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Common Council prepares to start redrawing district boundaries

Few City Hall rituals have the potential to become more caustic than the once-a-decade task of redrawing boundaries for Common Council districts to reflect population changes.

As city officials prepare to launch a new reapportionment process, some key questions are looming:

Will a yet-to-be named citizens panel recommend reducing the number of Council districts? The city is currently divided into nine districts.

Will the panel suggest restoring some at-large seats that are elected by voters throughout the city? The current Council is composed of nine lawmakers, each elected by voters in a specific district.

How will changes in district lines affect the political futures of incumbents, including some long-tenured lawmakers?

While the Census Bureau has yet to release population figures for each district, there is widespread speculation that the Fillmore District lost the most residents, while the South District lost the fewest in the past decade.

Council President David A. Franczyk, of the Fillmore District, has been involved in three redistricting battles since 1980 -- two as a city lawmaker and one as a citizen activist.

"They're always extremely acrimonious," Franczyk said of the reapportionment process. "It would be nice if we could avoid it this time around."

He's not holding his breath.

The City Charter requires officials to begin advertising this month for registered city voters who are interested in being appointed to the nine-member reapportionment commission. Franczyk must recommend five nominees to the full Council for final approval. Mayor Byron W. Brown will appoint the other four members.

The advisory panel will have until June 1 to make recommendations to the Council. But in some recent redistricting brouhahas, city officials ignored the recommendations and drafted their own plans.

Before any reductions in Council seats could be implemented or at-large positions restored, the measures would have to be approved by voters in a referendum. But district boundaries can be changed without voters' final approval. Voters in 2003 eliminated the four Council seats elected at-large, including the directly elected presidency.

Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith, the lead sponsor of a resolution that officially launches the redistricting mission, told fellow lawmakers last week that he hopes the process can be done in an "apolitical" fashion.

"Impossible," Franczyk said. "You can't entirely remove politics from the process. It's just not realistic. The clarion call should be to make sure that the process is fair."

Lawmakers have differing views as to what might happen if city officials cannot come to terms on new district boundaries before this year's pre-election activities begin, including gathering signatures for the September primary. Some believe that Council members would simply run for four-year terms using the existing district lines. City legal experts will be consulted in the coming weeks.

People interested in serving on the commission have until Feb. 4 to file requests, said City Clerk Gerald A. Chwalinski. They should mail the request to the City Clerk's Office, 1308 City Hall, Buffalo, NY 14202.

The Charter states that panel members should be "recognized community leaders selected to assure the representation of the geographic, social and ethnic diversity of the city."

Elected officials and city or Buffalo Public Schools employees are barred from serving on the panel, as are people who are related by birth or marriage to the mayor, any city lawmaker or Board of Education member.

The redistricting process is based on population changes captured in the recent census.