Niagara Falls needs to keep as many of its five Niagara County Legislature seats as possible, prominent speakers told the county redistricting commission Wednesday night.
The County Legislature appointed the commission to redraw the district map for November's election, after voters in 2009 approved a reduction in the size of the Legislature to 15 from 19 members.
Although official 2010 census figures have yet to be released, U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last summer showed Niagara Falls with a population of about 51,000 out of a county total of 214,000. Those numbers place the average population of a Legislature district at about 14,300.
With the downsizing, districts could be geographically enlarged in any number of locations.
"Spread the pain," Mayor Paul A. Dyster urged. "The burden should not rest disproportionately on any one part of the community."
"I feel strongly the City of Niagara Falls needs more representation," said Christopher Kudela of Frontier Avenue. "Our needs are special. And the parts of Niagara Falls are different."
"The whole county voted to downsize, not just Niagara Falls, and that downsizing should be done equally, not on the backs of the City of Niagara Falls," said Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.
Several speakers said districts should be based on what Dyster called "a community of interests." The question for the commission is how to square that with the need for districts that cover more territory.
As an example, "Does LaSalle make sense with a River Road district [in Wheatfield], or with the Town of Niagara?" asked Kevin C. Schuler, commission chairman.
Schuler, board chairman of the Niagara USA Chamber, said the panel would have to combine parts of Niagara Falls with slices of surrounding towns to preserve the city's seats.
"I hope we could expand [a Niagara Falls district] out into Wheatfield," said Ron Anderluh of the Niagara Street Area Business and Professional Association.
"We can't talk about not losing any representation," said Charles J. Naughton, a former Falls firefighter and the commission's sole Democrat. "There may be one district that reaches into a suburb."
"We're going to be losing our voice among people who don't share our concerns," warned Roger Spurback, president of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council.
Shirley Hamilton, vice president of the Niagara Falls branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that, to comply with the Voting Rights Act, the Legislature should have more African-American districts. It now has just one, in the Falls.
The commission will hold a second hearing at 6 p.m. today in the Niagara County Courthouse in Lockport. Schuler expects a draft map will be completed by the end of next month, and two more hearings will be held before the panel sends it to the Legislature.
The Legislature gave the commission a March 8 deadline to submit a map, and the Legislature intends to hold its own public hearing before voting on it April 5.