Sunday, March 23, 2014

May You Live in Interesting Places

We all know that the Chinese invocation "May you live in interesting times" is actually a curse, but we have to hope that living in an interesting--indeed unique--place is not similarly ill-fated. Brendan Friedman, a student at Hofstra Law School, was quoted in the Register-Star last week as saying that Hudson is unique in that it is "the only city in New York with a weighted vote system."

Friedman is one of eight law students from Hofstra who will be studying our city government here in Hudson this semester in a seminar entitled Special Problems in Municipal Law. The students, working with their professor, Ashira Ostrow, and Eric Lane, dean of the law school, have identified four areas for investigation: separation of powers; environmental conservation, comparing Hudson with other cities along the river; ethics, comparing Hudson's ethics code with those of other municipalities; and our weighted vote system. Two students will work on each of the four topics, and Friedman, with Peter Barbieri, is taking on the weighted vote.  

Although the weighted vote has always struck many in Hudson as inequitable, the imbalance is greater now than it ever has been in the past. Two factors account for this: the change in New York State law that requires prisoners to be counted in the communities where they lived before they were incarcerated rather than the communities where they are incarcerated, which reduced the population of the Third Ward by 300; and the 2010 decennial census, which saw the population of the Fifth Ward increase while the population of the other wards decreased or remained about the same.

The Fifth Ward accounts for about 36 percent of the population, but as Barbieri is quoted in the Register-Star as saying, when the two aldermen from the largest ward vote together, as they typically do, "there's math that shows they have an influence beyond the 36 percent of the population they represent." 

It is easy to do the math. In a vote that requires a simple majority, the vote of each of the Fifth Ward aldermen--Robert "Doc" Donahue and Bart Delaney--is 364. A simple majority requires 1,015 votes. Donahue's and Delaney's votes together total 728 and represent 72 percent of the votes needed for a resolution or law to pass. It takes the Common Council president (190 votes), both the First Ward aldermen (95 each), and both Third Ward aldermen (180 each) voting together to achieve a number of comparable weight (740).

The unfortunate reality is that the aldermen elected from the Fifth Ward and very likely the people of the Fifth Ward, too, think things are just fine the way they are. In last year's discussions of the weighted vote, Cappy Pierro, then Fifth Ward alderman, was a staunch defender of the status quo, even though by that time he had allegedly already moved to Taghkanic. A statement from former mayor and now Fifth Ward supervisor Rick Scalera, quoted in the Register-Star, not surprisingly, echoes Pierro's defense of the status quo. "I don't see people complaining about it," Scalera is quoted as saying. "What's wrong with being unique? It would be a different story if the popular vote didn't reflect the weighted vote." 

One wonders who qualifies as "people" with Scalera, because the weighted vote has been talked about a lot in recent years. Granted, a decade or so ago, a referendum to eliminate the weighted vote system by redrawing the ward boundaries so that every ward had the same number of residents failed, but it is not difficult to understand why. The original four wards (the Fifth Ward wasn't created until 1886) have existed from Hudson's earliest days. Each ward has its own character, and people have a strong identification with their wards.

What is being talked about now is creating a sixth ward by dividing the Fifth Ward, which is already divided into two election districts, into two wards. Concurrent with that change would be having just one alderman represent each ward instead of two, reducing the Common Council from ten aldermen to six. 

Of course, this plan, which seems so simple and obvious runs into problems when it translates to the county level. Would six wards mean six supervisors? It's been suggested that Hudson should have only one supervisor. Since the county Board of Supervisors also operates on a weighted vote system, if there were only one supervisor representing Hudson that person would have an influence achievable now only if all five Hudson supervisors vote together. The argument against it, voiced recently by Supervisor Bill Hughes (Fourth Ward), is that each ward in Hudson is different, has its own concerns, and deserves its own representation. Supervisor Sarah Sterling (First Ward) has made the point that the work of the Board of Supervisors takes place primarily in committees, and, with five supervisors, Hudson is presented  on more committees than it could be if the city had only one supervisor.

The law students from Hofstra will spend a semester studying Hudson's weighted vote system and the other three topics they have chosen to investigate and will return in May with a report, which presumably will have some recommendations.


  1. When it was suggested last year that simply creating a 6th Ward wouldn't resolve all related challenges, the suggestion of combining a weighted vote with redistricting - by adding a 6th Ward - was shot down by another commenter here as being prohibited by state law.

    (The combined approach was floated as a way to accommodate the remaining larger and smaller wards, and to avoid having to hold referendums every time the census numbers change.)

    Whether the combined approach is an option cannot be addressed by local lawyers, but only by the Department of State which will only discuss the matter with city officials. To date, no one in city government has asked the DOS whether the combined approach which is enjoyed by counties is applicable to cities.

    From a technical report on reapportionment produced by Cornell University: "It should be noted that some counties (e.g., Cortland) redistrict to within 5% and then do weighted voting as well" (p. iii).

    If our situation is so unusual, then why not explore all options? It's a lot more rational to know all of your options than it is never to inquire.

  2. As Yogi Berra might say, "Why explore when you can decide?"

  3. Every mayor since (maybe longer) Bill Allen has lived one street away from Greenport.
    The inner city of Hudson is undergoing a "gerrymandered gentrification" led by boulevard bullies.

  4. I live in the Fifth Ward and I don't think things are fine as they are, but as nearly every report from the Council or city departments shows, what the people here think doesn't matter. When one former city department head gave "the finger" to an FOI request, it was just typical of the whole city apparatus giving the finger to the residents. One thing I think we learn from the deliberations of the council is that nothing is going to ever change -- this is one town that is never going to change. Ever.

  5. Sadly, Paula, you might be correct.