League of Women voters opposes ward referendum, but will hold forum on Oct. 17
September 23, 2011
by Christine Yeres
The League of Women Voters of New Castle will oppose a referendum on the November 8th ballot proposing that the number of town board members be expanded from the current supervisor-plus-four-members to supervisor-plus-six, and that the six members should each be elected by voters from discrete wards, rather than by the electorate as a whole. The League will hold a community forum on Monday, October 17 to educate the public on the pros and cons of the referendum.
Manny Areces, spokesman for the group promoting the referendum, gathered the requisite signatures over the summer. On August 4, the LWV announced that it was studying the proposal and planned to organize a forum, open to the public, in which it would present the pros and cons of adopting the ward system.
In the first week of September, New Castle’s town clerk sent the petition on to the county board of elections to be included on the November ballot.
On Thursday, September 15, the League announced a date for its community forum on the referendum: Monday, October 17th at 7:30 pm at New Castle Town Hall.
Then last Tuesday night, September 20, 23 members of the 101-member League met to participate in a time-honored “consensus” process, in which an issue is presented to the group along with extensive background information and research. The issue is then discussed by members with the aid of a moderator—League member Polly Kuhn, a former New Castle supervisor who now lives in Somers.
Meeting on the morning after its consensus process, LWV board members discussed several minor changes to the language of the text expressing their position opposing the referendum.
Drawbacks to the ward system
In addition to its research comparing New Castle to other towns that operate by wards (only 11 of 932 towns in the state use the method, and “New Castle would be the smallest” of these), the League had interviewed current, past and prospective members of the town board and supervisors, as well as proponents of the referendum.
“Some members went in [to the consensus meeting] with one opinion and came out with another,” said one board member. “I came into it thinking it a much better idea than [the government system] we currently have,” said another, “but once I learned about implementation [of a ward system], I said ‘Wait a minute’ to what seemed a good idea on the surface.”
Board members listed the following points as drawbacks of the ward system and the addition of town board members:
• the instability from turnover of elected officials every two years,
• the increased cost of adding paid town board members in a time of serious cutbacks [they are paid $10,250 each],
• the divisiveness of electing candidates from separate geographic areas as opposed to town-wide representatives, and
• lack of information on how the board of elections, striving to make districts of equal populations, would draw up the wards
On this last point, a board member explained that New Castle’s population is concentrated in the middle of the municipality and is “fairly light at the outer edges.” This means, League members had concluded in their consensus session, that those residents who might feel most under-represented would invariably end up bundled with more dense areas, defeating the stated purpose of the ward representation, to increase representation of the under-represented. They would remain a minority in a ward system.
Board member Leah Barth added another reason that she felt hadn’t been captured sufficiently by the consensus recording secretary the evening before: the very palpable sense “that people wanted all town board members to be responsive and accountable to them and wanted to vote for all members of the board, not just one from their small district.” Another board member added, “Manny’s motivating reason for this [referendum proposal] is not going to be solved by this [change]. It wasn’t going to solve the problem they thought it would.” Barth concurred. “Yes,” she said, ” ‘That the town board should be more transparent and accountable’?—going to a ward system doesn’t increase transparency. That can be addressed in other ways.”
Consensus followed by Community Forum
Asked whether board members considered the consensus decision would undermine the community forum the League has scheduled for October 17, members saw no conflict. “Our intention is to present both sides of the issue. That’s what the League does. We will have a forum that presents both sides,” said Jennifer Mebes Flagg, co-president of the League. “Manny will be up there on the dais too, and I’m sure he’ll love to do it.”
Why achieve consensus before presenting the community forum? “Because the election is very soon,” said League Co-president Sheila Bernson. “We thought it was important for us to take a stand before the forum. When we began our research in the summer we didn’t know whether the referendum would have the signatures, then whether it would have valid signatures, then whether it would be on the ballot, so we had to get going.”
“The League approached the subject with no opinion, has come to consensus, and has taken a stand,” explained League member Evelyn Bloom. As Mebes Flagg explained it by email:
A League consensus meeting is held after a study committee has gone through a thoughtful, thorough process of researching an issue, including seeking input from informed, knowledgeable individuals. League members come to consensus based on their informed opinions and then advocate their position in the community. Part of the League’s mission is to influence public policy through education and advocacy.
The community forum being hosted by the League serves a different purpose. It is meant to educate the community on the issue. It will be clear in all materials for the public meeting and at the event that the League has already reached consensus and advocates voting against the referendum.
Reached yesterday with news of the consensus, Manny Areces commented, “I’m happy to have any discussion that gets the information out on both sides of the issue. And on October 17th I hope the League will present to the community the research it based its consensus on.”
Click to read the League’s letter to the editor, “League urges a “No” vote on ward system referendum” in today’s NCNOW.