Advertisement

Expert advises City of Plattsburgh on redistricting

Mar. 14—PLATTSBURGH — The City of Plattsburgh's decision to hold off on approving new boundary lines for its ward districts until next year has the support of a prominent redistricting expert.

"I would suggest, at this point, you proceed with the election using the lines that were drawn a decade ago," Jeffrey Wice, a professor at New York Law School, who has worked on redistricting at the state, local and national level, said at a special Common Council meeting March 4.

With the city having missed the Feb. 15 deadline to approve new lines and election petitioning already well underway for several local elections — the Ward 3, Ward 6 and mayoral races — and the presidential election this year, waiting was seemingly their only option moving forward anyways.

However, as the city's current ward district lines are over a decade old, residents could claim they are being underrepresented, Wice, who attended the meeting with his colleague, Alexis Marking, to offer his insight into the city's long-delayed and controversial redistricting process, said.

POSSIBLE LIABILITY

These consequences could include opening the city up to potential liability, Wice told councilors.

"Any voter, any resident in the city who finds themselves underrepresented based on taking the new census data, overlaying it on the current district boundaries and finding that they are ... underrepresented can bring a lawsuit in state or federal court," he said.

While a resident or voter bringing a lawsuit against the city is just a hypothetical scenario and there is none currently pending, Wice said if it were to happen, a judge could possibly rule to delay city elections this year

"Or one possibility could be when this often happens — but not always — is to allow one election to take place this year under the old map, run again next year in 2025 (under the new map) and then catch up with the schedule after that date," he said.

"...I think the worst that can happen is that you're directed by a court to get to work rather quickly and draw a plan, and if you don't show a plan, the court will do it for you."

MAYOR NOT CONCERNED

Asked if he was concerned about the city possibly facing a lawsuit, Mayor Chris Rosenquest said "according to our legal counsel, no, I'm not."

He said they performed all the necessary steps to redistrict appropriately, the council just decided to go in a different direction.

"It's totally up to them. It's their prerogative to do that."

'BEHIND SCHEDULE'

Typically, the reapportionment or redistricting of the city's six wards occurs every 10 years after the completion of the United States Census. Results for the most recent census were made public in September of 2021.

Wice said a great number of municipalities in the state redrew their lines between September 2021 and the spring of 2022.

The city, however, did not redraw their lines during this timeframe and is now "literally behind schedule," Wice said.

The city code also states the city should "within six months after the official publication of the federal census, form a commission to review the existing ward districts and propose boundary changes as necessary to ensure compliance with the principles of equity and representation in relation to population."

REDISTRICTING COMMITTEE

Despite the six-month guideline in the code, the city didn't appoint a redistricting committee until April 20, 2023 — over a year and a half after the federal census results were made public.

In January, that committee then presented their newly drawn lines to the Common Council, with the expectation of approving them by Feb. 1.

However, the committee's newly drawn lines were met with criticism from councilors who felt some wards unnecessarily shrunk more than others and neighborhoods were broken apart.

Another common critique from the council was that the city waited until the "last minute" to start the redistricting process and subsequently, faced a strict deadline to get them passed.

Given the lack of support for the committee's proposed lines, the proposal was eventually withdrawn from the agenda and never officially voted on.

NEW MAP

Rosenquest said starting from scratch and reconfiguring the redistricting committee this year is an option the council may decide on.

Councilor Jeff Moore (D-Ward 6) previously had concerns about a Republican not being on the committee. It's unclear if there will be one included moving forward.

POSSIBLE REJECTION

At the March 4th meeting, Councilor Elizabeth Gibbs (D-Ward 3) wanted more clarification on what could happen if new lines are eventually brought to a vote and they are rejected by councilors, given that the City Charter is silent on that matter.

"If the Commission recommends a plan that's rejected, in a practical sense, a court would generally allow the legislature to draw a plan, because you could have a situation where a commission could be tasked with 10 plans, all of them are rejected and it never ends," Wice said.

"So using common sense and a common law, the court will generally allow the legislature to draw a plan and failing anybody showing a plan, then the court has every right to do a new plan, draw the new plan itself."

"We could reject the commission's work and create the redistricting ourselves. Is that what you're saying?" Gibbs asked.

"I'm suggesting that is a likely outcome," Wice said, "If the council consistently or decidedly rejects a map submitted by the commission, in part because the City Charter is silent about a failed commission effort."

Marking followed up with another, possibly more effective path the council could take.

"If you held a vote and voted no on a plan that the commission had suggested and brought forth for a vote, you could also submit ... suggested amendments of what you don't like about that plan but still leave it in the hands of the commission to then make those alterations to it," she said.

"Then the commission could submit a new plan where you would vote again, that might be more effective than trying to have a legislature put work together or to consistently reject plans being put forth by the commission without giving them an explanation on why."

"It would be advantageous and recommended to try to get the commission to work with you to develop plans," Wice added, "so that you are, in the end, voting and approving on a commission plan, which eliminates the question 'well, who gave you the power to act?'"

BOE RESPONSE

Clinton County Board of Elections Republican Commissioner David Souliere IV, who previously offered advice to the council about its redistricting process, supported Wice's assessment of the city's situation.

"I completely agree with New York Census Redistricting Institute expert Jeffery Wice, as well as his colleague Alexis Marking on their analysis of the City Redistricting process," Souliere said in a statement.

"It is my opinion they have advised the city in such a way to ensure redistricting is completed, while preserving the integrity of the election process."

Email: cnewton@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: CarlySNewton