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Resident Decide on Council Downsizing Tuesday

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – To reduce, or not to reduce? That's question Buffalo voters will decide in Tuesday's election. The controversial reapportionment plan to trim the Common Council from 13 to nine districts will appear as Proposition One on the ballot.

Masten District lawmaker Antoine Thompson has spent many hours handing out flyers that list ten reasons why city residents should vote against the redistricting plan. Scattered throughout the city's East Side, lawn signs ask for a "no" vote. Daryl Johnson, a Masten District resident, says the reduction plan is not fair for minorities.

"I would have felt better if they would have maybe gotten rid of the Fillmore and North Districts," Johnson said. "Then I would have felt that was fair. But they way the went about this is the main reason why I'm voting no on this."

A racial divide grew in July when the council approved the plan to cut three at-large seats and the Council president's position. It has pitted six African- American lawmakers against seven white Council members. African-American lawmakers say the plan is racially motivated because three of the four seats are currently held by black leaders. They fear it could weaken minority representation.

Emanuel Meadows, who lives in the Masten District, agrees. He says residents could have a tough time getting help.

"They will not have a fair voice in a lot of ways," Meadows said. "Let's say someone wanted a tree cut down. Someone may say that's not in our interest right now for your tree to be cut down in front of your house or you may have a plumbing problem due to the city."

Minority members say they were not consulted on the plan. But Delaware District lawmaker Marc Coppola say that's not the case. He says he personally asked those members to participate in the process.

In North Buffalo, lawn signs ask residents vote "yes" for nine districts. Council Member Coppola says if the plan is approved it would save the city close to $1 million. But he says it's not just about money. It's a message about trimming government.

"We have to get back to the business at hand and people just have to recognize that this is not personal and these are positions," Coppola said. "If it was personal, I think that there's a lot of police officers and other city workers who would have a story for you as well."

Before Thompson hit the streets to encourage residents to reject the plan, he first needed to register more minority voters. In August when Mayor Masiello approved it, opponents announced an ambitious grassroots effort to register 12,000 minority voters. In the end, Thompson says they signed up more than 2,000 new voters. However, the Board of Elections says the number is "closer" to less than 1,000. Still, Thompson says he's remains confident they will defeat the proposition Tuesday.

"People have been very responsive," Thompson said. "I think people know that there needs to be to be change, but I think this current plan makes people very uncomfortable. I've been uncomfortable by the business community's level of passion behind it."

The business backers Thompson is referring to includes the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Partnership's political action committee contributed $10,000 to the Committee for Council Reduction. The Partnership says it supports the proposition because it believes voters will have a chance to take a major step in "re-ngineering" city government.

A Citizens Commission on Reapportionment was chaired by former Council President George Arthur. At a recent reapportionment committee hearing, Arthur said the Commission was never invited to present its plan that called for cutting one district and once at-large seat. But that could be the fault of Council President James Pitts. He ignored the Commission's recommendation, and at the time, said he was tied up with budget issues.

It was also at a time when the council majority lacked the seventh vote needed to approve the nine district plan. But when Council Member at Large Rosemarie Lotempio changed her mind, it was approved, and that's when Pitts publicly announced his support for the Commission's plan.

Antoine Thompson, who now heads the Council Reapportionment Committee, was surprised to learn proposals were not presented to the full-Council.

"I think it is unfortunate the Commission never had a chance to come before the Council until more than five months later," Thompson said. "Additionally, there were numerous citizens and organizations that submitted proposals, but they never had a chance to appear."

Dr. Henry Taylor, a UB professor, and member of the Citizens Commission also appeared at the recent reapportionment committee hearing offering some perspective. Dr. Taylor doesn't support the nine district plan, but says reapportionment is not about "downsizing". Instead Taylor says it is restructuring the way "government functions."

"When you eliminate the at-large Council members and when you eliminate the Council president, you fundamentally change the way in which government in the city of Buffalo operates," Taylor said. "What you do is dramatically increase the power of the Mayor."

Opponents tried to block the plan from appearing on the November ballot, but that hasn't happen. In fact, a state Appellate Court in Rochester rejected the attempt late last week -- so Tuesday it will be up to city residents.

If approved, it is expected to face further court challenges by opponents, but the four seats would not immediately be eliminated. The three at-large members and Council president would remain in power through the end of December 2003.