Why vote “Yes” To The Ward System In Clarkstown?

Ward System

To: Editor Rockland Voice
From: Phil Leiter

Why vote “Yes” to the ward system in Clarkstown? I offer what is only my opinion on the question, and it makes sense to discuss the most common aspect in these discussions first.

I have seen all kinds of nefarious motivations ascribed to the supporters of the ward system, who often point to the developments in neighboring Ramapo. The religious undertones that often come to the fore simply distract from the realities that Ramapo’s at-large political system has allowed a remarkably small area, in an incredibly short time, to wreak havoc on a suburban environment. Because of the at-large system in Ramapo, rapid high-density development, combined with highly active and focused voting, has allowed two small villages to dominate local politics in Ramapo. Similarly, the town’s infrastructure and resources were never designed for these high-density populations, leading to issues ranging from declines in public education to inadequate public safety enforcement.

To restore some semblance of balance between these concentrated populations and the rest of the town, Ramapo residents sought to replace the at-large system with a ward system. But any efforts towards that end will fail because the political dominance has already been established. Installing a ward system in Clarkstown is a preventive measure to ensure fair representation and equal treatment for all residents in our town, now and going forward.

Some believe that strong zoning laws and enforcement would prevent a similar situation in Clarkstown. They should know that NYS law makes it relatively easy to incorporate a village with as little as 500 residents. They don’t have to be voters, just residents including children. At that point, a village forms its own local government, including a zoning commission which may now permit high density development within its borders. As that area builds in population, its influence in an at-large government increases disproportionately. One might dismiss these concerns if Ramapo were an isolated case, but one need only look just north to Orange County to see the contentious and litigious activities between Kiryas Joel, another high density village, and its neighbors.

A ward system will certainly not prevent the formation of a similar village in Clarkstown, but such a village would potentially only dominate one ward out of six, and thus its influence in a ward system is far more reasonably limited within overall town politics. To have the same disproportionate influence that is easily attained in an at-large system, such villages would have to be established in four of the six wards. Not impossible, but certainly much more difficult.

While I recognize these concerns and the concurrent political and social realities, I was intrigued by the ward system when it was first proposed by Mr. Borelli and Mr. Hoehmann. I believe there are several general but significant advantages to the ward system.

– It will substantially reduce the funding needed by candidates to run for office by running for a ward, rather than the entire town.

– This will increase the pool of qualified candidates who might otherwise not receive funding or attention from the established political powers.

– A ward representative will be far more aware and responsive to the concerns of their residents. The ward system will make each member of the town board more directly answerable to the voters, rather than the party bosses. It will require them to learn and act upon the concerns of those voters, rather than learn and advance their way around an entrenched political system. This will, in turn, lead to …

– Residents being more aware and more active in their local political process. People feel disenfranchised when limited to the choices given to them by the political bosses and committees. Good grief, Mr. Gromack is on the Democratic, Conservative, Green, Working Families, Independence and Women’s Equality lines … what kind of choice is that? The ward system eliminates such shenanigans and restores political power to the voters.

As proposed, the ward system will increase the number of Town board members from four to six, serving two year terms (the Supervisor remains an at-large office). Salaries for each trustee will be reduced, so that there will be no net increase. There will be some increase in the benefits cost for two more people, and the salaries will certainly increase at some point down the road. But these costs are relatively small, and will be offset by the significant cost controls that the ward structure will bring to the overall town budget. Spending a little more money on a control system that will save significant money year over year is smart spending.

For those who would argue that there would be a more contentious Board, I would answer, “Exactly!” It will be far more difficult to spend excessively and far more difficult to pierce the tax cap or to bond for operational expenses. Some have said a ward system will somehow take this to an extreme, pitting wards against each other, but that would be based upon…what, exactly? Party affiliation or ideology? Nothing says this would not be a factor than the wide spectrum of lines that Mr. Gromack is running upon. On a local level, it doesn’t seem that party affiliation or platform is as important to the voters as the quality of the candidate. Beyond that, I think the differences between the residents in our respective neighborhoods is largely insignificant such that simple geography is not a factor.

Still, some may be uncomfortable with the idea that they are voting on the ward system without knowing what the lines of each ward will be. Without establishing those lines first, they may feel that the ward question is being “rushed”. In fact, and again by NYS law, the lines for the wards CAN NOT be drawn until the change from an at-large system to a ward system is approved by referendum. Post-approval, the lines will be drawn by the Board of Elections. In theory, the Town Board can overrule the Board’s lines, but I think that would be politically suicidal. As I said, if party affiliation is extremely important in one’s assessment, I suppose the lines could be a concern. But I think that more and more people in Clarkstown care less about political parties and more about knowing and having ready access to their representatives.

And if that’s the case, you should vote for the ward system in Clarkstown on November 3rd.
Phil Leiter
(Editor’s Note: Phil Leiter has lived most of his life in Rockland County. Since moving to Congers, he frequently writes about local school issues and open governance on social media and his own blog.)
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