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Sigler suspends campaign for Congress

“I can’t see a path forward…” 

by Robert Lynch, May 23, 2022; additional reporting filed at 10:34 PM

Perhaps the old Martha and the Vandellas song title best described Mike Sigler’s plight.  “Nowhere to Run.”

Monday afternoon (May 23rd), Sigler, the Lansing Republican now beginning his fourth term on the Tompkins County Legislature, dropped out of the race for Congress.  Suspending what had been an aggressive and initially productive quest to secure the GOP nomination in the Ithaca-to-Syracuse 22nd Congressional District, the district state legislative Democrats had drawn in February, Sigler suddenly hit a political brick wall this past week when a court-appointed special master, at a judge’s direction, redrew those district lines to erase political gerrymandering.  He also erased Sigler’s political fortunes.

In happier times. Mike Sigler, when he initially filed his political petitions.

As a result, Sigler found his Lansing home—and all of Tompkins County, for that matter—severed from the Syracuse heart of the redrawn 22nd District, the area where he’d spent much of his time and effort campaigning these recent months.  Last week, a new Republican candidate, Cazenovia businessman Steve Wells, entered the Republican race for the 22nd District’s Congressional seat.  And in Tompkins County, now placed within a district that extends east to the Massachusetts border, Sigler would have been pitted head to head with a former New York gubernatorial candidate, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, had Sigler chosen to compete on home turf.

“The lines have changed dramatically and while I’m still a solid candidate, it puts a significant barrier in the way and robs me of several of my main arguments for running in the first place,” said Sigler in a Monday afternoon statement announcing suspension of his campaign.  “While I believe I was ideal for the old district, I can’t see a path forward in the new district and I am suspending my campaign,” Sigler added.

As he stepped aside, Sigler endorsed Wells for Congress in the Syracuse-based 22nd District and Molinaro for nomination in the eastern Southern Tier and Hudson Valley district that now includes Tompkins County.

Sigler’s withdrawal marks the second time in 24 hours that a local candidate for Congress has stepped aside.  In a Sunday evening statement shared with the media early Monday, Ithaca Democrat Vanessa Fajans-Turner pulled the plug on her own congressional campaign.  Fajans-Turner, like Sigler, cited a similar problem; namely a redrawn congressional district that made it tougher for her to compete.

“This new district,” said Ithacan Fajans-Turner of the district in which her county has now been placed, “is very different from the one in which I have been campaigning and building voter trust since launching in February.” 

Recognizing Republican Molinaro’s stature in this district, Fajans-Turner added, “I will not act in any way that splits the Democratic field in this new swing district with an established and well-funded Republican in the running. This national moment is larger than any individual candidate, and it is incumbent on all of us to work for the greater, common cause as the stakes of this race continue to rise.”

As it stands at present, neither Tompkins County Republican nor Democratic voters may be offered a Congressional primary this August.  Unless additional candidates enter on either side—and assuming 19th District incumbent Congressman Antonio Delgado follows through on plans to resign his seat to become New York’s Lieutenant Governor—only Molinaro will compete for the 19th district’s Republican nomination, and Endicott native Josh Riley for the district’s Democratic nod.

Ironically, it was a Republican-driven lawsuit that did in Mike Sigler’s campaign.  After Democratic super-majorities in New York’s Senate and State Assembly drew Congressional and state legislative lines in February to favor their own party’s chances in November, and thrust them through the Legislature on largely party-line votes, Republican plaintiffs challenged those district lines in court.  Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister upheld the Republican lawsuit in late-March, and McAllister’s holding was later upheld in large part by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals holding, in turn, triggered Judge McAllister to name a special master, Jonathan Cervas, to prepare new congressional and state senatorial maps.  Cervas released his preliminary drafts of his maps May 16th.  Judge McAllister approved those drafts with only minor changes last Friday.

But for both Sigler and Fajans-Turner, the new districts spelled bad news.  If either candidate had chosen to remain in his or her earlier-declared 22nd District contests, they’d have faced the political handicap of competing out of their home territory, and also faced the prospect of being labeled a carpetbagger. For Fajans-Turner, as many as four Onondaga County-based candidates would have been waiting to confront her in the 22nd.  And for Sigler, the May 18th entry of Steve Wells, well-known in the new district as a founding partner of the American Food and Vending Corporation, would have made competing in the 22nd an uphill fight.

Out of the race as well. Democrat Vanessa Fajans-Turner

Moving to home terriroty would not have been much better for either.  Fajans-Turner would have faced the better-known and better-financed Riley, who grew up in the Binghamton area now part of the redrawn 19th District.   And for Sigler, it would have meant going head-to-head with Molinaro, a former candidate for Governor.

One other option remained possible.  Yet, it, too, spelled trouble.  Since New York law permits candidates to run outside their home districts, Sigler could have jumped across the Tompkins-Cayuga County line into the new 24th Congressional District.  The 24th is a Republican-favored safe-zone, redrawn by Cervas to encompass the northern Finger Lakes and vast swaths of the Lake Ontario shoreline from the St. Lawrence River to Niagara County. 

But as a practical matter, conservative Congresswoman Claudia Tenney foreclosed that option Saturday when she, herself, announced plans to run in the 24th.  Tenney has plentiful campaign cash, deep-red conservative bona fides, and most importantly, the strong endorsement of former President Trump.

Sources indicate Sigler had firmed up plans to suspend his campaign by the weekend, yet delayed his formal announcement until Monday.

“I don’t feel this was a waste of time,” said Sigler Monday, putting the best face on a disappointing turn of events.  “The court could have easily gone the other way. I’m happy they ruled the way they did as we now have much more competitive races in NY,” he added.

“To say I’m grateful for everyone who believed in this campaign and its vision is the largest of understatements I can imagine,” said Fajans-Turner, in her own withdrawal from the congressional race.  “We campaigned to drive conversation and engagement around key issues in the community. While our time in this race has ended, our work most certainly has not.”

A Democratic Primary for Congress—if, indeed there is one—would occur August 23rd.  Unless either of two candidates drops out before then, Tompkins County Democrats will still have to decide that day their nominee for State Senate, with Leslie Danks Burke and Lea Webb vying for that nomination.

****

Mike Sigler’s Monday afternoon announcement suspending his campaign for Congress was as follows:

Hello,

I want to begin by thanking you for your support in the race for the 22nd district. I jumped into the race February 3rd. I believed, as many of you did, that I was the best candidate for that district, that we would win, and retain the seat against very steep odds. That was always my main goal, to win the seat, and win back the House of Representatives.

The lines have changed dramatically and while I’m still a solid candidate, it puts a significant barrier in the way and robs me of several of my main arguments for running in the first place. While I believe I was ideal for the old district, I can’t see a path forward in the new district and I am suspending my campaign.

Fortunately, the new district is a perfect fit for Steve Wells to run in and win. He has deep ties to both Madison and Onondaga, has run before, and has the means to ramp up a campaign quickly. He was very helpful to me when I first decided to run, introducing me to potential supporters and talking me up.

Thank you for all your support over the past three months. I said I couldn’t do it without the committees and I was proud to gain 100 percent committee support in the gerrymandered district. I don’t feel this was a waste of time. The court could have easily gone the other way. I’m happy they ruled the way they did as we now have much more competitive races in NY.

I will continue to work to elect Marc Molinaro who is now looking to represent Tompkins County and Lee Zeldin and Alison Esposito.

Thank you again for your support and please join your town committee. They are the grassroots. Only you put you on the sidelines. The primary for governor is June 28th. Early voting starts the 18th.

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Judge approves maps; Tenney moves yet again

by Robert Lynch; May 21, 2022

Fasten your seatbelts.  We’re in for a wild ride.

Minutes before Midnight Friday (May 20), the deadline day, Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister approved the modified redistricting maps for U.S. Congress and New York State Senate.  Reportedly, Judge McAllister made minor adjustments to special master Jonathan Cervas’ submitted maps, initial reports suggest those changes would not affect the districts proposed for Tompkins County or those immediately adjacent to it.

If it holds; special master Jonathan Cervas’ draft Congressional districting map, released May 16th.

Wasting no time, conservative Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney tweeted early Saturday morning that she will move her district of competition this fall yet again, this for the second time.  Tenney announced she will run in the new 24th Congressional District, the one that will stretch from the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario to the western towns of Erie County, and include the nearby counties of Seneca, Cayuga and Yates.

“I’m announcing my candidacy for the new #NY24, which includes areas I currently represent in Congress,” Tenney tweeted at 1:26 AM Saturday.  “I’m honored to have received the support of President Trump, (House GOP Conference) Chair Elise Stefanik, and several county Republican chairs,” Tenney continued.

Tenney’s decision appears to have been made on impulse, with little preplanning.  As of mid-morning Saturday, Tenney’s campaign website still listed her as a candidate for the Southern Tier 23rd District, represented, until his recent resignation, by fellow Republican Congressman Tom Reed.  Tenney hails from the Utica area. Unless maps have been adjusted, her home would not be in either the 23rd or 24th Districts.

“On the Road, Again;” Congresswoman Claudia Tenney

By this latest decision, the Trump-aligned Tenney has placed herself securely in the position of an opportunist, taking her campaign to wherever political pastures look greenest.  Beltway commentators call such candidates “mattress-draggers.”  And a cynical comic might say Tenney’s mattress has been dragged so much that it should be tossed into Buddy Rollins’ dumpster today at Enfield Clean-up Days.

The final maps approved late Friday by Judge McAllister have yet to be reviewed in detail for minor changes from the special master’s initial submissions, released this past Monday.  They’d place all of Tompkins County within a redrawn 19th Congressional district.  With Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado appointed—but not yet officially elevated—to Lieutenant Governor by Governor Hochul, the new 19th would likely have no incumbent for the fall election. 

As redrawn by special master Cervas, the 19th District would place Tompkins County as its western anchor.  It would stretch east through Binghamton and across the Hudson Riven to the Massachusetts border.  The 19th would include Cortland County.  In ways, it would resemble the former Matt McHugh/Maurice Hinchey district of decades past.

At present, two Democrats, Josh Riley and Ithaca’s Vanessa Fajans-Turner, have declared for the 19th District’s Congressional contest.  Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a former unsuccessful candidate for New York Governor, has declared on the Republican side. 

Lansing Republican Mike Sigler could run in the 19th District for the Republican nomination.  But as of late Friday, Sigler’s social media still had him competing in the 22nd District, where Democratic state legislators had initially placed Tompkins County, but from which the special master later removed it following successful court challenges.

If Sigler were to continue to run in the 22nd District, he’d be competing outside of his home district, which remains legal.  Were he to sidle into the 19th District, home turf, he’d face Molinaro, a potentially uphill battle.

Where to, now? Mike Sigler

Meanwhile, in the 23rd District, where Congressman Reed recently resigned, the New York Times reported Saturday that Buffalo-area Congressman Chris Jacobs would compete as the Republican candidate.  Democrats this week coalesced around Tioga County’s Max Della Pia for the Democratic nomination for the 23rd District seat.

The Cervas’ maps for State Senate, apparently ratified by Judge McAllister without major change, would link all of Tompkins County with the Binghamton area.  There’d be no incumbent.  Ithaca’s Leslie Danks Burke and Binghamton’s Lea Web are competing for this new 52nd District’s Democratic nomination.  Former Binghamton Mayor Rich David stands as the Republican candidate.

All of this last-minute change comes following the Court of Appeals ratification in late-April of Judge McAllister’s earlier ruling in a Republican-brought lawsuit that struck down redistricting maps drawn by the Democrat-dominated New York state Legislature as unconstitutional.  Primaries for the redrawn districts will happen August 23rd.

The downstate website the Gothamist, provides the statewide perspective.https://gothamist.com/news/court-finalizes-new-ny-congressional-state-senate-maps

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Inflation Hits Enfield Road Projects Hard

by Robert Lynch, May 20, 2022

The cost of rebuilding an Enfield road just went up… and by a lot.

Though the national inflation rate may be running at 8.3 per cent, revised estimates Enfield Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins put before his Town Board this month project his department’s road construction costs may rise by several multiples of the national figure. 

The price of a facelift; Superintendent’s estimates for Harvey Hill Road rehab jump 71.4%.

