Letter to the Editor: The Referendum Committee responds to specific questions posted on NCNOW
November 4, 2011
by Manny Areces
Thank you for the active, thoughtful consideration of the New Castle Representation Referendum and the issues it is meant to address. So that everyone has access to all aspects of the discussion, this letter will address the questions that have been raised in these pages point by point.
On the question about how many other towns use a district representation system:
Historically, towns in our county have chosen separation instead of representation, taking the more costly path of creating villages to accommodate areas wanting to be heard and having a vote on issues that concerned them. In fact, we lost a large chunk of our commercial tax base when Mt. Kisco seceded from New Castle in 1977. Elsewhere in Westchester County, two communities have recently changed to member districts, one through a federal lawsuit with support of the attorney general and the other through referendum; one a village smaller in area than New Castle, and the other a city larger than New Castle. (Incidentally, in both cases, the local LWV sided with the status quo against the change to district representation.)
We in New Castle don’t always do the same as the other towns in Westchester. For example, we were the first of only two towns in Westchester to choose to employ a highly-paid Town Administrator in addition to the elected Town Supervisor. And while most towns in Westchester elect Town Clerks (as does the County) we passed a referendum a few years back, with the backing of the then Town Board, to eliminate the election of our town clerk, for better or for worse. It’s always up to us to choose what’s right for us, regardless of what any other town is doing.
On the question of the size of our town and what system “fits”:
Most town governments in Westchester elect non-partisan representatives (by which we mean that national parties like Republicans or Democrats are not involved). Candidates run on the issues and concerns of the Town and the various neighborhoods. (We’re glad to see that the Chappaqua Crossing issue has now given us a non-party candidate, and we hope that’s a trend for the future.) If we are large enough for national political parties, we are large enough for the protection that district representation gives us against special interest party politics.
On the question of the cost of more town board members:
The current “salary” of $10,250 per year per Board Member is intended to be an honorarium to citizens who “volunteer” their services and thus occasionally experience conflicts of interest and time to their regular “day job.” (In fact, Board Members needing to recuse themselves from important decision-making is one of the strongest reasons we need to increase the size of the Board.) The prospect of an additional $20,500 in honorariums for two more Board Members, added to a Town Budget that will soon exceed $20 million, needs to be examined in many different ways. For example, our Town has a large full-time paid administrative staff, as well as numerous paid outside consultants. What savings might be generated by having more hands on deck fulfilling otherwise paid tasks? In recent years we’ve seen town officials raising their salaries with no oversight. We could ask them to freeze the amount allocated in the budget for their salaries and distribute it according to their numbers. The more hands to help, the less need for a larger stipend. Furthermore, too many of their current responsibilities are back-burnered because of a lack of time. What is the “cost” of not even bringing issues and concerns to the table? What is the “cost” of lost discussion that never makes it out of closed door “executive session” because the 4-member board admits to being over-extended?
On the subject of creating districts:
Much has been written and worried about how the districts would be created. We’ll have two years between the passage of the referendum and the first election to be held under the district system to work that out! We are currently divided into 16 equal election districts, so it is not hard to imagine various configurations of expanding or combining those districts to allow for equal geographic distribution of representation to the Town Board. We need not be subject to the Westchester Board of Elections in defining those districts. A 1965 decision by the State Attorney General’s office gives us the right to create election districts, and in a 1969 opinion, the AG’s office added that, “a town may change the district boundaries by local law,” permitting us to have an independent committee to create those districts.
On the subject of ensuring fair and equal representation:
Do the math: Which gives you a greater voice, being one vote among 2,000 or one vote among 12,000 eligible voters? The result is that they represent you, not only on whole town issues, but also in keeping the needs of your district at the table. The district representation system brings us that much closer to one person/one vote.
On the question of availability of prospective candidates:
A recent letter writer expressed concern that there might not be enough people to run and then went on to worry about too many people running, which one is it? In the best case scenario, in the six districts, we could have 12 candidates or more running and in discussion about town issues and local concerns, a good example of “turning up the volume.” In the worst case, (much as it is now) the local political committee would run an uncontested election, with only one handpicked candidate per district, nominating someone to serve if no one steps forward to run. And just as now, those elected would have to deal with town issues without having sufficient knowledge of issues beyond their own district. It’s also worth noting that, during the signature gathering process and in conversations developing the FAQs at our site, we heard from many people who have been interested in serving, but knew they’d have no chance of being elected since they were not part of the in-group controlling the choosing process.
