Barbara Rogers started going to Hamburg Town Board meetings about three years ago, when the number of members dropped down from five to three. She didn’t like what she saw.
“Right off the top, I didn’t think it was working,” she said.
She didn’t support the smaller board when voters approved it in 2009, and now the 66-year-old retired legal assistant and former stay-at-home mother is trying to reverse it. She has organized a petition drive, seeking a referendum to “upsize.”
“The board is not functioning efficiently, and it’s costing us more money,” she said. “The supposed savings did not materialize and in effect it’s costing a lot more.”
The downsizing movement, championed by Kevin Gaughan, swept through Erie County six years ago. Hamburg was one of five towns where voters approved reducing the size of the board from five members to three.
Gaughan still believes the smaller boards are efficient and effective.
“We’re just beginning an economic turnaround, and it would be a shame to be dragged back to yesterday’s decline when we’re all setting our course on tomorrow’s growth,” Gaughan said.
Still, the Hamburg woman did what many may have thought was impossible: bringing together members of the Republican, Democrat and Conservative parties at a meeting to work together on the same issue.
“I had eight people, including vice chairmen. We were all in agreement: This is not a political issue. It is not a partisan issue,” she said. “It’s a community issue.”
That’s why Common Cause New York supports her work and sees it as a way to improve the functioning of local government.
The vice chairmen of the three political parties wrote a letter to the Hamburg weekly, The Sun, urging citizens “regardless of political preferences” to sign the petition.
“There’s no political motivation here; it’s just better government,” said Al Monaco, vice chairman of the town Conservatives.
He has been going door to door, collecting signatures on petitions asking the Town Board to put upsizing to a vote. He said the issue was presented as a cost-saving measure when the vote was 60 percent in favor of downsizing, but residents did not have information on the other effects, such as problems with board members communicating because of the Open Meetings Law.
“I was sort of shocked this thing passed when it did,” Monaco said.
Rogers, a member of Common Cause who has spent time at Town Board meetings denouncing the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, started speaking up about the size of the board and writing letters to the editor about a year ago.
She said people started complaining to her about the smaller board.
Under a three-member Town Board, decisions can be made by two people. Zoning issues requiring a “super-majority” need a unanimous vote to pass, and two members constitute a quorum.
That means if two members are absent, no meeting. That has occurred in Hamburg and Orchard Park.
Conversely, two members who want to talk about town business must call a meeting and give the public notice under the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“In a board consisting of three members, two members cannot talk to each other concerning town business without either triggering the operation of the Open Meetings Law, or violating the law,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.
“You can’t talk together legally; that’s a big hindrance,” Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick Keem said. “It’s hard to run government like that.”
Gaughan said he believes the law is strengthened by the three-member boards.
“It closes off the politicians’ opportunity to make closed-door decisions,” he said. “Everyone knows from Washington to Albany to local government, transparency is the most important element of successful governance.”
In addition to issues with the Open Meetings Law, some residents say there aren’t enough board members to handle all the committees and work.
“The Town of Hamburg is large. Three board members is not sufficient for this town and it never was,” said resident Laura Podkulski, who is collecting signatures on petitions.
Cost savings contested
But government has not ground to a halt in Hamburg, West Seneca, Evans, Orchard Park or Alden under three-member boards.
West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan said the Town Board has many work sessions, and board members depend on department heads. If an important issue comes up, since she cannot talk to her colleagues, she has a chief of staff who will immediately reach out to both board members.
The downsizing has saved money in the five towns. A Buffalo News Analysis showed the towns collectively saved at least $1 million in salaries, payroll taxes and health benefits over the past six years. Gaughan contends the savings is much higher.
“The true cost is the lifetime pensions and health care benefits they receive,” he said.
Many towns have eliminated lifetime health care for retired elected officials, and not all the officials downsized received health care or were in the pension system.
It’s more difficult to quantify how much the change may have cost in missed opportunity and inefficient communication.
“Things that used to be done in a matter of days now take months,” Rogers said.
The petition asks the Town Board to “initiate whatever action is required to restore the Town Board to five members.” That means putting the measure to a vote.
Hamburg Village Mayor Thomas J. Moses Sr. is not afraid to speak his mind, and he’s another one who is collecting signatures on petitions.
“We want to keep it non-political and get people involved,” he said. “People in the community are not happy with the bickering. They think it’s too much to handle for three people.”
Rogers is adamant about keeping the initiative grassroots and apolitical.
“You can sense the tension out there, that people are not happy with this situation,” she said. “Somebody’s got to do something, so just try.”
Upsizing will be an uphill battle, if the last two efforts at increasing the size of boards are any barometer.
West Seneca and Alden voters slapped down the attempt to upsize those boards in 2012.
Alden Supervisor Harry F. “Bud” Milligan said he’s not running for re-election this year, and the problems created by the three member board have a lot to do with it.
“It’s not the money,” he said, “It is just the petty aggravation, all the things you have to deal with.”
The hardest thing for him is the inability to talk to the two councilmen unless they call a meeting.
“I can’t call them up and say, ‘Hey what do you think of that idea,’” he said. “How could the country run if the president couldn’t talk to the vice president?”
Though he thinks the upsizing effort is misguided, Gaughan said any time residents have the chance to vote on how their government operates is a “great thing, a magical thing.”
“I support any citizen petition to let people decide,” he said. “The purpose of our citizens movement has always been to let people, not politicians, decide the size of government.”