In one notable instance, the planned 1.2-mile resurfacing of Harvey Hill Road just west of Route 327, Rollins revised estimates project a 71.4 per cent increase—from $140,000 to $240,000—since his original projections were approved by the Board in January.

For another road slated for upgrade this year, a one-mile stretch of East Enfield Center Road between South Applegate Road and Enfield Center, Rollins projects a 50 per cent increase, from $40,000 to $60,000.

“It’s really the jump in Harvey Hill that caused my jaw to drop,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), said as Board members, at Lynch’s request, discussed the increases May 11th.  Only Lynch voiced serious concerns.

“Well, you want me not (to) do it?” questioned Rollins in response. “I mean that’s all there is to it.  I either do it or don’t do it,” he continued.  “I’m not going to sit here and argue about the money.  The price is the price.  And that’s all there is to it.”

The Superintendent’s cost figures came in a so-called “Amended 284 Agreement,” a one-page authorization form named after the section of New York Highway Law which commands it.  Once yearly, generally in January, members of all town boards must sign a “284 Agreement” to authorize how much money their Highway Superintendents may spend on local road maintenance… and on which roads.  The Agreement provides one of the few legal controls a town board holds over the actions of an independently-elected Highway Superintendent.

Enfield Board members signed the original 284 Agreement Rollins submitted January 12th.  The amended document, its totals increased because of inflation, was submitted by Rollins in an email May fourth.

While Rollins assigned certain road projects major increases—the Harvey Hill Road cost increase could be annualized at 171 per cent—the Superintendent’s overall “284” spending would grow more modestly.  For reasons never discussed during the meeting, Rollins had reduced by more than 20 per cent his projected expenditures for “General Repairs,” the day-to-day maintenance assigned to no specific road, but rather to Enfield’s 86.2 miles of Town-maintained roads in general.  Spending for General Repairs, under the amended agreement, would fall from $145,000 to just under $116,000.  The Harvey Hill and Enfield Center Road projects are assigned to a separate category, called “Permanent Improvements.”

Lynch sought and obtained from Supervisor Stephanie Redmond assurances that the Town’s budget could handle the increase.

“We’re actually doing pretty well,” said Redmond of Town finances, though she conceded Rollins’ figures would leave less money in Highway Reserves.

“Mr. Lynch,” Rollins said tersely, “I don’t go over my budget, and the money that I got allocated is in my budget.”

Apologizing to Rollins for “a lot of bad blood” that had spilled between the Town Board and the Superintendent in the past, Lynch said he was only pursuing curiosity as to why, with single-digit annual inflation nationally, one road project had risen by over 70 per cent in five months.

“If you take fuel costs alone,” replied Redmond, “the inflation is a lot higher.”

“Not 71.4 per cent,” Lynch answered.  “Not in five months.  My cost of gas hasn’t gone up that much.”

At Lynch’s urging, the Town Board passed a largely-symbolic resolution to accept the Superintendent’s changes. It included Lynch’s stipulation that Rollins “will not spend the entire amount if he does not need to.”  Though the law requires members only lend their signatures, the Enfield Board has of late preferred to back up those signatures with official action.

Estimates Rollins provided under the 284 Agreement apportion Highway Department spending only by road.  Rollins need not provide a detailed cost breakout, and he did not.  The superintendent stated the estimates calculate only maximum costs, not necessarily what he will spend.

****

The Enfield Town Board spent money in other ways that Wednesday night.  As the second act to a contentious Board discussion in April—yet one far more placid this time—the Town Board unanimously voted to award contracts for installation of heat pumps on the upper floor of the Town Courthouse, where the Town Justice holds court and the Town Board conducts in-person meetings.

The multi-stage project, made far more complex and expensive by environmental rules, would cost nearly $46,000.  Supervisor Redmond assured the Board a State grant will cover the expense.

Though the heat pumps’ contractor would charge less than $18,000, the project’s price tag was raised significantly by the need to reinsulate the Courthouse attic and remove the existing vermiculite insulation through asbestos-abatement protocols.  Indeed, the asbestos abatement became the costliest expense.

Councilperson Lynch, who strongly opposed the Courthouse project a month earlier, supported awarding the contracts this time.  Given the Courthouse building’s uncertain future, Lynch reiterated his own reluctance.  But he yielded to the Board’s majority opinion that the project should proceed, concluding the matter had been settled.

In other business:

  • The Town Board considered, but then tabled, Councilperson Lynch’s initiative to alter a 12-year old practice governing how Enfield receives its share of Tompkins County sales Tax revenue.  Since 2011, the Town has chosen to credit Sales Tax receipts to reduce the County’s share of Property tax, rather than take the money directly. 

While direct payment of Sales Tax could simplify Town budgeting in this tight financial year, Lynch acknowledged he’s had second-thoughts about his idea, after learning the proposed change may reduce Enfield’s share of so-called “PILOT” revenues received from solar farms.  “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face,” the Councilperson said.

 The Sales tax change will head to the Town’s Finance Committee for more study.

  • And as to solar farms themselves, the Town Board, following a sparsely-attended Public Hearing, continued for an additional six months a Town-wide moratorium on approval of new commercial solar installations.  The Board imposed the moratorium last December to permit a committee to study changes that could bring the Town more revenue from future solar farms.  “I’m in favor of extending so we can get it all done and done right,” said resident Marcus Gingerich, the hearing’s only commenter.

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Ithaca School Board certifies “mess” of an election

by Robert Lynch, May 19, 2022

Maybe Board of Education member Christopher Malcolm put it best:  “Really, we understand that this was a mess.”

Malcolm’s colleague, Nicole LaFave was less forgiving:  “I personally feel like maybe it wasn’t intentional, but there was voter suppression.”

Abstaining… and questioning; School Board member Nicole LaFave

Despite the apologies, criticisms, excuses— and most noticeably, LaFave’s abstention—the Ithaca School Board Wednesday evening (May 18) certified the results of the district’s election of a day earlier, a seven-way contest for four Board seats that sparked an unusually high turnout, elected newcomers as its two top vote-getters, and saw long-time Board President Robert Ainslie ousted, Ainslie finishing the election second to last.

With one member (Dr. Patricia Wasyliw) excused and a second seat left vacant by a prior resignation, six of the Board’s remaining members, absent LaFave, certified Tuesday’s results as valid even though a trifecta of errors election day had strained the credibility of an educational institution that teaches—or at least, should teach—its charges to get the right answer the first time.

State law required the School Board to validate Tuesday’s election results by 8 PM Wednesday.  And based on the meeting’s advice from the school district’s attorney, Kate Reid, the Board had little choice but to do so, mistakes or not.  Had the Board not certified, or had it otherwise questioned the results, only the State Education Commissioner could have resolved the matter.

“I can share with you that our legal representation has shared with us that the election is completely valid,” Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown counseled the Board Wednesday.  Brown added, “There were no concerns from our school district attorney’s perspective that there are issues that need to go to the Commissioner or any issues around the invalidation of this particular election.”

The lawyer says “the election is completely valid.” Supt. Dr. Luvelle Brown

But issues there were.  And whether Tuesday’s errors, taken in their totality, place the voters’ will in doubt remains a subjective decision very much a matter of personal opinion.

Critics to Wednesday’s vote cite three problems in particular.  At some polling locations early in the day, signs instructed voters to select three candidates, not the correct number, four.  Poll workers ran out of ballots at one or more sites, as district officials had not anticipated the heavy turnout.  And the status of disqualified Board candidate Benjamin Mumford-Zisk rested on shifting sands throughout the day.  Signs first stated that Mumford-Zisk had withdrawn from the election.  Later, they were changed to indicate that he had failed to meet the district’s one year, continuous residency requirement and had become ineligible to serve.

“Before I vote, I need to know that that election isn’t void given everything that happened,” said LaFave.  Members, including LaFave, requested, and got, attorney Reid’s explanation, a rapid-fire, far-reaching legal overview that consumed half of the 44-minute meeting and ended with Reid concluding that any errors committed were likely only harmless and  not fatal to the final result.

But the inference drawn from Tuesday’s “Lake Street Fiasco”—if one might call it that—is that a patchwork of confusing state laws coupled with an absence of responsibility and accountability by those who should have known better had left election machinery to run on its own that day, with no one truly in charge… and without the Board of Elections to serve as the grownup in the room.

“We do not oversee the election, nor does Central Administration,” stated Board member Moira Lang at an early point in the meeting, probably speaking in error.  “As I understand it,” Lang said of election responsibility, “it’s the Board Clerk, in consultation with the Board of Elections.  This is not something we run.”

Well, not exactly, attorney Reid responded, at least not when it comes to rejecting candidate Mumford-Zisk as ineligible.

“Sometimes, the Education Law doesn’t make a lot of sense, guys,” Reid counseled the Board.  “It’s scripted.  A lot of these laws are 100 years old.  It’s not intuitive.  You can’t shoot from the hip on it.”

For example, the laws governing rural, central school elections place candidate vetting responsibilities with the District Clerk.  Small City School Law places Ithaca’s with the Board of Education.  And whereas the Ithaca Board is not necessarily required to vet candidates, it must disqualify a candidate once the Board learns he’s ineligible, Reid stated.

Superintendent Brown, later, in response to LaFave’s inquiry, advised the Board he’d only learned of Mumford Zisk’s ineligibility at 10:15 PM on election eve.

As to LaFave’s other major concern, the attorney made it clear that district employees or volunteers, quite clearly, had failed to think.  Last year, only three Board seats were up for election.  This year, because of a vacancy, the number had risen to four.  Staff thoughtlessly, routinely posted last year’s signs.

“I was personally upset by that development when I learned that those posters had been posted,” Reid told the Board, clutching her throat, “because I can appreciate 100 per cent, as a taxpayer and a voter why people would have been confused.”

“I was personally very upset” by those erroneous posters; ICSD Attorney Kate Reid.

Confused, perhaps, but Reid concluded, not to the point of invalidating the election.

“But the School Board is human, right?” the attorney continued.  “This election is being run by human beings; by people, largely retirees, who are coming out to help us with this, and there’s a margin of human error involved in that.”

Reid acknowledged her research had found no legal precedent for how the law handles such posted misinformation.  Yet she doubted a legal challenge would succeed.  First, she said, the posting was “relatively limited,” maybe for two hours or less.  Secondly, she said, the ballot, itself, was accurate.

“There was no intentional attempt to disenfranchise voters here,” Reid concluded.  “This was a minor oversight.”

The mix-up over the Mumford-Zisk candidacy’s ever-changing ballot status may, in truth, have been the candidate’s own fault.  Reid claimed her colleague had contacted Mumford-Zisk at about Noon on Tuesday and informed him of his ineligibility.  Mumford-Zisk, in turn, “represented to her that he was withdrawing his candidacy.”

But at about 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, with the election well underway, an attorney for New York State United Teachers called Reid to inform her that the candidate had “changed his mind” and “was not planning, in fact, to withdraw his candidacy.”  School officials then realized that their earlier-posted signs stating Mumford-Zisk’s withdrawal were “materially inaccurate.”  They replaced them with signs that explained his ineligibility instead.

It would have been a “circumvention of the democratic process,” said Reid, for the district to allow the election to proceed without notifying voters of the candidate’s disqualification.  Mumford-Zisk, if elected, could not have been seated.  The School Board would have needed to appoint a replacement.  Election results could have faced a greater chance for legal challenge, she argued.  Furthermore, the appointment, Reid said, would have been “anti-democratic.”

But when assigning blame for the multi-faceted errors at Ithaca School District polling places, quite clearly, the Board of Elections becomes an innocent observer. Because New York places school election administration under the Education Law, and not the Elections Law, it relegates the Board of Elections only to the background.

“They (the school districts) give us lists of candidates,” Tompkins County Deputy Elections Commissioner Elizabeth Livesay said Thursday.  “We use an election management system to print the ballot.”  District officials then, said Livesay, “give us a thumbs up or thumbs down,” on the ballot created. The district makes changes, when needed.  Then, Livesay continued, the elections board creates the ballot’s “final scannable version” and provides it to the schools, along with pre-tested voting machines.

