Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

August 25, 2013

Walk and talk

Board candidate Paul Black has been out asking residents about dividing town into wards

BY JOE OLENICK joe.olenick@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Paul Black says all he’s been doing is walking around and talking with people.

Black is a candidate for the Lockport Town Board and one of three vying for the Republican nod in the Sept. 10 primary. He is running against incumbents Mark C. Crocker and Patricia Dufour.

But while collecting signatures for his own candidacy, Black has also been collecting signatures for a pair of referendums he hopes will be on the November ballot as well. He is nearing 400 signatures for each referendum, more than the required 322 needed, or 5 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election in 2010.

The first referendum asks residents if the town should be divided into four wards, like many cities including the city of Lockport. Residents in a particular ward would elect a town board member from among those who live within the ward.

Currently, Lockport’s five-person town board consists of four at-large members and a supervisor.

While collecting those signatures, Black has been speaking with a number of residents. Many have shared the same opinion, he said, that change is needed at Town Hall. He’s spent over 70 days speaking with residents.

“I’m striking a cord with a lot of people,” Black said. “I see a board that has become distant and disconnected from the people. They’ve lost touch with the people.”

The benefit of a board member being required to live in and be elected from a particular ward would in theory make them more representative and if not, more easily replaced, Black said. It would also help residents cultivate a closer relationship with their representative, by giving them a single person to bring questions and concerns to.

A town divided into smaller districts or wards isn’t a new concept in New York, as for example, the town of Greece is divided into four wards. Residents elect a council member from their ward and then an at-large supervisor.

Greece, located near Rochester, has a much bigger population than Lockport however. According to the 2010 Census, Greece has 96,095 residents, compared to Lockport’s 20,529.

The issue has come up in the 1990s, as the town of Amherst discussed dividing into wards. It ultimately didn’t happen, as the most support the initiative received was 46 percent of the popular vote.

Lack of representation is often a reason for the idea of towns going to a district or ward system for its representatives, said Jim Twombly, an associate professor of political science at Elmira College.

”You may have a cluster of representatives from one part of the township, so voters may not feel there’s equal representation,” Twombly said.

And, with an at-large system it is possible for one political party to dominate. Those from the other parties tend to raise the issue of district or ward representation, Twombly said, like Democrats did in Amherst during the 90s. Talk of district representation died down when Democrats starting winning town elections, Twombly said.

Of course, there are concerns with wards or districts. There’s the chance a ward or district would be stuck with one individual if there’s a lack of interest or qualified people in that area.

And, there’s the argument that residents in a given area would actually have less representation. Some voters may think you’re giving up multiple representatives for just one, Twombly said.

Black’s second referendum asks voters to consider a set of public meeting bylaws.

At public meetings, Black contends, resolutions are moved and passed with no explanation while public comments are solicited and then ignored. 

Also, other than the 7:30 p.m. regular monthly board meeting, the Town Board never mentions business discussed or acted upon at its 1 p.m. work session meetings that occur one to three times a month, Black said.

Black’s referendum would move all meetings, regular and work sessions, to evening hours. Anything requiring a board vote would take place at the regular meeting, not the work session.

The referendum would also limit any punitive measures by the Town Board. Where the town board finds cause during a meeting to silence or remove an individual, it would be for that meeting only.

The referendum also calls for delaying board votes on all matters in which the public expresses an objection, at least until the board reconsiders the matter and makes a public explanation regarding the objection. Black, a regular attender of board meetings, said what bothers him the most is when a resident will express concern about an issue, the board listens to the concern then votes anyway.

Town officials have said all meetings, including work sessions, are open to the public. The regular meeting has a time for the public to make comments, a period of time often preceded by a reading of the rules for the public forum. Those include keeping remarks to a few minutes and not allowing any personal attacks.

Lockport Town Board members have their home phone numbers published in the town newsletter and on the website. In the past, members have been vocal about returning phone calls and offering assistance outside of Town Hall, such as Crocker who has given his number out to residents in need of help with FEMA floodplain maps, for example.

In the last town election in 2011, Supervisor Marc R. Smith and board members Cheryl A. Antkowiak and Paul W. Siejak ran unopposed.

Black said he’ll continue to ask for signatures, then turn the referendums into the town clerk’s office on Sept. 4.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.