The attempt to redraw district boundaries for the downsized Erie County Legislature has ended badly. Voters have not been served. Disgraceful.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny had to step in to put an end to this political mess. He imposed a set of 11 legislative districts to allow voters to elect their county lawmakers this year.
Redistricting every 10 years to conform to new Census numbers is always contentious. The process was made worse this year because a referendum ordered the County Legislature to downsize from 15 members to 11. Rather than serve the people by creating a fair redistricting process, legislators decided to serve only themselves. Shameful.
The lines are now drawn and, for the most part, are a reasonable way to divide the county into 11 districts with similar populations. The new map is bad news for incumbents in two districts, who will have to run against another incumbent to win a new two-year term.
Amherst Republicans Raymond W. Walter and Edward A. Rath III would face each other in a district that also includes the western half of Cheektowaga and part of South Buffalo. And Democrats Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga and Timothy J. Whalen of South Buffalo would be pitted against one another in a district covering the western half of Cheektowaga and part of South Buffalo.
Skretny determined, correctly, that it is now much too late for candidates to start circulating the petitions that would put them on the ballot in the Sept. 13 primary to choose the party nominee. Instead the judge turned to a process found in state law that lets the parties' county committees select candidates. That procedure favors incumbents and candidates who are in good stead with their parties, and leaves little room for outsiders trying to buck party control.
This year's redistricting began when a special Legislature-appointed advisory committee of volunteers devised a map that favored Republicans. Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, made a few changes, but wasn't able to get the plan through the Legislature. The eight other Democrats passed a plan of their own and sent it to the county executive, a Republican. County Executive Chris Collins vetoed the Democrats' map, calling it an example of gerrymandering and backroom deal-making. He urged legislators to pass the Miller-Williams plan, but the Legislature chose not to advance another map and the Republicans didn't try again. And nonpartisan alternatives recommended by citizens never gained favor.
The result was to take redistricting out of the hands of legislators and turn the process over to a judge.
It goes without saying that the Legislature must do a better job next time around, after the 2020 Census. Meantime, Collins has proposed a process that could serve as a model for other counties around the state and for the state, itself.
Collins' plan would ask seven non-governmental organizations with diverse interests to name members to a nonpartisan redistricting committee. Whether those seven organizations would create the best committee is worth debating, but clearly an independent redistricting process is the only way to truly serve the voting public.
Partisan squabbling was especially damaging this year because it left too little time for the normal primary process of selecting candidates. Anyone who cares more about the democratic process than toeing the party line has little chance of being on the September primary ballot. However, challengers should remember how redistricting played out this year and be encouraged to run against incumbents who failed the people.