Checks and Balances Needed In Drawing Clarkstown’s Ward Lines?

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There was an excellent article in the March 1st, 2015 issue of the Washington Post which stated:

Gerrymandering — drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party — is a difficult process to explain. If you find the notion confusing, check out the chart above and wonder no more.

Suppose we have a very tiny state of fifty people. Thirty of them belong to the Blue Party, and 20 belong to the Red Party. And just our luck, they all live in a nice even grid with the Blues on one side of the state and the Reds on the other.

Now, let’s say we need to divide this state into five districts. Each district will send one representative to the House to represent the people. Ideally, we want the representation to be proportional: if 60 percent of our residents are Blue and 40 percent are Red, those five seats should be divvied up the same way.

Fortunately, because our citizens live in a neatly ordered grid, it’s easy to draw five lengthy districts — two for the Reds , and three for the Blues. Voila! Perfectly proportional representation, just as the Founders intended. That’s grid 1 above, “perfect representation”.

Now, let’s say instead that the Blue Party controls the state government, and they get to decide how the lines are drawn. Rather than draw districts vertically they draw them horizontally, so that in each district there are six Blues and four Reds. You can see that in grid 2 above, “compact but unfair”.

With a comfortable Blue majority in this state, each district elects a blue candidate to the House. The Blues win 5 seats and the Reds don’t get a single one. Oh well! All’s fair in love and politics.

Finally, what if the Red Party controls the state government? The Reds know they’re at a numeric disadvantage. But with some creative boundary drawing — the type you see in grid 3, “neither compact nor fair” — they can slice the Blue population up such that they only get a majority in two districts. So despite making up 40 percent of the population, the Reds win 60 percent of the seats. Not bad!

Now, this exercise is of course a huge simplification. In the real world people don’t live in neatly-ordered grids sorted by political party. But for real-world politicians looking to give themselves an advantage at redistricting time, the process is exactly the same, as are the results for the parties that gerrymander successfully.

Here is a classic example of gerrymandering of the legislative districts in Rockland County. Take a look at this county map and ask why district #13 has such an odd and twisted shape compared for example with districts #2 or #3.  Take a closer look at district #13 and ask yourself why the boundaries were drawn in this convoluted manner?

In last November’s Clarkstown election, voters approved a proposition to adopt a ward system of government in the Town of Clarkstown. The process of implementing that system is now underway and it appears that as part of that rollout plan, the Town Board will seek to make a fundamental change that dramatically differs from how the proposition was previously presented to the public.

Specifically, the Town Board is considering passing a local law giving itself the authority to DRAW the ward lines despite the fact the proposition on the ballot last November clearly stated the lines would be drawn by the Board of Elections. While it may be  perfectly within the legal rights of the Town Board to take this action, the public deserves a thorough and logical explanation as to why the Board would wish to DRAW the lines, which may have to be redrawn after a future census, meaning that future Town Boards will potentially be given this power. While we don’t believe it is the intention of the present board to attempt to gerrymander districts, we also don’t believe they should put themselves in the sole position of power to do so if they choose.

We believe the citizens of Clarkstown, the members of the Town Board, and Supervisor Hoehmann should all be very concerned about the potential implications of putting the power to draw AND approve the Ward lines solely in the hands of the present Town Board or any future Town Board. We hold the same view that the power to draw AND approve the Ward lines should not be held solely by the Board of Elections.  In our view, there should be a system of checks and balances in place.

The editors of Rockland Voice remain very much in favor of the Ward system in Clarkstown; we would have preferred that the voters had approved six Wards and feel that if a new referendum was put in front of them today to expand from four Wards to six that the measure would pass easily. However, given that four Wards must be drawn, then in our view the primary objective is to ensure that the ward lines are drawn in the most logical manner with regard to natural geographical boundaries, the requirement to keep election districts intact, an equal division of registered voters regardless of party affiliation in each Ward, and a preference to keep hamlets / communities whole whenever possible.

Essentially, we believe there should be NO gerrymandering of the districts to favor any political party, nor to recreate a distribution of power in the wards to reflect the current split of registered Democrats vs. Republicans, nor to protect the seat of any present incumbent. We don’t see how it is even possible to draw a Republican controlled ward in Clarkstown without gerrymandering based on the criteria outlined above, but that may not hold true in the future.

Unfortunately, the two governing bodies that were discussed publicly as options to draw the Ward lines have inherent conflicts of interest in adhering to these criteria. With this in mind, we strongly advocate that a disinterested third party should be hired to draw the lines based on specific criteria outlined below.

Stavisky and Babcock Picture by Lohud.com

Stavisky and Babcock
Picture by Lohud.com

In theory the Board of Elections is designed to be a power balance, making it the more preferable of the two governing bodies discussed as having authority to draw the lines. However, the current situation in Rockland County is rife with conflicts of interest with the current two commissioners.

Commissioner Kristen Stavisky, the Democratic appointee, serves as the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party. This is a blatant conflict of interest that has been widely criticized wherever it is in place, both in Clarkstown and in other locations. In fact, the same dual role was previously played in Rockland County by the former Republican Party Chairman, Vincent Reda, who was forced to resign from the Board of Elections under public pressure belatedly stating that his critics were right, as he “could not serve two masters.”

Commissioner Stavisky’s husband is a top executive in the Parkside Group, one of the largest and most powerful political consulting and lobbying groups in the country. That firm’s records have been subpoenaed as part of campaign financing investigations. Democratic candidates here in Clarkstown forked hundreds of thousands of dollars to the firm in the last election alone. This creates a second conflict of interest where Ms. Stavisky has every reason to protect Democratic officials that retain the services of her husband’s firm. The only safeguard the people of Clarkstown have against these conflicts of interest are Ms. Stavisky’s assertions that she operates in both roles with integrity. That assertion is simply not good enough.

