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Judge draws remap for county officials

A federal judge Thursday imposed a set of 11 new Erie County legislative districts that will let voters elect their county lawmakers this year, completing a chore that had become a political mess in County Hall.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny drew boundaries that, in two cases, would force incumbents to run against each other if they want new two-year terms.

Amherst Republicans Raymond W. Walter and Edward A. Rath III would have to oppose each other in a district taking in the northeastern slice of Amherst plus Clarence and Newstead.

Democrats Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga and Timothy J. Whalen of South Buffalo would have to face off in a district covering the western half of Cheektowaga and part of South Buffalo.

Skretny determined it was far too late for candidates to start passing the party-designating petitions that would let them enter a primary to elect the party nominee. So he turned to a process found in state law that lets the parties' county committees select candidates, a course that favors incumbents.

It also favors candidates in good stead with party headquarters and could hamstring Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. She lines up with Democratic Party forces outside the party establishment and teamed with the Legislature's Republican bloc to win the votes to become chairwoman over the past two years.

However, Miller-Williams and other candidates frozen out by their parties would be able to pass independent nominating petitions to get themselves on the general election ballot in November. Skretny extended the deadline for those independent petitions by about three weeks, to Sept. 15.

His plan does not allow for a vast rural legislative district, along the county's eastern and southern borders, outlined in an earlier map once advanced by the Legislature. Supervisors in those outlying towns had complained that the district, encompassing about 45 percent of Erie County's land mass, was too huge and would spread its legislator too thin. Three separate districts now take in that sprawling region.

In his decision, Skretny wrote that his plan favors no political party, but he acknowledged that in a county with many more Democrats than Republicans, Republican majorities are found in three of the 11 districts.

Given the current slate of incumbents seeking re-election, the Democrats appear to have five solid seats, the Republicans four. The remaining two could be toss-ups.

"Absent agreement among the responsible branches of county government, it is this plan that this court believes best serves the voters of Erie County," Skretny wrote. "And, it is the plan that will govern through the remainder of this decade."

He said the plan includes two districts in Buffalo where minorities make up a majority of the residents. District 1 has a population of 83,361, with 58.38 percent of the residents black and 11.7 percent Hispanic. District 2 has 83,502 people, with 53.24 percent of them black and 10 percent Hispanic.

To the greatest extent possible, the judge added, municipal boundaries are respected, with splits limited to the City of Buffalo and Amherst, Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda. There is no longer a legislative district encompassing all of Buffalo's West Side.

Skretny kept in mind the residences of current legislators. Their homes are marked on his map. "Each new district includes at least one incumbent," he wrote in his decision. But one of the districts, with Lancaster at its center, would have no incumbent running to represent it this year. Legislator Dino Fudoli, R-Lancaster, is running for town supervisor.

This decade's bid to create new county legislative districts stumbled several times, in part because of complications from a voter-approved mandate to drop from 15 to 11 lawmakers.

A special Legislature-appointed advisory committee of volunteers quickly split along the same lines as the Legislature. The advisers forwarded just one plan to the Legislature, a version drafted by the committee's chairman and revised slightly by the Legislature chairwoman who appointed him, Miller-Williams.

But Miller-Williams was unable to force the plan through the Legislature. The eight other Legislature Democrats coalesced around a plan they preferred and advanced it to the county executive in an 8-7 vote.

County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican, vetoed the Democrats' map, calling it an example of gerrymandering and back-room deal-making because of some oddly shaped districts. He urged the Legislature to approve the Miller-Williams plan, which Republican lawmakers preferred.

But the Legislature never advanced another map, and the Republican conference never introduced one of its own. Nonpartisan alternatives recommended by citizens were ignored. Meanwhile, deadlines to circulate and then file party-designating petitions raced by.

The matter reached federal court June 30, when Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr filed a lawsuit stating that, without a new plan, the County Legislature would fail to meet the voting-rights protections found in federal law. Mohr asked the judge to impose a map of 11 districts and adjust the election-season calendar to arrange for equal ballot access for incumbents and challengers.