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Hamburg to vote on upsizing Town Board

Hamburg residents will decide on the size of their Town Board in November for the second time in six years.

Keep it at three, or raise it to five?

If they agree to add two council members, they would be the first town in Erie County to do that since regionalism activist Kevin Gaughan’s downsizing crusade moved through the county over the past nine years.

Hamburg’s three-member board Friday unanimously approved a proposition for the November general election that would add two council members, bringing the board to its former size.

Alden, Evans, Orchard Park and West Seneca also downsized to three members, and Grand Island turned the measure down. West Seneca and Alden later held votes to upsize that were soundly defeated.

The four-minute special meeting came about Friday after citizen activist Barbara Rogers and a small group of like-minded residents gathered more than 500 signatures on petitions asking the board to upsize. No one spoke during the brief meeting, which ended before some television reporters could set up cameras in the board conference room.

As supporters and board members applauded Rogers after the meeting, she said: “It was not a ‘me’ project, it was a ‘we’ project.”

Rogers, a member of Common Cause, which supported the effort, had met with representatives of the Republican, Democratic and Conservative parties, and she had taken pains to keep the effort non-partisan.

The Town Board downsized in 2012 following a 2009 vote in which Hamburg residents approved the reduction by a two-to-one margin. Hamburg was one of five towns that was downsized after a flurry of campaigning and lobbying by Gaughan and his Let People Decide organization.

Gaughan, who is convinced the multiple governments and high number of elected officials in Erie County are responsible for the area’s lengthy economic downturn, pledged to have a healthy debate.

“I regret having politicians forcing a second vote on a matter that Hamburg residents expressed themselves clearly,” said Gaughan, a Hamburg native.

“I certainly welcome the discussion and the opportunity for community-wide debate.”

He said his job now is to make sure residents hear both sides of the question.

“I look forward to visiting folks in their homes and hearing their views,” Gaughan said.

This year’s campaign promises to be a do-over of many of the points made in the 2009 debate.

Downsizing proponents say the town saves money by having a smaller town board. The area’s bloated government is responsible for high taxes and the inability to provide basic services to a population that has been hemorrhaging over four decades, they maintain.

“I think they should keep it at two,” said one Hamburg resident over coffee in Great Harvest Bread Co. “Instead of four people arguing, it’s two people arguing.”

He said he is a veteran and a Democrat who has become very conservative.

“I don’t see that five is going to do what the three can’t accomplish,” said another resident walking in downtown Hamburg.

Supporters of upsizing say there are not enough voices making decisions, and the state’s Open Meetings Law makes it impossible for board members to communicate outside of a board meeting.

“They need more opinions and more outlook into what is happening,” said Barbara Doody as she stopped during a walk along Main Street.

A senior citizen, she said the town needs fresh ideas.

“I’m hoping they do,” she said about upsizing.

Supervisor Steven Walters has served on five- and three-member boards. He said there is very little communication on the three-member board and it hampers the town.

“Things that used to take a day are taking weeks. Things that used to take a week to accomplish are taking months, and that’s no way to run a business, that’s no way to run a town government,” he said.

If voters approve the measure in November, two council seats would be added Jan. 1, 2018. The vote for the new seats would occur in November 2017, and one would be a two-year seat and one would be a four-year seat, the supervisor said. At the election in 2019, the two-year seat would become a four-year seat.

“I think the voters now see what downsizing actually meant. It doesn’t mean a giant savings on the tax bill as certain people promised,” Walters said.