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Hamburg ‘upsizing’ bid rebuts an old echo

Barbara Rogers has a question for Kevin Gaughan:

How many Hamburg Town Board meetings has he attended since the board downsized from five members to three?

The former stay-at-home mother and retired legal assistant had one thought when she heard that Gaughan had challenged the board to debate the merits of increasing the number of members back up to five.

“The very first thing that occurred to me was, I’d like to debate that guy because what he said didn’t make sense,” she said.

The campaign is on to sway voters in the November referendum that, if approved, would add two members to the board. Hamburg residents voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to decrease the number of board members from five to three: two council members and the supervisor.

Rogers, 66, is the leader of a loosely organized group of residents who collected more than 529 signatures on petitions asking the board to put “upsizing” on the November ballot. The board did that last Friday.

Gaughan led the charge in 2009 to downsize the board to three members, which took effect in 2012. Hamburg joined West Seneca, Evans, Alden and Orchard Park with three-member boards.

He and Supervisor Steven J. Walters held two forums on downsizing before the 2009 vote, and he suggests two dates this year, with the League of Women Voters as the impartial moderator.

The 61-year-old lawyer, who has made regionalism his life’s work and downsizing his calling, chided the board for having “disdain for the wishes of citizens.”

“You’ve whined, bickered and made endless excuses for failure. You went so far as to assert that your squabbling was a result of downsizing, a contention debunked by editorial boards throughout the region, and belied by the petty rancor that characterized your board in the years before downsizing took effect,” Gaughan wrote in his letter to the board. “Worse, you’ve made little effort to adapt to three-member board governance.”

Asked about Gaughan, Rogers said, “If he doesn’t live here anymore, and he doesn’t go to board meetings, how can he determine things? How can he say it’s working when he’s not here to observe firsthand?”

Gaughan said he has attended more than 550 town and village board meetings since he started his campaign in 2006 to downsize the number of politicians from governing boards. He said he has spent “a great deal” of time learning procedures and practices of town governance under state law, and traveled to more than a dozen states and observed town boards there.

He also said he has read the minutes of Hamburg Town Board meetings, including those where the supervisor, in response to a question, advised residents to collect petitions if they wanted the size of the board increased.

“It’s very difficult to find boards, outside New York State, with more than three members,” he said.

Gaughan did not attend the Nov. 10, 2014, meeting, and neither did two board members.

The board was supposed to adopt the 2015 budget, but the meeting had to be canceled when Walters had an emergency and Councilman Michael P. Quinn Jr. was sick. It was the second time in 2½ years that a meeting had to be canceled because there was not a quorum.

But the budget had to be adopted by Nov. 20 or the tentative budget would go into effect without any changes the board had made. So a special meeting had to be scheduled for Nov. 19.

The November snowstorm hit on the evening of Nov. 17, and no one was going anywhere. As the wind howled and the snow was on its way to piling up to 7 feet by week’s end, the board rescheduled the special meeting to Nov. 20. With no sign of snow letting up, Quinn was able to trudge to the end of his road at midday and get picked up by police, while Councilwoman Cheryl Potter-Juda could not get out of her street.

Walters and Quinn ended up adopting the budget in a 3-minute meeting in Town Hall.

Upsizing has been an uphill battle that did not get traction in West Seneca and Alden, where voters turned down attempts to revert back to five-member boards in 2012. Residents in West Seneca circulated petitions. They did not have enough signatures to place it on the ballot, and the Town Board voted to place the referendum before the voters.

Alden residents did circulate petitions to get the measure on the agenda. Voters in both towns ended up rejecting upsizing, by ratios of about 2-to-1.

Gaughan maintains that the initiative in Hamburg is driven by politicians, who want to increase their numbers, increase patronage and, in turn, increase costs. Rogers, he said, should be commended for getting involved. But he said the board members did not act because they were forced by citizens.

“This is a board-generated referendum, period,” he said.

But Rogers said the movement to upsize, which is supported by Common Cause, did not come from the Town Board.

“When this thing got going, I never got advice from the Town Board; I never asked for their permission,” she said. “After we had a meeting, I didn’t go to the board and report to them.”

Board members said they put the item on the November ballot because that’s what a number of residents wanted.

“The residents kind of asked for this. I would say it was citizen-driven,” Quinn said. “We had senior citizens walking door-to-door in the hot sun to get signatures.”

Potter-Juda said the issue had come up before on the board and that a group wanted to get it on the ballot.

“I was elected by them; that’s what they deserve to get,” she said.

Quinn said, “I don’t see what the big deal is. People have seen the five-member board; people have seen the three-member board. They can decide whatever they want.”

Walters, who made no secret that he opposed downsizing, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Rogers said the Town Board is the grass-roots level of government that is closest to the residents.

“This is where we can go to a Town Board meeting, ask a direct question,” she said. “This is grass-roots democracy at its base level. When you erode that, you’re eroding the whole process.”