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Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown faces public criticism during heated redistricting hearing

Byron Brown at redistricting public hearing
Tom Dinki
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown listens as a resident speaks during a public hearing on the Common Council's proposed new district map Aug. 3, 2022, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The hearing was heated at times, with Brown even momentarily walking off the stage at one point.

City activists and residents have been speaking out for weeks about the Buffalo Common Council’s new district lines, but at a public hearing Wednesday many residents not only voiced concern over the proposed map, but how the redistricting process has been handled by Mayor Byron Brown.

The heated hearing — Brown even momentarily walked off the stage — featured criticism of Brown’s leadership during the controversy over the city’s reapportionment process. There were also accusations that the Council’s map is gerrymandered to protect incumbent Council members, as well as some criticism directed at activists’ proposed alternative map.

But the approximately 60 people in attendance at the Burchfield Penney Art Center mostly voiced one common opinion: Brown should veto the Council’s map.

The hearing was required by law before Brown could make a decision on the map. The mayor now has 30 days to either approve or veto it. He cannot make changes to the map, but if he vetoes it, he must make his objections in writing.

Mayor Byron Brown at public hearing over redistricting
The Government Channel
City of Buffalo
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown addresses the crowd at a public hearing on the city's redistricting process Aug. 3, 2022 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center,

“I can take all of the comments, listen to all of the comments, evaluate all of the information,” Brown told the crowd during the hearing. “And then I have two options. As many of you know, I can accept the Council's map, or I can veto the Council's map. And there are a number of things that I need to consider and look at in making that decision. And so I want to give everyone the opportunity to have their input to let their voices be heard.”

However, many residents who spoke at the hearing said they don’t feel heard by Brown.

“We will talk, Dan,” Brown assured one speaker, Daniel Sack.

“No, we won’t,” Sack said, causing the crowd to laugh. “That's why I come to your meetings to be able to talk with you. You don't return my phone calls. This gentleman doesn't return my phone calls. We want to have a conversation.”

Several individuals at the hearing expressed concerns with the lack of notice, the fact the meeting was being held at 10 a.m. on a weekday, and that the mayor refused to answer any questions.   

“I understand the bare legal requirements have been met — a hearing was held,” Lovejoy resident Dan Piersa told Brown. “I just want to encourage you to do more than the bare legal minimum, to hold another meeting where people who are at work right now can attend on a weekend or an evening.” 

Speakers were asked to provide their home address. Tia Brown, 37, did not, saying “extremist groups” in the area could use the information to target speakers.

“You are the mayor of Buffalo. You should know something about that,” Tia Brown told the mayor.

At one point, resident Arise Shapley spoke from their seat in the audience about the policy regarding addresses, leading to a shouting match when Brown repeatedly asked them to give comment at the microphone, while misgendering Shapley.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown walks off during heated public hearing over redistricting

Brown on three separate occasions referred to Shapley as “ma’am.” On each occasion, Shapley, who is a trans non-binary person, immediately corrected the mayor that they are “not a ma’am.”

After Shapley corrected Brown the third time, the mayor asked, “Then what would you like to be called? I don’t know.” 

Shapley responded, “You can just call me a person.”

“OK, well, ‘person,’ would you like to come to the microphone?” Brown asked.

“No, I don’t want to come to the microphone,” Shapley said.

Brown and Shapley continued to argue until Brown abruptly announced, “I’m not going to listen to someone who is out of order and insists on being out of order,” and walked off the stage. He returned two minutes later and resumed the hearing.

The walk-off created confusion in the auditorium. City employees, running a livesteam of the hearing, questioned out loud whether they should end the stream.

Arise Shapley gets into heated discussion with Mayor Byron Brown
The Government Channel
City of Buffalo
Arise Shapley (center) gets into a heated discussion with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, which resulted in Brown walking off the stage, during a public redistricting hearing Aug. 3, 2022. Brown misgendered Shapley, a trans non-binary person, on three different occasions, referring to them as "ma'am."

Shapley spoke with WBFO after the hearing. They said it was “painful” to be repeatedly misgendered by Brown.

“I sometimes expect to be misgendered, just at first glance, but when I correct you, you should correct yourself,” Shapley said. “It's a show of disrespect.” 

Several residents voiced concern at the microphone for the way Shapley was treated. Shapley said it’s “not just about the misgendering, it's about the way in which they don't want to actually engage and listen and hear us.”

WBFO reached out to Brown's spokesperson, Mike DeGeorge, about the misgendering incident, but did not hear back.

There was one speaker who aimed their criticism not at Brown, but at the alternative map proposed by grassroots activist group Our City Action Buffalo. 

Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux said the map by Our City Action Buffalo cuts the Delavan Grider Community Center and “the most stable, affluent, educated people” out of Masten District. 

“You don't know the neighborhoods, you don't know the people. … You didn't engage anybody. You didn't ask anybody anything,” Martin-Bordeaux told the activists in the audience. “So y'all were wrong for doing what you did, not consulting and then representing yourselves as our community.”

Brown has until Sept. 2 to make a decision on the map. If he does nothing, the Council’s map will automatically become law. 

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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