county than along the edges,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, chairman of the county committee that came up with the redistricting plans. “There’s only so many areas you can subdivide.”

Committee members tried to form a plan of 15 districts, each with an average population of 7,200 people and a deviation rate that ranges about 12 percent, less than the 16 percent maximum suggested by the state.

Mr. Burns and Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, worked together on a plan that keeps most of the districts essentially the same, especially on the county’s east side, but adds DePeyster to District 5, which is represented by Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, and shifts District 3, that of Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, out of the city and into Rensselaer Falls and a western portion of the town of Canton.

That did not sit well with Mr. Lightfoot, also a member of the redistricting committee, who thought it made more sense for his district, which includes Morristown and Oswegatchie, to encompass the town of Hammond rather than part of the town of Canton.

Mr. Lightfoot came up with more than a half dozen scenarios, settling on what he considered the best of his alternatives for the committee to present to the full board along with the one created by Mr. Burns and Mr. Morrill.

Mr. Lightfoot said that Hammond and Morristown have more in common as St. Lawrence River communities than Morristown and Canton, and that his district is contiguous with the town of Canton by only a short distance. Mr. Lightfoot’s plan gives him the town of Hammond and puts the towns of Clifton and Fine in District 4, represented by Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, instead of in District 6, which is Mr. Morrill’s.

Mr. Lightfoot said his plan corrects a hodgepodge of towns that are largely rural with relatively small numbers of people that were lumped together without much reason in previous redistricting.

“I think it’s ill-conceived to put District 3 in the town of Canton. It isn’t the right way of doing it,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “What we should be worried about is how it affects the taxpayer.”

Canton Supervisor David T. Button said he had not seen either plan yet but worried that despite Canton’s population growth, its political influence was being diluted by being split up three ways so that two of its divisions are absorbed as smaller parts of larger districts and its viewpoint is in the minority.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, whose District 2 does not change, said he thought Mr. Lightfoot’s plan made more sense in the way it consolidated districts but either plan was viable.

Mr. Morrill said the plan developed by him and Mr. Burns leaves well enough alone while addressing changes in Ogdensburg and Gouverneur.

“I don’t think we need to fix what’s working,” Mr. Morrill said. “The main change is because of the inmates. The towns Alex and I represent weren’t affected. One of our goals was not to make any more changes than we needed to.”

Mr. Peck said he is comfortable with his district ending up with either the town of DePeyster or the town of Macomb, depending on which plan is approved.

Mr. Lightfoot did not think giving Mr. Peck’s district DePeyster made sense because its border with Gouverneur is barely a pinprick on the map.

Mr. MacKinnon said he opposes Mr. Lightfoot’s plan because its changes are too sweeping and it splits up districts without good rationale.

“I see no reason to break that up because Joe does not want to have a small section of Canton,” he said.

Redistricting is not supposed to cater to sitting representatives but Mr. MacKinnon said taking the towns of Clifton and Fine from Mr. Morrill’s district would not serve them well because of the work he has done to help bring economic development to the area.

“It’s a reality,” he said. “To Fred’s credit, we’re now on the cusp of getting something done. He knows all the players.”

Mr. MacKinnon said he hoped the board would make a decision quickly to coincide with the county Board of Elections consolidation of 102 election districts to 81 as a cost-saving measure.

Having a redistricting plan in place quickly would make it easier for county committee members who will start circulating petitions in June so they know where the lines are, Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Jennie H. Bacon said.

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