On the Republican side, the current Board of Elections Commissioner is the lame duck, Butch Babcock, a holdover from the Vincent Reda Republican Party regime. Reda and his cronies were summarily rejected and overthrown by Republican Party members seeking to restore integrity to their Party after years of shady backroom dealings with other political party leaders led by former county legislator Frank Sparaco, and former Conservative leader, Ed Lettre. Under their leadership the Rockland County Republican Party had become an apparent cesspool of political corruption.

Babcock, is an appointee of Reda and a remaining fixture of the politics of the past. He will most certainly not be reappointed when his term expires shortly. There is little reason therefore that the residents of Clarkstown should want to hand him half the power in shaping the political boundary lines of Clarkstown’s future, especially if the remnants of the Independence and Conservative Parties wish to again exert their ‘pay-to-play‘ influence on the drawing of Ward lines to reestablish their former improper influences in Clarkstown’s politics.

Even if one takes the current personal conflicts of interest out of the picture, the Board of Elections as an option to draw the lines is problematic in other ways. First, the Board is empowered to simply draw the lines without any public hearing or input. The lines that they draw would be final and there is no fail-safe mechanism to dispute or change what the Board of Elections sets forth as the legal boundaries. The public has no recourse to vote the commissioners out of office at the next election if the lines are gerrymandered. The commissioners have been beholden to the political party leaders in the past, not to the public.

The citizens of Clarkstown have come too far recently with improvements in their local government structures to now hand over recently won transparency gains to Party leaders who may have nothing but their own self interests at heart.

As previously stated, we also believe the Town Board is far from an ideal governing body to be given the power to draw the lines. First and foremost, the instinct of self-preservation creates a conflict that we have already seen run rampant in the Rockland County Legislature. While Clarkstown doesn’t have the ethnic and religious pockets of concentration that the County has currently, that situation can change at any time and Ward lines are subject to being redrawn based on population changes after every census. Whichever party is currently in power with the ability to draw and approve the lines can simply take a “to the victors go the spoils” approach.  While it is true that in the case of the Town Board having the authority to draw the lines, the public has an opportunity to provide input and a recourse to vote out the Town Board members, there are still no checks and balances that protect the public from the Party-in-power’s potential to gerrymander.

A solution by which the Board of Elections draws the lines and the Town Board has final approval would be a preferable path than the options that are currently on the table. We at Rockland Voice have one example to propose of a system that would incorporate numerous checks and balances:

1) The Town Board should pass a local law giving it the authority to approve Ward maps but NOT to draw them

2) The Election Commissioners should be asked to provide the Town Board with the names of three disinterested organizations, NOT doing business in or with New York State, to draw the Ward lines.

3) The Town Board should choose one of the three organizations submitted by the BOE to draw the boundary lines.

4) The Election Board should supply the chosen organization with the number of residents and the number of registered voters in each of the election districts in Clarkstown.  General information as to geographic boundaries, postal codes, the boundaries of hamlets, school districts etc., should also be provided but NO other information.  The organization shall NOT be provided with registered party information or information on where elected officials reside.

5) The organization should submit three proposed maps to the Town Board ranked in its preferred order and provide its reasons for the ranking.

6) The Board of Elections and the Town Board should then separately provide their own preferred ranking of the three maps submitted.

7) Each map should then be ranked giving three points to the map ranked #1 by each of the three entities, two points to the map ranked #2 by the entities, and one point to the map ranked #3 by each entity.  The map receiving the highest ranking should then be adopted.

8) In the event that the ranking process leads to a tie between two or more maps, the Town Board should be authorized by the local law to have the final decision by a super majority vote as to which of the tied Ward maps is chosen.

9) In the unlikely event that a super majority vote of the Town Board could not be reached then the process would be restarted with the second organization submitted to the Town Board by the Election Commissioners.

One needs to look no further than the present County Legislature where a consultant was used in drawing the lines to see how a carefully constructed process can still be corrupted.  We believe that the process outlined above protects all parties, but particularly it protects the public from corruption in the drawing of the Ward lines and will provide contiguity for school districts, communities, etc.

Our proposal makes a clear separation of powers between drawing the lines and approving the lines. Final approval of the lines would rest with the Town Board, and would require a supermajority vote. This proposal includes both the Board of Elections and the Town Board in the process, but relies exclusively on data and geography based upon a strict set of rules that a disinterested third party must follow.

The objective is to create a system of checks and balances that protects the people of Clarkstown to the maximum extent possible against manipulation of the ward lines for political advantage by any party, both now and in the future. At the very least, by adhering to a strict set of guidelines such as those we have put forth in this article, the public would be guaranteed a high level of protection against classical, corrupt gerrymandering.

With these concerns in mind, we urge the Town Board and the Election Commissions to accept this course of action. 

[Author’s note:  The editors of Rockland Voice wish to thank those citizens who spoke to us and provided feedback.  We realize that the final Ward map that will be drawn for Clarkstown will almost certainly have a Democratic majority in each of the four Wards. However, that majority will not be greater that the combined majority of other Party voters in any Ward which is also a ‘check and balance’ on one Party becoming dominant in the Town of Clarkstown.  It is our view, moreover, that Party affiliations at the local level are becoming less important given the nature of the problems we believe that Clarkstown faces over the foreseeable future.]

About Jeff Gillies

Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

About the Author
Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

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