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TOWN BOARD TO APPEAL DISTRICT-SEAT BALLOT RULING

Amherst lawmakers said Tuesday that they plan to appeal a judge's ruling that paves the way for a public vote on a proposal to change the way Town Board members are elected.

Six Town Board members currently run at large, representing all of Amherst.

Supporters of a district system won a court ruling Tuesday, and the question of whether the structure of the Town Board should be changed into a district -- or ward -- system could be placed on the November ballot.

Democratic leaders in the town circulated a petition to put the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot and submitted it to the town clerk earlier this month.

It has gone unchallenged, but the county Board of Elections has yet to put the measure on the ballot.

The board, at an informal work session, instructed the town attorney to appeal the ruling handed down earlier in the day by State Supreme Court Justice Rose H. Sconiers. But no formal vote was taken on the appeal.

Later Tuesday, the Town Board defeated, 4-3, Council Member Daniel J. Ward's proposal to move the measure onto the ballot. Ward and fellow Democrats Peggy G. Santillo and Michael McGuire voted for his proposal, while Democratic Supervisor Susan J. Grelick and Republican Council Members William L. Kindel, Jane S. Woodward and James P. Hayes voted against it.

Justice Sconiers ruled the proposal for the public vote legally valid and ordered the board to schedule a vote in "a timely fashion."

The judge did not order the measure to go on the Nov. 3 ballot.

However, she directed the Town Board to follow State Election Law mandates and formally submit the matter to the county Board of Elections for possible posting on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Amherst Democratic Committee Chairman Dennis E. Ward contends Amherst residents would be better served with a district system with each member representing a specific portion of the town, rather than the at-large system that he believes ignores the needs of some residents.

The appeal will cost the town money because of legal costs, and even more would have to be spent if the town has to call a special election, said Daniel Ward, who is Dennis' brother.

However, foes of the district system argued it would pit one neighborhood against another and make town government more "political."

"The cost would be so much more if we didn't appeal and the ward system was to be implemented," Ms. Grelick said.

Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman said he would act quickly to try and persuade an appeals court to reverse Tuesday's ruling.

"We're under a time frame where we should move pretty quick," he said.

The measure must be placed on the ballot at least 36 days before the voting, said Dennis Ward.

Because the Town Board didn't move to put the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot at its meeting Tuesday, the town may have to hold a special election, he said.

The cost of that is between $60,000 and $70,000, Ward said.

Ward said the Town Board, which generally meets every two weeks, would have to schedule a special legislative session if it intends to meet the late September deadline for getting the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot.

After Tuesday's court session, Alan P. Gerstman, first deputy county attorney and the attorney for the Board of Elections, said that agency will deal with the Amherst voting matter as soon as the Town Board formally asks to have it placed on the ballot.

Dennis Ward and a key political lieutenant, Geraldine H. Simmons, launched the court battle Monday in a bid to force the public vote on the ward or district-seat proposal.

Already, the Town Board has put on the Nov. 3 ballot for Amherst voters a proposal by Dan Ward to replace the town's appointed comptroller with an elected one.

The district-seat proposal has been defeated by Amherst voters three times since 1981.

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