Addressing the issue of Mumford Zisk’s disqualification—based on a residency requirement set by the Ithaca District, not by the State or the Board of Elections—Livesay made it clear.  “We don’t get into the legalities of who’s eligible for the ballot.”

Though Board member Lang may have been technically correct when she said that the Board, itself, does not run its own election, the Board’s Clerk, by contrast, assumes a pivotal role.  And LaFave pressed Superintendent Brown as to whether the Board Clerk should have vetted residency eligibilities, including Mumford Zisk’s, in advance.

“The Board Clerk assumes they are residents based on their affirmation as part of the documentation they hand in,” Brown responded.

President Ainslie weighed in, noting the candidates’ packet clearly states the residency requirement on its face.

“The fact that someone did not read it, which was perhaps the case, that’s not the Board Clerk’s obligation, to have you stand there and read it,” said Ainslie.

Ainslie, president of the Ithaca School Board since 2008, will depart next month, unless, as is unlikely, Tuesday’s elections get overturned.  Attorney Reid indicated a voter could still petition for the Education Commissioner’s review.  Ainslie finished sixth in Tuesday’s voting, falling one vote behind the disqualified Mumford-Zisk.

Newcomers Karen Yearwood and Jill Tripp led the pack in Tuesday’s balloting, Yearwood securing 2,799 votes; Tripp 2,604 votes, respectively, each earning a full, three-year position.  Incumbents Erin Croyle (2,584 votes) and Eldred Harris (1,292 votes) secured the remaining two Board spots, though Harris must settle for a two-year appointment to fill the remainder of a Board vacancy created by Kelly Evans’ earlier resignation.

Less controversial, Ithaca District voters handily approved a nearly $149 Million 2022-23 District Budget Tuesday; the vote 2,446 votes to 1,069.  Voters also authorized two other spending propositions, each by wide margins.  However, they rejected a fourth proposition, more controversial, that would have conveyed a small parcel adjacent to the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School downtown to the City of Ithaca to enable expansion of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center’s Gymnasium.

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Revised Senate maps would keep lines close; races unchanged

by Robert Lynch, May 17, 2022

Some five hours after court-appointed special master Jonathan Cervas’ proposed redistricting maps for Congress on Monday (May 16; see separate story), the maps for Cervas’ other assignment, redistricting the New York State Senate, became public.  But whereas the special master’s Congressional map revisions would force a major course correction in local campaigns, the comparable map changes for State Senate in Tompkins County would hardly make a difference.

The new District 52; all of Tompkins, all of Cortland, and much of Broome (Map courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting, LLC)

While Cervas’ State Senate map would renumber Tompkins County’s District from 53 to 52, the redesign would still place Tompkins County within a single State Senate district—something local leaders have long sought, but have not enjoyed for several decades.  Even more importantly, the special master’s revision would keep current party primary match-ups intact.  Those contests took shape after the State Legislature in February adopted the initial district maps that courts later rejected as unconstitutional.

“Can’t wait to get to work for the… district, NY52,” Democratic candidate Leslie Danks Burke tweeted to her followers late Monday.

In an email message to prospective supporters, Danks Burke’s primary opponent, former Binghamton City Councilperson Lea Webb, shared the same optimism. 

The district’s Republican candidate, former Binghamton mayor Rich David, faces no primary challenge, but also stands unaffected by the redrawn lines. 

Webb and Danks Burke had stood as the only remaining candidates in the district’s Democratic field when the New York Court of Appeals on April 27th invalidated as unconstitutional the lines the State Legislature had earlier drawn.  The Court’s action set in motion procedures under which a lower judge appointed Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, to be special master and redraw the lines consistent with constitutional commands and submit Congressional and State Senate maps for the judge’s approval within the next week.

While Cervas’ State Senate revisions hold little impact for residents in Tompkins County, they will affect some of the county’s neighbors.  Whereas, the Legislature’s maps had split Cortland County between two Senate districts, the special master’s revision would unify Cortland County within the single district, one that would also represent those in Tompkins.

But in his cutting and pasting to create his population-balanced 52nd District, Cervas would chop away parts of eastern of Tioga County, towns that the Legislature’s plan had earlier included within it. 

The Legislature’s earlier effort, rejected by the courts. The special master’s changes would add all of Cortland County, but strip away Tioga.

Both the Legislature’s and Cervas’ maps would slice Broome County down the middle, splitting its representation.  Slight differences lie between the two maps.  Nonetheless, the special master’s plan would likely retain within the proposed, renumbered 52nd District the City of Binghamton, home-base for both Webb and David.

“Yesterday… we learned that all of Tompkins County will be part of the new State Senate District 52, which also encompasses much of Broome County and all of Cortland County,” wrote candidate Webb Tuesday. “We have much in common as a community and district, and I’m glad they’ve kept us together.”

Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister will decide within days whether the special master’s maps meet his court’s standards for political neutrality.  But since the judge—and Cervas—have taken the drafting pen away from legislative Democrats and their super-majorities, the lines drawn will likely yield Democrats fewer Senate seats this fall than the controlling party had expected.

Kate Lisa of Spectrum News reported Monday of the Senate districts Cervas had drawn, 38 lean toward Democrats, ten toward Republicans, and 15 remain competitive.  In the current Senate, 43 members are Democrats, 20 Republicans.

In one respect, however, Cervas’s maps, like those of the Legislature earlier this year, fulfill a separate, distinct goal of local Democratic leaders.  Whereas Tompkins County’s representation for at least a decade has been split among three State Senators—none of them living locally and all of them Republican—the special master’s proposal would continue the Legislature’s intention to place all of Tompkins County within a common Senate district.

Moreover, the Cervas plan would take Tompkins County’s request one step further; merging all of Tompkins County with all of Cortland County as part of District 52.    

In testimony to New York’s ill-fated and politically-torn Independent Redistricting Commission last year, one prominent Democratic voice, now-retired county legislator Martha Robertson, had urged the unified, two-county linkage.  Robertson argued that both Tompkins and Cortland counties deserve a common State Senator (and Congressperson) since they share many “communities of interest,” including a jointly-funded community college.  Democrats in the State Legislature failed to tie Tompkins County with all of Cortland County, but the special master’s plan would do so.

Only the redistricting of seats for Congress and the State Senate fell within special master Cervas’s assignment.  Despite citizen challenges, courts have left district lines for the State Assembly unchanged from those the Legislature struck in February.

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Redrawn Congressional Map would bond us with Binghamton, not Syracuse

Look at the Orange! Special master’s draft Congressional map would link Tompkins County with points east… all the way to Massachusetts. (Map courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting, LLC)

by Robert Lynch, May 16, 2022; additional reporting, May 17th at 12:30 AM

Surprise!  Remember the old “Maurice Hinchey” Congressional District we in Tompkins County used to be part of before we were tied to western Southern Tier counties stretching to Lake Erie?  Well, what’s old may be new again.

A special master overseen by the Bath-based judge who three months ago threw out Democratically-drawn redistricting maps for Congress and the New York Senate released his draft redesign Monday.  And whereas the Democrats’ plan, adopted by the State Legislature amid controversy, would have linked Tompkins County with Syracuse in a blue-tinted district that favored New York’s majority party, Jonathan Cervas’ redesign would sever Tompkins County from places to the north, and tie it with an eastern Southern Tier and Catskill Region string of counties, a district much more politically diverse and competitive.

Instead of being within the New York 22nd District, Tompkins County would find itself in the 19th District, whose only incumbent, Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado, has been tapped by Governor Kathy Hochul to be Lieutenant Governor.  All presumed Delgado would give up his seat in Congress to become New York’s second in command.  At this early writing, Delgado’s political options remain uncertain.

Should Delgado not be in the mix, the Democrats’ prime beneficiary could be Josh Riley, who’d edged to a leading spot in the crowded, six-way contest for the previously-drawn Syracuse/Ithaca-based district.  Riley hails from Endicott, within the newly-redrawn NY-19th, and the line changes could allow Riley to shed the potential handicap as a carpetbagger.

Ithaca resident Vanessa Fajans-Turner would also be running in the 19th District contest.  Tioga County’s Max Della Pia, who would also reside within the 19th, will, according to media reports, continue his pursuit of the 23rd District seat, currently held by retiring (and recently-resigned) Republican Congressman Tom Reed.  Della Pia would do so even though he would no longer live in the district he seeks to represent.

On the Republican side, Lansing’s Mike Sigler could be the big loser, though Sigler could still run in the Syracuse-based 22nd District, drawn by special master Cervas to include Onondaga, Madison, and Oneida Counties.  Sigler has strong Syracuse ties and has campaigned heavily in the Salt City region in recent months.

“Carpetbagger” no more? Endicott’s Josh Riley, running back home if new maps hold.

Should he compete on home turf in Tompkins County though, Sigler could face stiff head winds, as media reports indicate former gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, who had planned to run against Delgado, remains eyeing the seat.  Molinaro lives in the Hudson Valley region and already has strong name recognition.

A check of Sigler’s social media pages Monday evening failed to disclose the candidate’s current plans.

Special master Cervas’ proposed lines remain subject to revision before State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister  signs off on them.  Judge McAllister is set to decide on the Congressional maps May 20th.  Monday’s early disclosure caught some by surprise.

Overall, Cervas’ redrawn lines would erase much of the earlier advantage Democrats had hoped to achieve by usurping redistricting responsibility from a constitutionally-mandated New York Independent Redistricting Commission in early-February.  Yet the Cervas draft would place district borders much more along county lines than would have the State Legislature’s design.  As such, the Cervas plan looks to the naked eye much less like a gerrymander.

If the special master’s plan becomes Judge McAllister’s final choice, Tompkins County would become the 19th Congressional District’s western anchor.  Cortland County would be part of the district, as would Tioga, Broome, Chenango  and Delaware Counties.  The 19th District would stretch all the way across the Hudson River to the Massachusetts border.

****

Congressman Delgado, who’s elevation to Lieutenant Governor—if one would call it that—would require his nearly simultaneous resignation from Congress, is not the only New York Congressperson scratching their heads and weighing their options.  So, too, is Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, the Trump-friendly Republican from Oneida County, who’d seen her seat redistricted away by Democrats, but now might have reason to stay put.

With choices to make; Mike Sigler.

After Democrats imposed their legislative will in February, Tenney announced her plans to succeed Congressman Reed in the Southern Tier 23rd District.  But with the Onondaga-Oneida 22nd District made more competitive by Cervas, Tenney might choose to remain on home turf.  And should Lansing’s more moderate Sigler compete in the 22nd as well, a primary slugfest could result.

But the primary contests upstate could pale in comparison to those in and near New York City, as special master Cervas’ maps have placed high-profile Congressional Democrats in celebrity match-ups.  As Nicholas Fandos reported on deadline Monday in the New York Times:

“The most striking example came from New York City, where Mr. Cervas’s proposal pushed Representatives Jerrold Nadler, a stalwart Upper West Side liberal, and Carolyn Maloney of the Upper East Side into the same district, setting up a potentially explosive primary fight in the heart of Manhattan.  Both lawmakers are in their 70s, have been in Congress for close to 30 years and lead powerful House committees.”

Fandos continued:  “Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a favorite to become the party’s next leader, was one of a handful of incumbent lawmakers who, under the new map, would no longer reside in the districts they represent….  In a blistering statement, Mr. Jeffries accused the court of ignoring the input of communities of color, diluting the power of Black voters and pitting Black incumbents against each other in ‘a tactic that would make Jim Crow blush.’”

“The draft map released by a judicial overseer in Steuben County and unelected, out-of-town special master, both of whom happen to be white men, is part of a vicious national pattern targeting districts represented by members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Mr. Jeffries wrote, according to the Times’ report.

The New York Court of Appeals designated Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, to draw the presumptively less partisan maps for New York’s Congressional and State Senate Districts after the Court held April 27th that districts Democratic-majority state legislators drew in February violated the New York Constitution on both substantive and procedural grounds.  Most observers saw the legislative takeover of the process as a bold-faced gerrymander; an attempt to net Democrats as many as three additional House seats.

But the special master’s maps of Monday would erase those gains.  By Cervas’s own account, the Times reports, his design would create as many as eight competitive seats to represent New York in Congress.  The Democrats’ maps would have yielded only three.

