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Collins vetoes Legislature remap plan; Criticizes 'political backroom deals'

Erie County Executive Chris Collins on Monday vetoed the Legislature's plan for new legislative districts, just hours after asking at his public hearing whether anyone would speak in favor of it. No one did.

Collins vetoed Local Law 5-1, a set of 11 districts designed by Democratic tacticians and rammed through by eight Legislature Democrats united by state party heavyweights out to quiet party rifts in Erie County.

The Democratic plan supplanted one introduced by Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, and favored by Republicans in the coalition that granted her the Legislature's most powerful post.

Both plans contain obvious political maneuvers. But the version sponsored by the eight Democrats survived in an 8-7 vote and was sent to the county executive.

Collins, a Republican, was widely expected to veto the Democratic proposal. Aides were drafting his veto message days ago, well before he made a rare appearance Monday at one of the public hearings his office must convene any time he considers whether to veto or accept a local law.

"Local Law 5-1," his veto message said, "unfortunately suffers from the same types of gerrymandering, political backroom deals and electoral self-interests that have guided our government for far too long.

"In addition, at the public hearing held [Monday], not one person voiced support for this plan."

Unless the Legislature can override his veto Thursday or adopts the Miller-Williams plan instead -- both unlikely -- county lawmakers will be back to square one as the days race by on this year's election calendar.

Lawmakers and their would-be opponents are weeks late in passing their designating petitions -- blocked from doing so because no one knows their district boundaries.

A lawsuit, filed perhaps by a challenger or perhaps by an incumbent lawmaker, looms as probable because candidates are being denied the right to run for public office.

Further, without a redistricting plan, the Legislature will be unable to assure a judge that it can meet the federal one-person, one-vote standard that controls efforts nationwide to spread voting power among equally sized districts adjusted for census-found shifts in population.

Also thrown into limbo will be the voters' demand, in last year's referendum, that the Legislature shrink from 15 members to 11. Again, the Legislature cannot go to 11 members until new districts are known.

This attempt to redistrict the Erie County Legislature is looking a lot like last decade's attempt, which ended up in court and led a judge to impose a clumsy weighted voting system until a better approach could be sealed.

The League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara has watched every public session of this year's process.

"The process we observed did not meet the standards the league had established for fair, open and transparent redistricting, free from partisan influences and gerrymandering," the league's Janet C. Massaro said Monday when Collins convened his hearing.

She lamented that both the Legislature and the volunteer advisory committee appointed by legislative leaders ignored nonpartisan redistricting plans drawn up by citizens.

Massaro predicted that the county will break into political bickering in the future unless it creates a truly nonpartisan redistricting panel.

At Monday's hearing, two town supervisors, Gary A. Eppolito of Concord and Dennis M. Powers of Elma, repeated that a district included in the Democratic plan, encompassing 13 far-flung towns with small populations, would afford residents little representation because their county lawmaker would be spread too thin.

Collins agreed by saying he was vetoing the plan in part because of its effect on rural communities.

"This 'reverse-L' shaped district encompasses nearly 580 square miles, which is 47 percent of the county's total land mass," he said in his message to the Legislature. " Perhaps most troubling is that it runs nearly the entire length of the county's eastern border, at a length of nearly 110 miles. The sheer vastness and size of the district would eliminate any legislator's ability to properly represent the residents."

He wrote that there are now two districts out of 15 likely to elect an African-American. In the new plan, he foresees only one majority-minority district likely to elect an African-American representative. Though Democratic advocates would disagree, Collins cited that as another reason for his veto and encouraged lawmakers to come up with a plan that "fairly and appropriately represents the interests of the minority community."

Collins said that while redistricting plans are supposed to unite communities of interest, the Democratic version failed with a district that begins in Orchard Park -- home to Republican Leader John J. Mills -- and spreads northward to draw in the Democratic strongholds of Lackawanna, South Buffalo and Allentown.

"These communities have wildly divergent needs and issues, which will not be properly advanced under this plan," Collins said in the veto message.

Finally, he said, districts in the Democratic plan could be more equally sized, though the sponsors say their variations are within the ranges that courts have allowed.

"I unequivocally support downsizing the Erie County Legislature," he concluded, "but this plan does it in the wrong way, through blatant gerrymandering and self-serving political machinations. I urge the Erie County Legislature to send me a new plan that addresses these issues."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com