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CITY PANEL STRUGGLES WITH REDISTRICTING PLAN

The city's redistricting committee has been stymied by a lack of census data as it tries to meet a Feb. 15 deadline for drawing new boundaries for Common Council wards.

However, late Friday it appeared that some Board of Elections maps and computer assistance from the Erie County Planning Department might solve the problem.

The four-member panel was appointed by Mayor Kenneth D. Swan to handle the chore of reducing the city's eight wards to five for use in this fall's election.

City voters passed a proposition last November cutting the size of the Council from eight to six members. Five will be chosen from the wards and one will be elected city wide.

The wards must be roughly equal in population, or within 5 percent of the average. With the city's population of about 25,000, that means the wards must include about 5,000 people each.

However, the redistricting must be based on the only official population data existing, the 1990 U.S. Census.

And committee members say they haven't been able to locate the detailed figures they need.

Patricia M. McGrath, an attorney and one of two Democrats on the panel, said, "We're having difficulty finding the information we need in an easily convertible format."

The panel would like to find the Holy Grail of local redistricting, a CD-ROM package that plotted census data onto a county street map. It is known to have been used in the 1991 redistricting of the County Legislature by Richard Seekins, who was then the county's planning director.

It cannot be located, and Seekins has moved out of state.

County Planning, Development, and Tourism Commissioner Samuel M. Ferraro said he knows of no such software now in his department's possession.

However, Democratic deputy election commissioner Nancy L. Sharpe said that county officials had contacted their counterparts in Erie County, and found software that can be used to do the job.

Ms. Sharpe said the Board of Elections "gave the city three maps that showed the census tracts."

Asked how that map corresponds to the map of Lockport's 23 election districts, Ms. Sharpe replied, "It doesn't. . . . They're going to have to superimpose one on top of the other."

The county Board of Elections has already ruled that the boundaries of the election districts cannot be tampered with in the reapportionment. In effect, the committee has a puzzle with 23 pieces that must be grouped into five larger pieces, each of roughly equivalent population.

Former alderman Elroy D. Powley, one of the two Republicans on the committee, said he proposed "extrapolating" the figures from current voter registration statistics.

He proposed assuming that each of the old eight wards contained about 3,000 people. By looking up the number of registered voters currently living in each ward and seeing what percentage of 3,000 that is, Powley surmised that a rough guess at population could be made.

"It's not going to be perfect," Powley acknowledged. "You'd have to make some assumptions."

And he admitted that the other committee members were not willing to make those assumptions.

Ms. McGrath said, "It's obviously subject to a (legal) challenge." She also noted that using current voter totals would reflect population shifts within the city, but by law only the census figures, outdated as they are, may be used.

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