Letter to the Editor: League urges a “No” vote on ward system referendum
September 23, 2011
by Sheila Bernson and Jennifer Mebes Flagg
After a membership meeting in which the referendum* to increase the size of the New Castle Town Board and to change the system of electing board members was thoroughly explored, the League of Women Voters of New Castle arrived at a consensus to oppose the referendum. The League urges residents to vote no on this referendum on November 8th.
New Castle has 17,600 residents and about 12,000 voters. It currently has an at-large system of electing the Town Board, which means all the town’s voters elect the four board members plus the supervisor. The four board members each serve four-year terms (two elected every two years) and the supervisor serves a two-year term. Each board member is paid $10,250 per year and the supervisor is paid $42,865 per year.
The referendum calls for New Castle residents to adopt a ward system and to increase the size of the Town Board from the present number—four board members plus the supervisor—to six board members plus the supervisor.
Under a ward system, the six board members would each be elected from one of six separate wards, the boundaries of which would be determined by the Westchester County Board of Elections should the referendum succeed. Each ward would have about 3,000 residents and 2,000 voters. Under the statute, board members would serve two-year terms with elections to be held every two years.
Only 11 towns out of 932 in New York State have a ward system. The 11 towns all have a larger population than New Castle. None of the towns in Westchester and only two cities (New Rochelle and Yonkers) out of the six cities in Westchester operate under a ward system.
League Process and Position
Since learning of the petition for the referendum, the League has conducted a study, including interviewing current and former town officials, town residents, proponents of the referendum and others. The League’s primary focus has been on the most significant part of the referendum - changing the method of electing our board members.
The League does not believe a ward system form of government with six wards would be in the best interests of our town. Among the reasons for the League’s opposition to the referendum are the following:
• Town fragmentation. Currently the Town Board is elected by and represents all of New Castle and is answerable to every citizen of the town. The Town Board primarily deals with issues affecting the entire town. In a ward system, each board member would be answerable to only residents in his or her ward. In addition, more focus could potentially be on narrower issues relevant to only one or two wards. New Castle is not large enough to justify such a major change in its government.
• Decrease in continuity. Electing a new Town Board every two years is inefficient and probably would have a deleterious effect on continuity and long-range planning.
• Increased costs. Two additional board members would result in an increase in costs to New Castle residents. Also, it is ill-advised to increase policy-makers at a time when the Town’s administrative staff is being reduced.
• Ability to get qualified candidates. Prior to this year, New Castle had not had a contested election for board members in many years. Under the ward system it may be difficult to get the most qualified candidates for Town Board from six different wards of only 2,000 voters each.
Finally, it is important to note that the League did not study the issue of whether New Castle’s government is transparent or responsive enough. Rather, we studied whether the referendum would improve the transparency and responsiveness of the Town Board. We concluded it would not.
The League is planning an informational meeting for the community on October 17th. We believe that this is a very important issue for residents of New Castle and we hope to see everyone there.
Sheila Bernson and Jennifer Mebes Flagg
Co-Presidents of the League of Women Voters of New Castle
September 22, 2011
*The referendum is as follows: “That a) the number of at-large seats on the Town Board be increased from four to six; and b) that these six members of the Board be elected as representatives of each of six wards respectively of the Town of New Castle, to be defined in accordance with the laws of New York State, Town Law, Article 6, Section 85.”