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Redistricting panel plans work session

The commission assigned to draw the new map of Niagara County Legislature districts will get down to business this week, now that the 2010 census results are in.

Chairman Kevin C. Schuler said the five-member panel will meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the County Courthouse, and he expects that by the end of the evening, the redistricting will be "95 percent complete."

He said County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, using the commission's $25,000 budget, has hired J.R. Drexelius, longtime counsel to former State Sen. Dale Volker, to draw the map and prepare the written description of each district's boundaries.

New district lines are required every 10 years, but this time the process is complicated by the reduction in the Legislature's membership from 19 to 15, approved by the voters in 2009.

At a Feb. 3 meeting, the commission of four Republicans and a Democrat, reflecting the GOP's 15-4 margin in the Legislature, arrived at a set of principles for a new map.

But it couldn't go farther without the detailed block-by-block population data from the new census, which wasn't released until Thursday.

The county's official population of 216,469 works out to an average population of 14,431 per Legislature district.

State law says that district populations all must fall within 5 percent of that average. Also, the law bars any town from being split into multiple districts unless its population is more than 10 percent above the average. Besides the three cities, the only towns that can be legally split are Lewiston, Lockport and Wheatfield.

However, at the Feb. 3 meeting, Joerg said getting close to the average -- the "one person, one vote" principle -- is more important than keeping small towns from being divided.

The Legislature made the same choice a decade ago, when it approved a redistricting plan that divided Newfane between two districts.

The commission originally was supposed to deliver a map by March 8, but the Census Bureau's delay in releasing the results forced an extension. At the March 15 Legislature meeting, the deadline was extended until two weeks after the release of the census data. That means the deadline now is April 7.

The commission is supposed to hold two public hearings, followed by one more hearing by the Legislature itself, before an up-or-down vote on the plan with no amendments allowed.

If the Legislature votes the map down, the commission is allowed to try again.

The commission decided Feb. 3 to try to maintain current town combinations as much as possible in the new map. Also, it decided Niagara Falls should have three full districts and part of a fourth. It has five districts now.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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