In upstate New York, gerrymandering’s most egregious example was the proposed 24th Congressional District, engineered, transparently, to “pack” as many Republicans into it as possible.  Rather than follow logical county lines, the Democrats’ 24th District would have zig-zagged along a jagged boundary and hugged the southern shore of Lake Ontario over much of the way from the Saint Lawrence River to near Niagara Falls.

(Presumably) gone, but not forgotten; Democrats’ proposed 24th Congressional District.

As redrawn by the special master, the new 24th would begin, again, near Watertown, but travel more logically south through the Finger Lakes and then west to just past Batavia.  It would leave the western Lake Ontario shoreline to Rochester- and Buffalo-based districts.  The redrawn 24th District, unlike its predecessor, would not strain the limits of contiguity.

Special master Jonathan Cervas, according to media reports, has declined to comment on his work product prior to its approval by Judge McAllister. 

The judge has already delayed party primaries for Congress and State Senate from late-June until August 23rd because of the redistricting litigation.

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Enfield Planners nix energy- aggressive building code

by Robert Lynch, May 4, 2022

Newfield’s adopted it.  Dryden has too.  But barring a serious change of heart, the Town of Enfield will likely take a pass on imposing a new, more energy-efficient building code that’s been promoted by State environmental interests.

The Stretch Code that won’t likely live in Enfield

Whereas the Enfield Town Planning Board gave the “New York Stretch” code a cool reception when the Board first considered it in early-April, the greeting was downright icy Wednesday (May 4th) as town planners rejected the package of potential regulations after just seven minutes of discussion and without even taking a formal vote.

“It’s problematic.  It was not thought out that well,” said Planning Board member Mike Carpenter, the Stretch Code’s lead critic.

Although the Enfield Town Board could overrule its Planning Board and embrace NY-Stretch without planners’ endorsement, Town Board members stand unlikely to do so.  At least one Councilperson has deemed the planners’ approval as critical to any future support he might give.

Going as far back as 2020, energy-conserving advocacy agencies, like NYSERDA, have encouraged municipalities to incorporate tougher “Stretch” standards within their own building codes.  Stretch’s provisions would require home builders to install more energy-efficient windows, shorter pipe runs to water faucets, and most controversially, electricity breaker panel capacity and conduit runs to accommodate future solar panels on the rooftop and electric cars down the driveway.

The Newfield Town Board, with one dissent, adopted New York Stretch last August.  Carpenter told the Planning Board the Town of Dryden has approved Stretch as well.  But in Dryden’s case, said Carpenter, the Town’s Building Inspector wishes it hadn’t. 

“They had to do very selective enforcement,” Carpenter told Wednesday’s meeting concerning Dryden’s experience, “because some things are not enforceable.”

The Town of Danby, Carpenter further reported, is “considering” Stretch, but is unlikely to adopt it.

“I don’t think it’s worth the Town’s time to pass it,” Planning Board Chair Dan Walker remarked, counseling the Enfield Board to set Stretch aside.  It would only create “more confusion for the Codes Enforcement Officer,” Walker concluded.

For one thing, said Walker, the code imposes “a lot of nit-picky things.”

Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond had initially targeted the Stretch Code for adoption before June first, Redmond noting that NYSERDA was offering towns $5,000 to $10,000 in grant money if it adopted the code before the June deadline.  But Redmond in late-April pulled the item from the Board’s May 11th agenda.  Given Wednesday’s Planning Board rejection, NY-Stretch stands unlikely to return to an agenda anytime soon.

Key to Redmond’s and other Board members’ decision for delay was an April 28th memo Carpenter wrote the Supervisor, and that Redmond quickly shared with her Board.  In that lengthy memo, Carpenter—a builder, whose family installs solar systems—described the Stretch Code as “an amalgam of energy saving ideas that are somewhat disparate in their focus.”

“The actual energy savings from them,” wrote Carpenter of the code’s new standards, “will be in the 1 percent or less range, and will likely have a payback period in decades rather than just years. Some of these will come (into later adoption) with the new code, likely out in a year or two, and some may not ever be written into code.  There is value in them, though certainly nowhere near the claim of 25 to 30 percent cost savings.”

“My conclusion,” Carpenter wrote, “is that the difficulties in implementing and enforcing this code make it questionable that the town should adopt it. I have heard that it will save significant energy and cost little extra money. My own opinion is that the opposite is more likely to be true.”

Instead, Carpenter’s suggestion—a point he reiterated to the Planning Board Wednesday—is that Enfield write its own, likely-voluntary, energy-saving building code, one that might embrace the good parts of NY-Stretch and cast aside the rest.

“The folks who wrote the Stretch Code are not that experienced in building,” Carpenter told the Planning Board.  “They don’t understand that something that is very expensive might not have much impact.”

To at least one Town Board member, namely this story’s writer, the absence of Planning Board endorsement of NY-Stretch constitutes, for him, a deal-breaker.

“In all matters of land management and building regulation, we should give both our Planning Board and our Codes Officer great deference,” Councilperson Robert Lynch wrote in an April 29th email to the Town Board, responding to Carpenter’s concerns.  “To ignore their input is to disrespect their authority.” 

“Yes, we, the Town Board, hold the final say,” Lynch acknowledged.  “But until the Planning Board recommends we adopt New York’s Stretch Code, I would not vote in its favor.”

****

  With the Stretch Code dispatched, the Enfield Planning Board went on with its Wednesday meeting.  For the next three-quarter hour, it continued to review and update town subdivision regulations.  Near the meeting’s close, an un-pictured viewer of the online meeting, identifying herself as “Eileen,” a teacher, offered an idea.  She suggested that any new subdivision provide a bus shelter for school children.

“It’s a safety issue,” Eileen insisted.  The Board responded approvingly to Eileen’s suggestion.

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Lane to Putin:  Look for the “Nazi” in your Mirror

by Robert Lynch; Posted May 4, 2022

The masks were back on, but there was no muffling Tompkins County legislator Mike Lane’s anger Tuesday night (May 3rd) as Lane delivered his—always tempered, yet equally-decisive—stern rebuke of Vladimir Putin for the Russian President’s continuing assault on the Ukrainian people and the humanitarian atrocities Putin has committed in his attempts to conquer a freedom-loving neighbor.

“Looking for a Nazi, Putin? Walk over to your mirror.” Legislator Mike Lane.

“We know we’re stuck,” said Lane, the Dryden Democrat, adding to the frustration and outrage he’d expressed at prior sessions.  “We’d love to put NATO forces in there and clean the clock of those people who are the aggressors.” 

“But,” Lane admitted, “the nuclear option; the nuclear deterrent is very real and we understand that.”

What Lane told the Legislature Tuesday has been said by many people in many places at many times in recent weeks.  But with the predictable boilerplate behind him, the Legislature’s most senior member launched into a more pointed, personal critique:

“One of the worst things that I’ve heard recently was the (attempt to) belittle President Zelensky who happens to be of Jewish origin, by trying to say—I think Putin or Putin’s people said, ‘Well, Hitler may have had Jewish blood in him.’”

“The Israelis,” said Lane, “were naturally upset and disgusted by those kinds of comments, which belittled the Holocaust.   I suggest that if President Putin really wants to see a Nazi, he ought to walk over to his mirror in the morning and take a good, hard look, because he’s following Adolph Hitler’s playbook in the Sudetenland and everywhere else.”

The Sudetenland was a portion of the former Czechoslovakia that Hitler annexed to Germany in 1938 as a prelude to World War II.

Lane told the Legislature he’s flying the Ukrainian flag at his home.  He said many of his Dryden neighbors fly that flag as well. 

“I wish that there was more that we could do,” Lane lamented.  “But I understand it,” he acknowledged near the close of his somber, three-minute monologue.  “It eats away at me as an American.  Flying the flag is very little that we can do.  But if folks can contribute to helping these folks… the refugees and the other people who are trying to flee from their own community because of the death and destruction, I hope they do that.”   

Lane went on to announce happier news, the appointment of Amy Kremenek as the new President of TC3.  (See separate story, posted on this website.)  Several seconds of silence followed the conclusion of Lane’s legislative floor privilege.  No other member added to his comments on Ukraine.  The County Legislature moved on to its other business.

Among that other business:

Podunk Road Bridge:  Without one word of discussion, and relegated to the catch-all “Consent Agenda,” the Legislature approved replacement of the narrow, steel-grate Podunk Road Bridge over Taughannock Creek.  The more than $3.5 Million project would realign the bridge to avoid the road’s sharp curve and replace the “single span steel truss bridge” with one of “prestressed concrete box beams on concrete abutments.”

Though technically a two-lane structure, two cars rarely pass on the aging Podunk Road Bridge.  Presumably its replacement would be one of modern, two-lane width.  Legislative documents claim the old bridge is in “poor condition,” and that a state inspection warned of “significant structure deterioration.”

Nonetheless, one might anticipate neighborhood concern, especially when one recalls the ongoing controversy that’s arisen in recent years over replacement of a somewhat-similar structure, the Freese Road Bridge in Varna, discussion that prompted a Town-County standoff over what sort of bridge should replace Varna’s historic, one-lane structure.

As yet, no similar controversy has arisen over the Podunk project.  And the County Highway Department has yet to assess the old bridge’s historic significance.  Ulysses Legislator Anne Koreman indicated Wednesday that the public will have “several built-in opportunities to weigh in” on the project.

****

Tompkins County SIREN:  Tompkins County Emergency Response Director Michael Stitley and the Department’s Community Preparedness Director, Geoff Dunn, briefed the Legislature on the County’s transition from its former “SWIFT-911” mass notification system to what County wordsmiths have dubbed “Tompkins County SIREN,” an acronym standing for “Safety and Incident Real-Time Emergency Notifications.”

Hype and rebranding aside, the world of corporate buyouts truly prompted the transition.  “RAVE Mobile Alert” bought out “SWIFT Reach.”  It then chose to replace SWIFT’s technology with its own. 

“RAVE Mobile Alert,” said Dunn, “is in the process of transitioning the SWIFT customers to the RAVE Alert product.  So rather than being told we had to move, we figured now was the time to just make the transition.”

The County began that transition back in March.  “Up until now, it’s been a soft launch,” Dunn told the Legislature.  But SIREN’s “coming out party,” as it might be termed, was the recent mass mailing of giant postcards to every county household.  Bus cards and business cards added to the effort.  In response to legislator Randy Brown’s question, Dunn said the mailing alone cost the County $15,000.  A second may occur in September.

But the transition carried with it some occasional fumbles. 

“While it is true,” said Dunn, “and we did specify in some of our early literature, that the SWIFT-911 information had been carried over to SIREN; transitioned… the user must still go in and create a profile and account within SIREN.” 

There’s a reason for that, and the Preparedness Director conceded it’s not just because some SWIFT phone numbers and email addresses are outdated.  “The SWIFT lists,” Dunn revealed, “will sunset at the end of the year and will no longer be used.”  Earlier advisories had never told us that.  Existing users were wrongly led to believe they’d need to do nothing.

What’s more, SIREN’s signup occurs through the Tompkins County website or via text message, perhaps not the easiest task for the computer-compromised. 

Yet, legislator reaction was overwhelming positive.  “This is really good work,” Dryden’s Greg Mezey said of the promotional rollout.  “This is impressive.  I think it is worth every penny.”

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Primaries for Congress, Senate moved to August

by Robert Lynch; April 30, 2022

The State Supreme Court judge who one month ago rejected Democrats’ redistricting maps for Congress and the State Senate as unconstitutional ordered Friday that state primaries for those offices be delayed from late June until August 23rd.  It followed Wednesday’s New York Court of Appeals decision upholding the lower court’s holding on unconstitutionality .

One of the many who must wait. Syracuse Democratic Congressional candidate Francis Conole.

The New York State Board of Elections responded to Judge Patrick McAllister’s April 29th order with this advisory, posted on its website: 

“The Supreme Court has ordered Congressional and State Senate elections to be held Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022. The Court is working to develop a new Political Calendar to reflect this primary date. At this time, we do not foresee the June 28th primary changing for our statewide offices, the State Assembly, Judicial Delegates and Alternates and any local offices that are scheduled to be on the primary ballot. We will continue to keep voters informed as additional information becomes available.”

