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St. Lawrence County redistricting plan faces uphill ballot fight

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CANTON — A redistricting plan for St. Lawrence County that some residents disliked may not have time to make it on the ballot this fall because a public hearing will not take place until Sept. 24.

“This is nothing more than an effort to deny the public an opportunity to vote on this and I think it stinks,” said Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, who had spearheaded the move to adopt a different plan.

In May, legislators picked a redistricting plan because of population changes in the last census and authorized County Attorney Michael C. Crowe to draft a local law which is subject to a permissive referendum.

The approved plan splits Canton into three districts rather than two and left some in Hammond and Morristown unhappy because they would have preferred being in the same district. However, the plan that was adopted does not disrupt most of the county’s legislative districts and has a population disparity of 12 percent, less than the 16 percent court-approved maximum.

Mr. Lightfoot said he wanted the hearing earlier to allow residents time to gather 1,460 valid signatures needed on petitions to give residents the choice to vote the plan up or down on the November ballot.

“That’s exactly the avenue I would expect to take,” he said. “We need that time prior to the November election.”

Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, one of the chief architects of the approved plan, suggested a hearing in September because the board has already scheduled a public hearing in August on overriding the tax cap.

“I have no problem with a public referendum,” Mr. Burns said. “I think this is a non-issue.”

Having a hearing in September gives people time to study the redistricting map, Mr. Burns said. The approved plan is on the county’s website, www.co.st-lawrence.ny.us/

With a public hearing in September, the Board of Legislators would probably vote on the local law in October. That vote would trigger a 45-day period to circulate the petition.

The question could come before voters in the fall of 2013 but people may lose interest over time, Mr. Lightfoot said.

“A year down the road, you will have won,” he said. “If this is the best plan, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The point is the public has a right to say.”

Putting obstacles in the path of a permissive referendum is similar to the way Mr. Burns controlled the committee that came up with plans for the board to consider, giving others little input, Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said.

However, fellow Republican Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, defended Mr. Burns.

“I think we had a very open process,” he said.

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said he disagrees with Mr. Lightfoot on which plan is best but does not have a problem with a public vote.

“I don’t believe we should put an impediment in their way,” Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, agreed.

Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, said legislators should not worry about letting the public have its say.

“I don’t know what everybody’s afraid of,” he said. “Let the people decide.”

Setting the hearing for 7 p.m. Sept. 24 passed 9-6 in committee, with no votes cast by Mr. Parker, Mr. Akins, Mr. Lightfoot, Mr. MacKinnon, Mr. Acres, and Scott M. Sutherland, R-Pierrepont.

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