On the subject of gerrymandering:
The ultimate form of gerrymandering is the current at-large system since one group or one party represents and speaks for all neighborhoods, many of which have never had a seat on the Town Board and whose issues are only present during election time, and only if the elections happen to be contested. Under the current system, the Town Board could literally all live on the same street. In fact, we’ve heard complaints from residents that their existing local district leaders actually lived on the other side of town and can only be found after a long persistent search. Ask yourself: do you know who your district leader is?
On the subject of transparency:
Transparency happens when an issue or action to be taken is discussed and decided in a public forum and individuals are then allowed to choose what best serves their community and their needs. Transparency dies when our leaders and representatives have been hand-picked, run unopposed and when community concerns are addressed in executive session or are presented as fully-developed decisions without taking into account neighborhood needs and desires of all stakeholders.
On the subject of length of term and continuity of government:
We currently have a Town Supervisor that runs every two years without term limits, and continuity has never been a problem. Some Board Members will choose to run again, others will choose to cycle out. County legislators are all elected at the same time, for two-year terms, and it has not affected the continuity of representation. A determination from the Attorney General in 2002, though it’s not in Town Law, leaves the possibility of keeping Town Board terms at four years. In fact, an AG opinion in 2004 leaves not only the length of terms but also the number of terms, to the interpretation of local law as a “task best left to local officials familiar with local conditions and intent of local legislative bodies.” Personally, I think a two-year term is preferable anyway, making the time commitment less onerous to potential candidates and giving the community more input and control – effective leaders would be re-elected, ineffective ones could be removed more quickly. Continuity happens when we have quality representation that is responsive, respectful and responsible.
Thank you for your time in reading this admittedly long letter. Please visit our website at ncreferendum.com for further discussion. And please vote YES for the Representation Referendum on Tuesday, November 8th.
Love where you live,
Manny Areces is the spokesperson for the Ad Hoc Citizens’ Committee for the Representation Referendum. He is a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow, a recipient of the National PTA Life Achievement Award, and a former member and Chairman of the New Castle Recreation & Parks Commission.
The two-part proposal will appear in the November 8 referendum as a single statement to which voters will answer Yes or No. It will read as follows:
“That a) the number of at-large seats on the Town Board be increased from four to six;
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.”
From NCNOW.org’s archives (newest to oldest):
Letter to the Editor: Why I’m voting YES for the ward redistricting resolution, October 28, 2011, by The Rev. Dr. Joel Clark Mason
Letter to the Editor: Vote “No” to referendum on representation by ward, October 28, 2011, by Robin Stout
Letter to the Editor: Nov. 8 Referendum—Vote YES for Democracy, October 28, 2011, by Penny Vane
Letter to the Editor: Ward system is not in the town’s best interest, October 24, 2011, by Dr. William H. Flank
Letter to the Editor: The wheeling and dealing of Yonkers ward system? Not for New Castle, October 24, 2011, by Betty Weitz
Candidates’ thoughts on the proposed referendum on representation by ward, NCNOW, October 21, 2011
Letter to the Editor: I will vote No on the proposed referendum to institute a ward system, October 21, 2011, by Rob Greenstein
See also Sewers issue surfaces in League forum on ward system referendum, 10/21/11.
Manny Areces’ website with info on the proposed referendum: http://ncreferendum.com/
To see Gerrard’s entire statement click HERE
For background, see:
Letter to the Editor: League urges a “No” vote on ward system referendum, NCNOW.org, September 23, 2011, by Sheila Bernson and Jennifer Mebes Flagg
League of Women voters opposes ward referendum, but will hold forum on Oct. 17, NCNOW.org, September 23, 2011, by Christine Yeres
Letter to the Editor: The proposed referendum to change the structure of town board elections, NCNOW.org, September 19, 2011, by Rob Greenstein
Non-partisan group proposes expansion of town board from 4 at-large members to 6, NCNOW.org, July 1, 2011, by Susie Pender