Additionally, the Gannet News Service reported Friday, quoting a state Board of Elections spokesperson, that the state is asking the U.S. Justice Department to see if a federal court might need to review any change to the date of the primary.

Reports indicate that statewide primaries for Governor and local primaries for Assembly and local offices—in Tompkins County, there are none of the latter—would only be postponed until August if the State Legislature orders the delay.

While not stated directly, it’s assumed that once new Congressional and State Senate districts are drawn by the Special Master appointed by Judge McAllister, each candidate who remained interested in whatever new district he or she found himself or herself in would need to repeat the process of seeking petition signatures for placement on the ballot.  Whether signature requirements for any new petitioning round might be reduced would remain a decision left for the courts, the Legislature, and/or the State Board of Elections.

In Tompkins County, currently placed in the vastly-reconfigured 22nd Congressional District and the similarly-revamped 53rd State Senatorial District, the Special Master’s line-redrawing could impact who might represent us and who might not.

For the Democratic Congressional Primary, as many as six candidates are running.  Yet only two of those—Josh Riley and Vanessa Fajans-Turner—list local addresses.  The others hail from Onondaga County.  Were Tompkins to be sliced out of the 22nd District, the candidate field could shrink barring anyone’s decision to compete out of his or her home district. 

In the Republican race in that same district, Lansing’s Mike Sigler lives within Tompkins County, but his primary opponent, Brandon Williams, lives in neighboring Cayuga County.

Sigler with his first batch of petitions. He may need new ones.

At present, two Democrats vie for State Senate in the 53rd.  One of those two, Lea Webb, lives in Binghamton, at the district’s eastern fringe.  Were Binghamton severed from Ithaca, Webb’s political fortunes—taking note of her sizable progressive, local support base—might change.

And should the Special Master rejoin Tompkins County with its present representational district, the sprawling Southern Tier NY-23rd, the Republican race for Congress could turn dicey.  Given the presumption that Utica’s Claudia Tenney would still migrate to compete in the 23rd, the more moderate Sigler could find himself in a multi-candidate GOP free-for-all, facing Trump conservative Tenney and likely several others.

Much remains uncertain.  In politics, the fall races for Congress and State Senate have suddenly become very much a jump ball.

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Related Story; Posted Previously:

NY High Court voids Dem-drawn Congressional, State Senate Maps

In a major setback for New York’s legislative Democrats, the New York Court of Appeals, in a divided ruling late Wednesday (Apr. 27th) tossed out redistricting maps hastily drawn by the majority party last February for both the U.S. Congress and the New York State Senate.

Dead Duck? That new Congressional district we in Tompkins County thought we were in.

The Court’s 32-page majority opinion came stunningly fast, just one day after the Court heard oral arguments in the case.

The ruling reached further than had the opinion last week of mid-level Appellate Division judges and held closer to that of the Steuben County State Supreme Court judge who first granted the protesting Republicans’ legal challenge March 31st.

****

Among the first to report this story was Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times. His initial report, datelined Wednesday at 4:19 PM, follows, reported in relevant part:

New York’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when they drew new congressional and State Senate districts, and ordered a court-appointed special master to draw replacement lines for this year’s critical midterm elections instead.

She wrote the majority decision; Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

In a sweeping 32-page ruling, a divided New York State Court of Appeals chided Democrats for defying the will of voters who adopted constitutional reforms in 2014 to curb political influence in the redistricting process and create a new outside commission to guide it.

The judges additionally found that the congressional districts designed by Democrats were “drawn with impermissible partisan purpose,” violating an explicit state ban on partisan gerrymandering and undercutting the party’s national campaign to brand itself as the champion of voting rights.

“Through the 2014 amendments, the people of this state adopted substantial redistricting reforms aimed at ensuring that the starting point for redistricting legislation would be district lines proffered by a bipartisan commission following significant public participation, thereby ensuring each political party and all interested persons a voice in the composition of those lines,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote for the four-judge majority.

The verdict, which is not subject to appeal, delivered a stinging defeat to Democrats in Albany and in Washington and cast this year’s election cycle into deep uncertainty. Party leaders were hopeful that the Court of Appeals, with all seven judges appointed by Democratic governors, would overturn earlier decisions by [Steuben County Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister.]

Instead, the high court issued an even more damning verdict that denied the Democrat-dominated State Legislature a chance to redraw the maps itself. That task, the judges said, should be handled by a politically neutral special master overseen at the trial court level.

The court also indicated that the June 28 party primaries for the congressional and State Senate districts would likely have to be postponed until August to allow time for the new maps to be drawn and for candidates to collect petitions to qualify for the ballot….

Wednesday’s decision was a milestone in New York jurisprudence, the first time since the 1960s that the Court of Appeals has struck down district lines approved by lawmakers in their once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

[Expect more independent reporting here as the decision is analyzed. ]

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County Commission finalizes maps for a 16-member Legislature

by Robert Lynch, April 26, 2022

The Tompkins County Legislature would grow by two members to a body of 16 under a redistricting plan recommended unanimously Tuesday (Apr. 26th) by the County’s Independent Redistricting Commission.

How Redistricting would impact Enfield; the map the Redistricting Commission recommended, with only a few tweaks left for Lansing.

The commission’s districting maps, agreed-upon Tuesday, would also continue to split the Town of Enfield between two legislative districts, leaving Enfield divided much as it’s been for decades.  The commission’s favored plan would continue using Mecklenburg Road, State Route 79, as the principal east-west dividing line separating the current District 5, now represented by Ulysses’ Anne Koreman, from District 8, now served by Newfield’s Randy Brown.  However, in a departure from the status quo, that state thoroughfare would split the districts only part way from the town’s west to its east.

Enfield’s boundary changes would occur south of Route 79 and east of Applegate Road.  To balance population totals to meet new, more stringent state-set standards, the commission’s plan would shift four large rural blocks from Brown’s district to Koreman’s.  As now proposed, Koreman’s Ulysses-centered district would dip south from Mecklenburg Road to Bostwick Road and extend east from South Applegate Road to Sheffield Road, the town line.

“I’d like to keep the hamlet (of Enfield Center) intact as much as possible,” Enfield Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer), the meeting’s only municipal guest speaker, told Tuesday’s meeting.  “That’s where the center of our town is, where the center of government is; the Town Hall, the Community Center, the Fire Hall.”

“It all works out fairly well,” Lynch said of the commission’s preferred plan.

Lynch urged adoption of the Applegate-Bostwick Road district split rather than an alternate plan, advanced at a meeting two weeks earlier, but rejected Tuesday.  That alternative would have split Enfield’s legislative districts along Enfield Center Road and through the heart of Enfield Center.

The Tompkins County Legislature retains the final say on legislature size and district composition.  But in past decades its members have relied heavily upon the independent group’s recommendations.  The Commission will take public comment on the maps it’s endorsed at an input session May 10th in County Legislative Chambers.

Though the Enfield Town Board had initially urged the Commission place its entire municipality within a single legislative district, ostensibly to improve the town’s influence in county governmental affairs, draft maps and representational alternatives advanced during the commission’s more than four months of meetings pointed to the commission’s inability to accommodate Enfield’s request without inflicting greater damage elsewhere. 

The compromise plan endorsed Tuesday—unlike some the commission had discussed previously—would retain neighboring Newfield and Ulysses each under single-member representation.  In each instance, map-makers grafted onto the Newfield and Ulysses districts as much of Enfield as it took to make the numbers balance.

Expanding the County Legislature from 14 members to 16—membership had stood at 15 until a decade ago—will not rest well with some.  At a prior meeting, Dryden County legislator Mike Lane had urged the commission to cut his group’s membership down to 13, mostly for the sake of efficiency.  Faced with a schedule conflict, Lane did not attend the Redistricting Commission’s Tuesday session.

But Lane’s idea never gained traction with the commission.  And staff found problems drawing maps with anything but a 16-member Legislature.  Other legislative sizes, the commission found, created oddly-configured districts that jumped municipal lines and violated a key commission goal of giving “communities of interest” common representation.

Another powerful force driving the commission toward a 16-member Legislature was the City of Ithaca.  City leaders sought the simplicity of having five County legislative districts align with Ithaca’s five wards.  With a single exception, the commission’s plan answered the City’s request.  Only a small part of Ithaca’s west end between Fulton and Meadow Streets, the Route 13 “couplet,” failed to give the City those common borders.  To achieve proper balance, a couple of the City-based districts would extend representation outward into the Ithaca Town.

As the commission neared its final recommendation Tuesday, Enfield stood as one of but two areas of the county where representational boundaries remained unsettled.  The other area was suburban Lansing. But there only a few blocks just north of the village line received members’ attention. 

For Enfield, the choice stood between grafting the Town’s eastern areas onto the Ulysses district, or else those in the west and southwest parts of the town.  An alternate not chosen would have dipped the Koreman district into parts of Enfield where children attend the Odessa-Montour school system.

Though the County Legislature will likely adopt a redistricting plan later this year, the changes it makes would not take hold until the next legislative elections in November 2025.

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Court of Appeals hears Redistricting Arguments; decision imminent

Posted April 27, 2022

The legal argument over whether New York’s newly-drawn Congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered could soon be resolved.

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, heard oral arguments Tuesday (April 26th) in the Republican-brought challenge to state legislative Democrats’ map-drawing efforts.  News reports indicate the Court could render its decision later this week, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

As to Tuesday’s arguments, Nicholas Fandos of the New York Times wrote the following.  Provided here are excerpts of Fandos’ report:

New York Democrats made a last-ditch appeal to the state’s highest court on Tuesday to overturn a pair of lower-court rulings and salvage newly drawn congressional districts that overwhelmingly favor their party.

In oral arguments before the New York State Court of Appeals, lawyers for the governor and top legislative leaders said that Republicans challenging the lines had fallen short of proving that the state’s new congressional map violated a state ban on gerrymandering.

But the arguments turned tense at times, especially as several members of the seven-judge panel scrutinized the constitutionality of the mapmaking process itself.

Voters created a new redistricting commission in 2014 to help wean politics from the mapmaking process, at the same time that they outlawed gerrymandering. But after the commission’s efforts broke down this winter, the Democratic-led Legislature quickly shunted aside the commission’s proposals in favor of more politically favorable maps.

“Isn’t that evidence of a purpose to gerrymander?” Judge Michael Garcia asked lawyers for the Democrats….

The Court of Appeals judges, all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors, appeared to be wrestling with how to balance the interests of the voters, the longstanding right of the Legislature to set district lines and more pragmatic questions about how and when this year’s critical midterm elections should proceed.

The court has traditionally shown deference to state lawmakers to set boundaries that they feel are appropriate. But the questions this time were particularly thorny because the case — Harkenrider v. Hochul — is the first time that the courts have tested the 2014 constitutional changes.

The challengers, New York voters backed by national Republicans, have argued that the mapmaking power should have gone directly to the courts, not the Legislature, when the commission collapsed this winter. Instead, they contend, Democrats hijacked the process and drew lines expertly devised to knock out Republicans.

The commission violated the law, the Republican lawyer, Misha Tseytlin, said, “but then the Legislature attempted to take a step that it had no legal authority to take.”

Democrats rejected both claims. They maintain that the commission was an advisory body whose maps required lawmakers’ approval to become law. And they defended their congressional map as a good-faith effort to balance competing requirements to preserve the cores of existing districts and communities of interest — which includes racial and ethnic groups — while achieving maximum compactness and adjusting for population shifts that generally benefit Democrats.

“Maybe the petitioners would have drawn the map a little differently, maybe someone from a think tank or the editorial board of a newspaper would have drawn these maps differently, or somebody on Twitter,” said Craig R. Bucki, a lawyer for State Assembly Democrats. “But the fact is they are not the Legislature, and they are not elected by the people, and that’s why all these maps should be upheld.”

[See the earlier story, posted below, for further background and context.]

###

Appellate Court tosses out Congressional maps

State Senate, Assembly maps spared for now

Judges of the New York State Appellate Division’s Fourth Department; five of them decided this case.

by Robert Lynch; revised and updated April 22, 2022

If New York redistricting was a three-act play, think of us as at the close of Act Two.  Also consider—though it’s still a long-shot—that when all the legal and legislative dust settles, we could find our Tompkins County plunked right back into Tom Reed’s Congressional District, with Lansing’s Mike Sigler challenging Trump ally Claudia Tenney for the Republican nomination.  Yes, in the opinion of many, that could be quite a show.

