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Republicans Propose Eliminating Two Legislature Seats

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – The political battle lines are being drawn over redistricting in Erie County. Both the majority and minority in the County Legislature are pitching their plans.

The Republicans issued their proposed plan Tuesday morning that would cut the Legislature from 17 to 15 representatives. It would also cut two Buffalo districts. Legislature Chairman Al DeBenedetti says it is the reality of reapportionment -- addressing the population migration away from the city.

"The city lost seats because it's lost population," DeBenedetti said. "That's what reapportionment is all about. That's why you do it every ten years so you can adjust for those changes in population. Obviously, the city has been reduced in population and the suburban communities have grown."

Chairman DeBenedetti says the Republican majority's plan also retains the representation for African-Americans in the third and seventh districts.

"At the same time, as we reduce from 17 to 15, that means representation of African-Americans in the Legislature almost exactly equals their population," he said. "That's about as fair as it gets."

The Republican majority says the plan also keeps the Hispanic neighborhoods together.

But politics surfaced quickly Tuesday. Minority Leader Charles Swanick says the majority's plan is seriously flawed. The Democratic minority responded with a different plan. But they offered a reapportionment proposal that was actually drafted six months ago by the former Republican minority. They made minor changes to the plan that keeps all 17 districts. He says it provides a fair and equitable redistricting solution.

"I don't represent the City of Buffalo. I don't live in the City of Buffalo, but I see a city that needs help. And at a time when it needs help, you're going to eliminate its representation in the County Legislature," Swanick said "It is simply the wrong thing to do.

Democrat Judith Fisher's Buffalo district would be cut under the majority plan. Fisher says that would be "destructive" and "devastating" for the City of Buffalo.

"So now this plan turns around and divides my community among three districts," she said. "The Elmwood Village will be just devastated and will have no political voice."

Freshman Democrat David Dale would also see his Buffalo district disappear under the Republican majority plan. Dale says the weighed voting system, imposed by a federal court judge, gives the Republicans a majority and is turning reapportionment into a political fight.

"It doesn't seem to me to be a coincidence that once a Republican court-imposed majority is put into effect that suddenly we start losing women from the Legislature," Dale said. "Then we also start 'ghetto-izing' blacks in the Legislature. And we also start losing Polish-Americans in the Legislature. We start dividing Democratic communities like Cheektowaga in the Legislature. That is wrong. It is wrong to use this process for a political means."

Back to the Republican side of the aisle, Chairman Al DeBenedetti says their proposed plan addresses all the concerns raised at public reapportionment hearings and shifts district representation.

For instance, Democrat Lynn Marinelli will lose about half of her Tonawanda district. It would be shifted to newcomer Republican Elise Cusack of Amherst. Republican Barry Weinstein's would no longer represent the Snyder district, again shifting it to Cusak. But he would still gain a large portion of North Amherst.

"People very clearly said at the public hearings that they wanted to see a reduction," DeBenedetti said. "Now the Democratic minority can choose to ignore that. Apparently they must be deaf if they haven't heard what the public has been saying."

Hamburg Republican Jeanne Chase said last year the Democrats, when they held the majority, focused their reapportionment plan only on political interests.

"It wasn't driven by trying to keep districts contiguous and compact, trying to unite areas and keep communities together or making sense of how communities do business," Chase said. "None of those things were included in their plan. They had malicious self-interest in trying to eliminate DeBenedetti and Greg Olma and trying to retain Bill Pauly."

That plan was vetoed last year by the County Executive. The Republicans say this new proposal would cut the size of government and save close to a half a million dollars a year for taxpayers. Chairman DeBenedetti says if approved, it would be placed on a referendum in November for voters.

But Swanick and other Democrats say it won't save taxpayers money. Swanick says even a referendum is costly, "let alone the costs of court battles that we have already spent money on, plus the pending ones that will and the bitterness that will be in place for years to come."

The minority says it will send its plan to U.S. District Court Judge John Elfvin. The Republican majority says it will hold public hearings on its proposal next week in Eden, Amherst and Buffalo. The Legislature needs to vote by the end of this month. The judge issued a March 15th deadline for a new reapportionment plan. EB WBFO News.