Is 14 our Tompkins’ Sweet Spot?
Posted by Robert Lynch, January 9, 2022
Later this year, a blue-ribbon Independent Redistricting Commission will craft a plan to redraw the district lines for the Tompkins County Legislature. (Full disclosure: my sister sits as a commission member.) Sadly, whatever the panel proposes will take a long while before it becomes reality. Our county’s 14 elected legislators just took their seats this month for new, complete four-year terms. Barring a court challenge—which lawyers maintain stands unlikely to happen and even less likely to prevail— anyone elected under the redrawn lines won’t begin his or her term until January 2026—yes, half-way towards the next U.S. Census. And it’s the decennial headcount that requires redistricting in the first place.
Last redistricting cycle I stood before the County Legislature and said its reduction in legislative membership from 15 to 14 was a bad idea. It was a reduction the then-empaneled Redistricting Commission recommended because, it said, with a 15-person body, the math didn’t really work. Either you could balance populations as the law requires or keep “communities of interest”—like, municipalities—under common representation, but not both. Fourteen, it said, worked much better.
My fear then stood two-fold. Fewer members, I worried, would invariably lead to more detached representation, even if only at the margins. More importantly, I said, it could prompt hair-pulling deadlock if members tied 7-7. Legislators back then politely dismissed my arguments. They doubted the paralysis of deadlock. They proceeded unabated and trimmed the Legislature to 14. And then came the chairmanship fight of 2020, when it took eight ballots spread over four meetings, spilling from early-January into mid-February, before members could break an impasse and finally pick a leader.
Lesson learned. Now I’m told some key leaders in County government want no more part of an equally-divided Legislature, for much the same reason that the U.S. Supreme Court has held an odd number of Justices for more than 150 years. But if we march off the dead-center number of 14, should we go higher or lower? I have my opinion. Others disagree.
On December 8th, the Cortland Standard, in an editorial directed to redistricting its own county’s legislature of 17, opted for slicing its county legislature still smaller. Cortland County has just under half the population Tompkins does, yet it boasts three more members on its county’s governing board. Here’s what the Cortland paper wrote, in its opinion piece titled, Who Drives the Bus?
“It’s an axiom we’ve developed over decades of watching governmental entities: In any lawmaking body—town board, city council, state or federal legislatures—about one-quarter of the elected officials are driving the bus. Another one-quarter wish they were driving the bus. But about half of them are just along for the ride.
“This comes to mind as Cortland County government considers the mandatory redistricting required as part of the 10-year Census process…. Legislators said all options are on the table, including a proposal to reduce the number of legislators, similar to its reduction to 17 legislators from 19 a decade ago.
“We’re all for it. Seventeen is a particularly ugly number of legislators—too many to avoid the factions and infighting that stem from having so many people in the room, but too few for effective leaders to rise to the top….
“So let’s shed some weight. And to keep the reward commensurate with the work, let’s keep the legislature’s payroll—pay the fewer legislators more money.
“Because the job would bring both more work and more pay, the legislators only along for the ride will eventually be pushed off the bus. Good riddance. The increased pay, instead, would draw the best of the municipal leaders. Welcome aboard.
“Beyond that, fewer legislators means they will have to broaden their power bases beyond the parochial, neighborhood politics which stifles larger vision and intermunicipal compromise.
“It’s a good goal and a good plan. And we expect it will die somewhere between here and the floor of the legislature. Here’s why:
(1) Legislators aren’t likely to support it. Reduce the size of the legislature and you see two incumbents campaigning against each other. Unpleasant. Even if they do get more money, the job will still mean more work, and the hangers-on won’t like that.
(2) Voters aren’t likely to support it, even if it leads to better government. It’s another axiom we’ve developed over the decades—voters like the sense that government representation is by the neighbor across the street. They may get better representation from someone they’ve never met, but this is politics, and impressions can be more powerful than reality….”
There may be some in Tompkins County government who agree with the Cortland editorialists that smaller is better. But I do not. I buy into the second argument the paper’s writers acknowledged will defeat their purported good idea. To me, localism works. It serves community residents; the voters, who are, let’s face it, supposed to be driving the ship of state—no matter how small that ship may be—in the first place. To most of us in these rural outreaches of Tompkins County, our county’s government stands too distant and obscure for most of us to pay it much mind. I learned that fact during my last year’s legislative campaign, and the detachment shouldn’t occur. How many among us can name at least half the members of the Tompkins County Legislature? I’ll make it easier. How many of us can name more than one or two?
If some complain that local legislative meetings run too long because puffed-up politicians monopolize the microphone under floor privileges, they fail to recognize that under a leaner legislature, the fewer would only each filibuster longer. Here, the solution lies in leadership’s tighter control of debate, a reform newly-chosen Legislative Chair Shawna Black has promised to implement.
While ending an even-numbered body only makes sense, I’d argue for upping legislature membership back to its original 15, providing, of course, that the numbers would work this time around. A larger membership increases the likelihood that less-populous municipalities—like, for example, Enfield—stand improved opportunities to have their distinct voices heard. We in Enfield are too few to have our own delegate in downtown’s Legislative Chambers. But with larger legislative membership, our own “community of interest”—a critical factor in any reapportionment decision—earns more dominant placement in whatever one or two districts our town’s residents may find themselves within.
Yes, to an extent, the Cortland newspaper’s writers are correct. Any legislative body has its own leaders, wannabes’ and hangers-on. But I’d maintain the axiom remains true for any decision-making body, whether it’s the U.S. Congress or the local garden club. Cutting a legislature’s size won’t cure the systemic ill. Only electing better people will.
Furthermore, just as a queen bee was once just another lowly worker Apis mellifera, yet one with exceptional drive and moxie, recruiting a larger number of legislators accords ever-more opportunities for heretofore unrecognized leaders to emerge from unelected obscurity and show their skills to us all.
Please, Tompkins County’s Independent Redistricting Commission and the Legislature to whom you answer, don’t shrink the size of the government that represents us—grow it.