In a split decision Thursday (April 21st), five judges on a Rochester-based state appellate court affirmed a lower court judge’s ruling that the Congressional districts legislative Democrats redrew in a partisan show of strength this past February stand in violation of the New York Constitution.  But the 3-2 decision by the Appellate Division’s Fourth Department let stand similarly-partisan maps drawn for New York’s State Senate and Assembly districts.

“[W]e agree,” said the Fourth Department’s majority, “that the congressional map was unconstitutional in that it violated [the Constitution’s command] that ‘districts shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties.”

All expect the mid-level holding will quickly advance to its final forum, the New York Court of Appeals.

One of many Congressional candidates left with district bounds uncertain; Lansing’s Mike Sigler.

New York’s highest Court will likely expedite the case.  Nevertheless, the continued proceedings could endanger holding firm to the state’s current June 28th date for Congressional primaries.  Should district lines remain in risk of changing, and candidate slates reshuffled, boards of elections might lack the time to print ballots and contenders encounter obstacles in qualifying within their new territories.

The Fourth Department’s three-judge majority Thursday gave the Legislature until April 30th to “enact a constitutional replacement for the congressional map.”  Majority Democrats have given no indication they’ll adhere to the deadline, or even that they’ll initiate the process.  Instead, they’ll appeal the decision, which would likely stay the date for compliance.

“We are pleased that the Appellate Division confirmed what all New Yorkers know: The congressional map that the Democrats in the Legislature adopted is an egregious, unconstitutional gerrymander,” said former Hudson Valley Congressman John Faso, the GOP’s point person in this legal fight.  Faso called Thursday’s ruling a “great victory.”

Democrats, meanwhile, took comfort where they could.  They expressed thanks that the appellate court stopped short of throwing out State Senate and Assembly maps as well.

Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said he was “pleased” the judges tossed aside the procedural arguments that the lower court judge, Steuben County’s Patrick McAllister, had employed to invalidate state legislative maps.  Murphy also predicted the congressional maps would survive the final Court’s scrutiny.

“We always knew this case would end at the Court of Appeals and look forward to being heard on our appeal to uphold the congressional map,” Murphy told reporters.

Observers note partisan alliances could influence judicial outcomes.  All seven Court of Appeals justices owe their appointments to Democratic governors.  Mid-level appellate judges, by contrast, are elected within judicial districts.  Of the three majority judges who ruled Thursday in Rochester, two, John Centra and John Curran, are Republicans; while the third, Stephen Lindley, is a Rochester Democrat.  Both dissenters, Gerald Whalen and Joanne Winslow, were elevated to the appellate court by Governor Cuomo.

But until the Court of Appeals rules, outcomes defy prediction.  Not once, but twice, have courts struck down the State Legislature’s congressional maps on grounds they’re gerrymandered.  And though Tompkins County’s newly-found district, the Syracuse-dominated New York 22nd, remains fairly compact and contiguous, its Albany partisan architects drew it for a purpose—to favor Democrats. 

A long-shot candidate on our own Republican ballot; Congresswoman Claudia Tenney.

Should bipartisan panels find themselves compelled to re-draw the lines, one can easily envision that a “quick-fix” could be to peel off Tompkins County—or at least a portion of it—and re-graft it to the Southern Tier NY-23rd, the retiring Tom Reed’s district, Tompkins County’s current representational base.  NY-23 is where Republican Claudia Tenney plans to run this year.  Tompkins County legislator Mike Sigler of Lansing, by most accounts, leads in his attempt to snare the Republican nomination in District 22.  As many as six Democrats seek their own party’s nomination in that district.

But only should state lawmakers need to re-visit redistricting would realignments prove necessary.  Judge McAllister has insisted Democrats cannot hold the drafting pen alone.  Republicans must join them.  If they are not allowed to, the lower court judge has warned he’ll appoint a special master to set district bounds instead.

****

Thursday’s Fourth Department ruling closely paralleled the conclusions that one of the majority jurists, Stephen Lindley, had implied when Lindley stayed Judge McAllister’s March 31st holding some two weeks earlier.  Then, Judge Lindley—and now, the court’s majority—upheld Judge McAllister’s arguments of constitutional gerrymandering.   But Lindley dismissed McAllister’s procedural arguments.  Procedurally, Judge McAllister had maintained, the State Legislature had overstepped its constitutional bounds when it took redistricting—not only for Congress, but also for State Senate and Assembly—onto itself and away from a voter-created Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC).

The majority bought his first-impressions. Appellate judge Stephen Lindley.

Since Republican petitioners had challenged the state legislative districting only on those procedural grounds, the appellate court’s rejection of the procedural arguments took Senate and Assembly redistricting off the table. 

Republican Faso has signaled his party will appeal the part of Thursday’s ruling that upheld the Legislature’s procedures.  One—but only one—of the ruling judges, John Curran, writing separately Thursday, agreed with McAllister that the procedure was flawed.  Yet Curran would only have thrown out the Senate maps, not those for the Assembly.

“In sum, considering the direct and circumstantial evidence offered by (Republican) petitioners in totality… we are satisfied that petitioners established beyond a reasonable doubt that the legislature acted with partisan intent in violation of article III (of the State Constitution),” the Appellate Division panel wrote in its core holding. 

“We conclude that evidence of the largely one-party process used to enact the 2022 congressional map, a comparison of the 2022 congressional map to the 2012 congressional map, and the expert opinion and supporting analysis of (petitioner’s consultant) Sean P. Trende, met petitioners’ burden of establishing that the 2022 congressional map was drawn to discourage competition and favor Democrats,” wrote the majority.

Indeed, it was Trende, an expert identified as the senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics, whose data proved most persuasive to the court’s majority. 

“Trende concluded that the enacted congressional map pressed Republican voters ‘into a few Republican-leaning districts, while spreading Democratic voters as efficiently as possible,’” the majority noted.

Based on that alleged gerrymandering, the court observed, whereas 2012 redistricting yielded 19 elected Democrats and eight Republicans to Congress, after the legislature redrew the maps last winter, “there were 22 Democrat-majority and 4 Republican-majority districts,” concluded the court.

“[T]he testimony of Trende was probative,” the majority wrote.  And it “confirmed the inference… that the legislature engaged in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering when enacting the 2022 congressional map.”

Dissenters Whalen and Winslow, however, found Trende’s analysis insufficient and unconvincing.

“[T]he expert’s computer model failed to account for all the criteria the legislature was required to consider during the redistricting process,” the dissent wrote.  The law not only required maps devoid of partisan bias, but also districts that protect “racial or language minority voting rights,” population equality, compactness, contiguity, and “maintained the cores of existing districts and preexisting political subdivisions, including, among other things, communities of interest.”

The dissent maintained Trende’s program only addressed some of those factors, not all.  And Whalen and Winslow faulted Trende for testifying that “communities of interest are a difficult concept to nail down.”  One such existing district “core,” the dissent noted, was the “Southern Tier,” presumably Congressman Reed’s 23rd District.

Those who remember the early-February redistricting face-offs that left Democrats gloating and Republicans smarting may recall that the districts crafted for State Senate and Assembly were just about as gerrymandered as those for Congress.  In fact, arguably the feistiest debate occurred when Senate Republicans clamored that the maps Democrats had drawn would district them out of office. 

But the lawsuit first filed in Judge McAllister’s courthouse in Bath was initially about Congress only.  Petitioners enlarged their complaint only later to include the State Senate, and then, only on the process’s procedural defects.  Blame imperfect lawyering for Republicans’ failure to fault the Senate cartography on substantive grounds.  With a better strategy, the petitioners might have prevailed.

Why Judge McAllister’s procedural arguments failed to gain traction on appeal may find itself based on the reviewing jurists’ willingness to accord those who draft the laws the benefit of the doubt when those laws stray into constitutional no man’s land.

One of six NY-22 Democrat contenders with Congressional lines still in flux. DeWitt’s Sarah Klee Hood

Only when the bipartisan IRC deadlocked and failed in its constitutional charge did the very-partisan Legislature step in, flexing muscle with a newly-minted law of its own.  Though Republicans allege Democrats had choreographed the outcome, the Fourth Department gave the majority party a pass.

“We conclude that the New York Constitution is silent as to the appropriate procedure to be utilized in the event that the IRC fails to submit a second redistricting plan to the legislature as constitutionally directed,” wrote the appellate court’s majority, “and we thus conclude that the legislation used to fill the gap in the procedure is not unconstitutional and that the redistricting maps enacted by the legislature pursuant that that legislation are not void ab initio.”   

As Rep. Faso has forecast, that failed procedural argument, the one challenging the Senate and Assembly maps, may live to fight another day.  But for now, the focus lies with the candidates for Congress yet unchosen, and with a primary date that remains written only in pencil.  

The Court of Appeals could hear the redistricting case within the week.

###

Brown stakes his ground on sales tax payouts

Posted by Robert Lynch, April 20, 2022

Freshman Tompkins County legislator Randy Brown, perhaps through bravery, or maybe a touch of naiveté, plans to venture where no member of his group has gone before.  Well, at least not for the past two decades.  The Newfield Republican, first elected last November, seeks to revisit the complex—and he would argue inequitable—formula Tompkins County uses to split local sales tax receipts among itself and its towns, city, and villages.

Don’t try to memorize it; Tompkins County’s multi-tiered Sales Tax Distribution Chart

“It’s not fair,” Brown said bluntly—and privately—moments after the Tuesday evening (April 19th) Legislature meeting adjourned.  In a sudden stand of principle on an otherwise-mundane budget transfer, Brown had just cast the lone dissenting vote.  It stood symbolic of Brown’s objection to a long-standing and carefully-negotiated city-county compromise that’s given Ithaca, Brown would argue, too much of our community’s rapidly-growing sales tax booty, and towns like his—Enfield and Newfield—too little.

“I just feel that my constituency is being shortchanged,” Brown told the Legislature at an earlier, mid-February meeting during which the tax distribution question received more extensive discussion.  At this more recent Tuesday session, with members eager to scatter, even Brown made no comment as the funding adjustment sailed through as the meeting’s final resolution, 13 votes to 1.

Many contend any sales tax remains, itself, unfair; “regressive” they’d argue.  It most impacts the people least able to pay.  But Brown’s focus, instead, lies with the division of sales tax receipts between Tompkins County and its municipalities.  And on that score, state law and a local compromise of two dozen years ago place the City of Ithaca as the sales tax’s lopsided beneficiary.

Tompkins County now imposes an eight percent tax on purchases.  It used to impose seven.  Of the total, New York State skims off four percent.  So the local argument involves only the tax’s last four pennies.

Under what one might term the “old” three per cent local share of the tax, the math remains quite simple.  Tompkins County takes half (1.5%) and municipalities take the other half.  But state law enables a city like Ithaca to “pre-empt” sales taxes imposed by businesses within its own limits.  And Ithaca avails itself of that choice opportunity.  Tompkins County still gets half the money.  But since a disproportionate share of county commerce happens within Ithaca, the pre-emption gives the City a fatter return.

“My constituency is being shortchanged.” Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown

Out-of-city revenues from the 1.5 per cent left after the County takes its cut get shared based on population.  Towns and villages have no opportunity to pre-empt.

That’s the easy-to-understand part of formula, the one drilled into my head as a local reporter a half-century ago.  But it grew more complex, geometrically so, in 1998 when the County sought to hike the local share to four per cent.   As some recall, legislators at the time grew nervous that a second City Hall pre-emption would cut too deeply into the County’s share of that extra penny.

To avoid it, City and County negotiators cut a deal, segregating the “new” tax from the “old.” 

For sales outside of Ithaca, under the revised deal, County government grabs a fatter, three-quarters of the newer, one percent tax; towns and villages take just a quarter.  But for in-city sales, the funding maze defies easy explanation.  In simplest terms, the County takes half; the city one-quarter, and the remaining quarter gets doled out to a host of largely-City-based service agencies, ranging from the Human Services  Coalition to the TCAT bus line, to the Southside Community Center.

