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Redistricting under way
Committee to start process by seeking input from public

The five-member commission assigned to draw new district borders for the reduced-size Niagara County Legislature will start the process by hearing what the public thinks at hearings in Niagara Falls and Lockport.

The committee, which held its first meeting Thursday, also may tour the Erie County Board of Elections to check out its redistricting computer software.

But the panel, which has a $25,000 budget, also plans to advertise for a consulting firm to help draw the map for the 15-member Legislature.

"There's software available. Just punch the parameters in and draw the lines," said Charles J. Naughton, former county human resources director, who is the only Democrat on the commission.

"There's a difference between having the mechanism and having the expertise. We shouldn't assume we have the expertise just because we have the software," said Michael R. Cornell of North Tonawanda, one of the Republican members.

Meeting in the Legislature Chambers, the group chose Kevin R. Schuler, chairman of the Niagara USA Chamber and a member of the Niagara County Community College board of trustees, as its chairman.

The hearings will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 26 in Niagara Falls, probably in City Hall, and 6 p.m. Jan. 27 in the Legislature Chambers in Lockport. Schuler said an e-mail address also will be set up to solicit written comments on redistricting.

"Maybe people will submit their own maps. You never know what you're going to get," Schuler said.

Schuler said the committee can get to work using the U.S. Census Bureau's estimated population figures for Niagara County communities. The official town-by-town results of the 2010 census will be released sometime between Feb. 1 and March 1.

Schuler said the estimates, released in June but based on July 2009 reporting, "should be pretty darn close. With that standard deviation you're allowed, I don't think it will be a big deal."

He was referring to the requirement in state law that the populations of all districts must be within 5 percent of the average population.

Redistricting always is a touchy issue, but more so than ever this year as the Legislature shrinks from 19 to 15 members.

That means not all incumbents can be shielded from the possibility of having to face off against a colleague at the polls this fall, when voters choose the new Legislature.

"There's people sitting in this room who aren't going to be here [in 2012]. There's no question about it," Schuler said.

The commission is a first for Niagara County, whose legislators previously have done redistricting themselves with the aid of the County Attorney's Office.

The resolution that created the committee directed it to complete a map by March 8 and send it to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed by April 5. If the Legislature were to reject the map, the commission could try again.

The commission is supposed to hold two public hearings of its own on the draft map before approving it, and the Legislature must hold a hearing before voting.

"We're trying to get this done so [nominating] petitions can be circulated in the new districts," County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said. That process usually starts in early June.

"Before that, there's a potential period of litigation in court," Joerg acknowledged.

Also, the redistricting law is subject to permissive referendum. Joerg said after the Legislature passes a map, it can't take effect for 45 days, to give opponents time to circulate petitions to force a referendum.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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