The maze is so convoluted that a former County budget coordinator, Kevin McGuire, years ago drew a flow chart.  Don’t try to memorize it. 

“Frankly, as I was told, the towns and villages were sort of asleep at the switch and did not make a big issue of it back then,” Dryden’s Mike Lane, now the Legislature’s longest-tenured member, told the February 15th meeting.  “But the County did negotiate in return,” Lane recalled, “that some of the money would be used for projects that were important for people in the County.”

Perhaps so.  But a plan that apportions funds to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, yet nothing to the Enfield Community Council or the Newfield Recreation Partnership leaves a sour taste in some people’s mouths, including Brown’s.

“As I look at it, it appears to me that the City is taking out more money from the sales tax than the towns,” Brown said at the February meeting.  And he countered the logic of those who’d argue the City reaps more cash simply because stores locate there.

“The people in my district, they all come to Ithaca to do their shopping because there’s no place to spend their money in their town,” said Brown.  “So where it’s spent doesn’t matter because they don’t have a choice.”

Those who addressed Brown’s concerns two months ago admitted the current distribution formula’s imperfections and acknowledged a potential need for change.  Yet their responses also carried a touch of “best let sleeping dogs lie.”

“It (the sales tax formula) has a long history, Randy,” Lane recalled.  “But I don’t think any of us has really wanted to reopen those negotiations.”

Rich John, who represents Ithaca City constituents, was even blunter.

“I think there’s great room in looking at it; to argue about, ‘Is it fair?’” John conceded.  “And maybe so.  But I would use the metaphor of the sweater that has the loose thread.  If you start pulling at it, you can unravel the whole thing.”

Maybe the towns were “asleep at the switch;” Dryden’s Mike Lane

John continued, “This was a really complicated thing to put together, and I would take great care in trying to open it up and redistribute.  I think that would be a very, very difficult matter to undertake.”

Difficult or not, a political hot potato or not, Brown Tuesday acted eager to revisit the distribution scheme.  It may become the first issue on which the freshman legislator makes his mark.  At this point, there’s no sign he’ll back down.

****

The financial resolution on which Brown dissented Tuesday underscored how well Ithaca’s commerce has weathered the pandemic.  The budget adjustment reported that sales tax collections within the City had grown by more than 22 per cent between 2020 and last year, “a better result than was anticipated,” its text stated.  As a result, the County needed to transfer as much as $225,000 from its sales tax coffers into the cornucopia of City-based programs covered under the 1998 agreement.

What’s more, the cash just keeps rolling in.  County Finance Director Rick Snyder reported to legislators Tuesday that their county just finished a banner sales tax quarter. 

It was an “astounding first quarter,” Snyder termed it.  Some $10.3 Million has come in year-to-date, up 20.9 per cent over year, making January-March the best first quarter on record, he said.

But once again, the city-county divide remains.  City sales tax receipts for the quarter climbed a full 29.2 per cent.  Revenues assigned to outlying towns grew by just 12.4 per cent.

###

And more from the Legislature…

How do you catch a naughty hotel?

by Robert Lynch, April 20, 2022

It’s akin to the sleight of hand a cash-strapped business plays when it collects employee withholding tax but then fails to pay it to the IRS.  Only Uncle Sam holds enforcement power to padlock the door.  Quite obviously, Tompkins County lacks that authority, or else it prefers not to exercise it.

Snyder: Room tax up by triple digits. But five hotels still delinquent.

While Tompkins County Finance Director Rick Snyder reported to his County Legislature Tuesday (Apr. 19th) that Hotel Room Tax collections in this year’s first quarter are up a whopping 129.5% over the same period last year, Snyder also revealed that five of the county’s 30 hotels remain delinquent in paying the tax.  Two of the five—both owned by the same person; Snyder did not reveal whom—owe back occupancy taxes from as far back as 2020.  He said those two had only recently paid the tax for 2021.

“We are about to apply the principle of ‘Enough’ when it comes to non-payment,” the newly-appointed County Attorney, Bill Troy told the Legislature, Troy signaling a new, get-tough policy. “We will be pursuing this with some aggressiveness,” the attorney added.

“Some progress is being made,” Snyder counseled lawmakers, noting that the dual-hotel delinquent owner—historically a foot-dragger in room tax collection—has at least paid for one year out of the two.  Why the owner paid for last year and not the year before, Snyder could not say.  “We took the money and ran thinking something was better than nothing,” he said.

But there may be managerial strategy in play, a theory reinforced by the fact that a full 16 per cent of the county’s 30 hotels and motels stand in arrears, whereas only two of the 91 bed and breakfasts (2.2%) haven’t paid.  Smaller operators, like the average taxpayer, may run scared, fearing fine or foreclosure. Larger firms may just factor fines into their business plan.  (Think, for a moment, of a former President.)

“The fine or the penalty for not payment of this, it’s the cheapest financing a hotel company can get,” observed Dryden legislator Greg Mezey.  “From a business standpoint, it made a lot of sense for that payment to be delayed.”

Mezey suggested County government raise the penalty for late-payments.  The fine currently lists on the County’s website at ten per cent of the unpaid tax plus 1.5 per cent monthly interest.  A legislative committee may look into possibly raising the penalty.

But at least one legislator urged magnanimity. 

“In the pandemic, our hotel businesses in our county were probably some of the hardest hit businesses,” said Ithaca’s Rich John.  “The floor dropped out from under them.  It’s pretty understandable that they got well behind.  They were struggling to survive through this crisis.”

Yet room tax, like employee withholding, is a pass-through tax.  The hotel patron pays the tax.  If no one stays at the hotel, there’s no tax to pay.

“But hotels were struggling to survive;” Legislator John

“These are trust funds,” said Budget Committee Chair Deborah Dawson.  “They belong to the County from the moment they’re collected.”

Room tax, said legislator Mike Lane, “is paid by whoever rents the room, and should be properly segregated from the funds that are received by the hotel or bed and breakfast.”  The hotel owner, Lane accurately stated, is “just a conduit.”

But still, legislator John remained sympathetic.  “If our hotels all went bankrupt,” he said, “we’d be having a different problem right now.  Businesses try to stay in business.”

###

Is the “Old Jail” in play?  Only as a long shot

by Robert Lynch; April 14, 2022

“I heard the idea floated about the marketability of the Old Jail,” Tompkins County legislator Lee Shurtleff told his committee colleagues.  “Is that really something that we would consider?”

Historic, and almost certain to stay in County hands; the “Old Jail.”

Maybe so; but probably not. Nevertheless, the historic Old Jail’s sale was a trial balloon floated—albeit briefly— during the County Legislature’s Facilities and Infrastructure committee meeting Wednesday (April 13th).  The wide-ranging discussion roped-in each of the County’s downtown facilities, including a proposed big, new one:  the much-sought, $30 Million downtown “Center of Government” lawmakers could build in a couple of years.

Even the Legislature’s own, recently-renovated Tompkins Building chambers got a passing glance at potential sale, though no one considered that prospect seriously.

“To me, we have functioning buildings down here,” said committee Chair Mike Lane.  “Maybe we don’t need to build a giant new building.  Maybe we can look at something smaller at the corner (of Tioga and Buffalo) if we keep the Old Jail and the Governor Tompkins building, both of which are historic and belong to the County.” 

“If you turn them over to developers,” said Lane, “Heaven knows what happens to them at that point”

The committee for more than 90 minutes played a game of  office-shuffling “musical chairs,” seeking to consolidate its government’s many departments; envisioning which among them might relocate to the Center of Government that’s likely to replace the Key Bank and Wiggins Office Buildings next to the Courthouse.   For nearly two years, County Government secretly negotiated to buy those buildings, then purchased both last fall for a combined $3 Million.

County Administrator Lisa Holmes informed the legislators they must bide their time in wielding the wrecking ball.  The existing buildings cannot be razed for two more years, she said, not until tenant leases at one or both of those structures expire.

The committee’s theoretical office shuffle Wednesday produced few conclusions, other than to recommend the County pay Holt Architects $10-15,000 to update a downtown facilities space study, last visited in 2019.  Essentially Holt would do on paper what the committee did Wednesday in the ether. 

Back last summer, at a different committee meeting, former Newfield-Enfield legislator Dave McKenna opined that maybe the Old Jail should simply come down. McKenna suggested its demolition would, in his words “open that whole area up,” maybe for parking, but mostly to give a mammoth, planned Center of Government a larger footprint on which to expand outward.

McKenna’s idea never gained traction and was cast aside at the September meeting by others, legislators who doubted the Old Jail could be razed in view of its landmark status. 

But the question of the building’s possible sale had not surfaced widely until the Wednesday session.  Still, the Old Jail’s offloading would carry yet a different problem. 

“There’s a functional reason for keeping the Old Jail,” Holmes said.  “I believe that all of the utilities that originate in the Old Jail are tied to both the Courthouse and the Daniel D. Tompkins Building, that make it somewhat essential to keep for that reason.”

A former County’s lockup, vacated in the mid-1980’s, the Old Jail was renovated in following years and converted into government offices, including those for the Administrator, the County Attorney, and Finance.  Presumably those offices would relocate to the Center of Government should it be built.

“Maybe we don’t need a giant new building.” Mike Lane.

But moving the Information Technology office to any new building would pose its own connectivity problems.   IT Director Greg Potter informed the committee that his compact, though tightly-wired “core data center” could not easily first move out of its current building location—likely to come down—and then into the new structure, once built. 

“We cannot move temporarily and then move again into a new building,” said Potter.  “We’d have to move to an entirely new location.”

The only work-around that would solve IT’s problem, should it want to make the Center of Government its new home, would be to leave standing its current quarters in so-called “Building C” until the larger building was finished.  Only then would IT move and Building C could come down.

Holmes held out that option.  She said some envision a “green space” where Building C now stands.  It would buffer what might be a five-story Center of Government from the historic Boardman House not far from it.

But Wednesday’s session made clear that office needs—and office locations—remain very much in flux.  And also far from settled is what to do with a partially-vacant lot a block away, land the County earlier purchased as its first-planned Center of Government site.  The Tioga Street lot’s fate may receive attention soon, with focus on the former “dental office,” now vacant, that stands there. 

Members were told that by the next committee meeting, the Facilities Director may have a cost estimate for tearing the dental office down.

###

“Enfield, we bought a salt shed.”

by Robert Lynch, Posted April 13, 2022

Debate, at times, wasn’t pretty.  But by the end of a more than three-hour meeting Wednesday (April 13th), the Enfield Town Board did what all members knew needed to be done.  By a series of unanimous votes, the Board authorized the Supervisor to sign a nearly $700,000 contract to construct a long-planned salt and sand storage barn behind the Town’s Highway Department garage.  It also passed a Resolution to bond the expense.

Kind of our twin; the salt barn in neighboring Newfield

The board followed through on an initial decision made at a March 22nd special meeting when it accepted the bid of ParkLane Construction of Clyde, NY for the wooden, “hi-arch gambrel” structure.  ParkLane was the only firm that offered to build the type of wood-frame, side-entrance building the Town Board and its Highway Superintendent wanted. Though the company initially bid slightly higher, the final negotiated price from the firm was just over $688,000.  Because electrical work and paving the building’s floor weren’t included in the ParkLane bid, the Board agreed Wednesday to bond up to $750,000 for the project.

Supervisor Stephanie Redmond will sign the contract as soon as the Town’s counsel finalizes it.  Councilperson Jude Lemke, an attorney herself, advised her fellow Board members that Wednesday’s bonding action takes only the first of several steps toward debt financing.  Should they choose, Enfield voters could petition to take the financing to a referendum.

The salt storage building—which the Board and Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins agreed Wednesday would be medium blue with a brick-red metal roof, not the same color as the tan Highway Barn—will find half its funding supported by a state environmental grant.  But as the grant is apparently not paid up-front, the Town will need to finance the entire cost.

Neither construction of the salt barn, its cost, nor the Board’s intended financing has generated significant concern or opposition in Enfield to date.

Though the Board remained unified in its objective Wednesday, the process toward that decision went anything but smoothly.  Multiple times before Wednesday’s meeting and several times during it, Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) urged for at least a one-week delay, Lynch wanting either the Town’s attorney, Guy Krogh, or the contracted bonding firm’s counsel to be present to answer questions when the Board voted.  Supervisor Redmond countered that a real-time legal presence was unneeded and would just waste money.  Lynch asserted he felt “uncomfortable” taking action without a lawyer by the Board’s side.

Lynch also bluntly took aim at numerous errors in the bonding lawyer’s initial submissions, mistakes he said required repeated revision in recent days, and then only in response his own review.  Lynch noted that counsel had first listed the Town’s attorney by the name of the lawyer who represents Enfield, Connecticut, and had included an attachment that discussed planned demolition of a highway garage along some “Route 8” in a community unknown.

Our salt shed’s matching colors, Not! Enfield’s salt barn will be blue and red.

Lynch asserted that based on those flagrant errors, he’d lost confidence in the bond counsel’s competence. The Councilperson nonetheless voted to proceed with the financing measures, remarking he didn’t want to become “the skunk at the picnic.”

“We bought a salt barn tonight,” Lynch said to close Wednesday’s meeting.  “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the Highway Department, and it’s good for the Town.”

Construction of the salt shed is expected this summer.

###

Kicking the can. Tipping the hand.

Judge’s interim ruling signals hope for Dems’ Senate, Assembly Maps

Analysis by Robert Lynch, April 9, 2022

Maybe a keeper? Currently-enacted NY 53rd District State Senate map.

It’s early.  So placing too much weight on a mid-level judge’s stopgap decision carries great risk.  Judicial minds can change.  Higher courts can overrule.  Nonetheless, please read a Rochester appellate judge’s Friday (Apr. 8) ruling between the lines. It suggests local State Senate candidates, and also Assemblymember Anna Kelles, have less to worry about.  They’re less likely to lose the districts they’d planned to run in than may candidates in the crowded race for Congress.  But it will be several more weeks—more likely several months—before anyone will know for sure.

The reason behind the perceived distinction lies in matters of law and how courts have chosen to view the constitutional deficiencies in the maps Democrat-dominated state lawmakers adopted in early February.  And because of that distinction, the maps for Congress, as opposed to those for the Legislature itself, stand more likely to be thrown out by the courts.

Appellate Judge Stephen K. Lindley

In taking action that gave everyone a moment to exhale, and also, for now, kept the pre-Primary political calendar intact, Appellate Division, Fourth Department Judge Stephen Lindley Friday granted a partial stay of a lower court’s decision that had held as unconstitutional the State Legislature’s partisan redistricting of New York’s Congressional districts and also districts for State Senate and Assembly.  In many ways, he kicked the can down the road.

Had Judge Lindley not acted, legislators would have needed to draft and submit new districting maps as soon as Monday, April 11th.  They’d also have been required to have both Democrats and Republicans give input and grant approval.  And had they not done so, that lower judge, the State Supreme Court’s Patrick McAllister, could have named a neutral expert—a “Special Master” as one is called—to draft alternative maps and do so at State expense.

Judge Lindley’s Friday action still enables Judge McAllister to appoint the Special Master.  But any map the “neutral expert” might draw drew would carry zero weight unless a higher court invalidated the maps now on the table.

“Of course,” Judge Lindley wrote, “any map drafted by such neutral expert would have no force or effect unless and until the Court of Appeals affirms Judge McAllister’s order, and the Legislature, pursuant to the redistricting legislation, is provided with 30 days from the entry of the order, to ‘discharge its constitutional mandate’ of enacting a Congressional map that does not run afoul of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of… the New York Constitution.”

Many observers, including reporters covering the story, saw Judge Lindley’s action as a victory for Democrats.  The Governor and majority lawmakers had asked for the stay.  And had Lindley allowed the lower judge’s fast-paced order to remain in effect, state lawmakers, now mired in past-deadline budget deliberations and reluctant to alter their February maps in any event, would have found it next to impossible to escape map-drawing by someone they couldn’t control.

But Republicans celebrated the moment as well.  “Ultimately the Court of Appeals will decide, but we’re very much encouraged by this decision today,” said John Faso, the former Congressman who serves as the spokesperson for Republican petitioners. 

Hoping for a set district to run in. Senate hopeful Leslie Danks Burke

As Faso indicated, Judge Lindley’s Friday action remains far from the final word.  With Judge McAllister’s April 11th deadline no longer in full force, parties will next appear before Judge Lindley’s Fourth Department appellate court April 20th.  The stay would lift only after the Fourth Department rules on the merits of the case.  Still, all expect the final decision will rest with the State’s highest Court, the Court of Appeals.  Successive deliberations, even if expedited, could consume months.  And doubt remains whether New York’s party Primaries will adhere to their original June 28th date.  Quite likely, they’d spill into August.

Nevertheless, for now, candidates and boards of elections can proceed with bureaucratic blinders on, acting like nothing around them has changed.

“The stay will, among other things, allow candidates for Congress, State Senate and Assembly to file designating petitions by the statutory deadline, and allow the boards of elections to accept such petitions,” Judge Lindley wrote.  Challengers can object to petitions, elections boards can rule on them, and those dissatisfied can go to court. 

“None of those actions would be permitted under Judge McAllister’s order in the absence of a stay.” Lindley pointed out.  The paralysis would have gripped candidates and their overseers all because Judge McAllister had ordered the Legislature’s district maps to be stricken “from the books.”  Should the maps have been voided, candidates would have had no districts in which to run, and the whole process would have ground to a halt.

What’s been written so far is what’s fixated the media.  But it’s a key, prescient paragraph in the decision that most intrigues this writer, one that could signal how Judge Lindley’s court—and perhaps courts that follow—would compartmentalize the constitutional arguments that underpin this suit.  And if other judges follow the same reasoning, the State Senate and Assembly districts legislative Democrats drew, albeit controversially, could be left standing, no matter how irregular their lines, no matter how partisan their genesis.  Instead, courts could aim their firepower at the 26 districts Democrats drew for Congress.  And Judge Lindley tips his hand in that one paragraph to the reason why they would.

We must wander into the weeds maybe a bit too much for some of those reading without a J.D. after their name.  But let it be said that when the 14 petitioning plaintiffs took their challenge to Bath and into Judge McAllister’s courtroom in February, they raised two legal arguments; one procedural, the other substantive.  They founded each in the State Constitution.

When Steuben County’s Tim Harkenrider and his thirteen allies brought their case to judge McAllister, they’d asserted in part that legislative Democrats circumvented the command embodied in a 2014 constitutional amendment.  That amendment called for a newly-formed Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), not the Legislature, to draw congressional and legislative lines.  Late last year the evenly-divided, bipartisan IRC deadlocked and thus failed in its task. 

Republicans, most notably State Senator Tom O’Mara, alleged Democrats engineered the impasse.  They said majority Democrats, armed with new power and a new law they’d pushed through, wanted to take over the task the IRC did not complete.  Democrats did just that.  The majority flexed its legislative power to adopt Democrat-favoring Congressional maps on one February day; similarly-slanted maps for Senate and Assembly the next.  Republicans cried foul. 

“This was pre-ordained to fail,” O’Mara famously said on the floor of the Senate February 2nd just as Democrats put their Congressional maps to a party-line vote.  Willing circumvention of the IRC’s constitutional authority lies at the core of the petitioner’s procedural complaint.  It’s applies equally to congressional maps and to those for the Legislature

Danks Burke’s primary opponent; Senate candidate Lea Webb

Judge McAllister accepted the petitioners’ reasoning.  He noted that voters last November rejected a new constitutional amendment that would have enabled legislators to perform the same oversight that lawmakers chose just weeks later to take upon themselves through statute.

Judge McAllister wrote, “This court finds that the November 2021 legislation which purported to authorize the legislature to act in the event the IRC failed to act was not a mere enactment of legislation to help clarify or implement the Constitution, but in fact substantially altered the Constitution.”

“Alteration of the Constitution can only be done by constitutional amendment,” McAllister continued, “and as recently as November 2021, the people rejected the constitutional amendment that would have granted the legislature such authority.”

Initially, the “Harkenrider 14,” as we might call them, had only contested the Congressional maps.  They then quietly amended their complaint to include the State Senate maps as well.  Indeed, it was Judge McAllister, himself, who dragged the Assembly maps into the wastebasket.  As the judge saw it, if procedural defects made the Congressional and Senate maps infirm, the Assembly maps must go as well as they were all crafted the same way.

By contrast, the substantive arguments presented the court relate to the shape and composition of the maps drawn; essentially, their “gerrymandered” nature.  How compact are they?  How contiguous are they?  How much do they preserve the “cores of prior districts?”  And most important, how much were they engineered to favor one political party over another?  How much were partisan populations “packed” and “cracked,” to use common redistricting terminology.

Judge McAllister found that beyond a reasonable doubt “the congressional map was unconstitutionally drawn with political bias.”  Important on appeal, McAllister could not find a similar deficiency in the State Senate maps.  The judge was not asked to perform, nor did he perform, similar analysis on the Assembly maps.

The appeals court took note of that distinction.  “[R]espondents (that is, the State)  correctly point out that petitioners (the Republicans) never contended  that the Assembly districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered,” Judge Lindley wrote  in an instructive sixth paragraph of his three-page decision granting Friday’s limited stay.

“Judge McAllister struck down the Assembly and Senate maps solely on grounds that the Legislature, in enacting the maps, failed to comply with the procedural structure… of the State Constitution,” Lindley stated.

Judge Lindley continued.  “Inasmuch as it appears on the surface that petitioners may be more likely to prevail, if they are to prevail at all, on their substantive challenges to the redistricting legislation than they are on their procedural challenges, there would seem to be less need for the neutral expert, if appointed by Judge McAllister pending appeal, to draft proposed maps for Assembly and Senate districts,” (emphasis added).

Should Judge Lindley’s distinction hold as this case winds its way through the Fourth Department—and later, expectedly, the Court of Appeals— it would mean the Senate and Assembly district lines the Democrats drew would not change, that is, if the final decisions turn exclusively on substance and not procedure. They were lines that so infuriated Senate Republicans on their day of their adoption.  It may not matter.

And strictly read to its letter, the text of Judge Lindley’s Friday Decision would empower Judge McAllister’s Special Master only to draw maps for Congress, not the State Legislature. 

“The Legislature may begin drawing the map right now if it chooses to do so,” Judge Lindley wrote.  “Or the Legislature may choose to do nothing and risk the possibility of having to live with the map drawn by Judge McAllister’s neutral expert should respondents lose before the Court of Appeals and lack sufficient time to propose a substitute map that withstands constitutional scrutiny after exhaustion  of appellate remedies.”

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who jousted with Senator O’Mara in their gentlemanly, yet intensely combative 40-minute debate over the Congressional maps February 2nd, has already made clear he has no plans to prod his chamber’s cartographers to return to work.

No plans to draw new maps; Senator Michael Gianaris

“We are confident that we’ve drawn maps that will withstand scrutiny,” Gianaris, the Senate majority’s point-person on redistricting, told an Albany-based cable news program April 5th.

Legislators redraw maps once per decade to adjust district lines to reflect population shifts within New York—and this time also to cut New York’s Congressional delegation down by one.   The currently-adopted maps would, if upheld, partner Tompkins County with many new bedfellows.  Tompkins County’s congressional district would newly bond with Syracuse, and sever ties with the Southern Tier.  And for the first time in decades, a single State senator would serve the entire county, in a district firmly anchored to Binghamton and its western suburbs.

Meanwhile, lines drawn for the 125th Assembly District, Democrat Anna Kelles’ home base, would remain unchanged from those of the past decade.

Democrats Lea Webb and Leslie Danks Burke, and Republican Rich David seek to represent Tompkins County in the newly-drawn 53rd Senate District.   Should Judge Lindley’s observation hold and find acceptance with others on the bench, those three local Senate aspirants could have the most to gain.  They’ve petitioned.  They’re campaigning.  And were one to be cut from the district and placed somewhere else, the candidate would either be left without a constituency or forced quickly to retool.

Relax for the moment; but only the moment.  Much remains for courts to decide.  The next court date lies less than two weeks from the last.  Everything may change again.

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