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Redrawing the Map

Depending on whom you ask, the City of Albany’s ward redistricting process is right on schedule—or has been stunted by political gamesmanship

by Erin Pihlaja on October 17, 2012


“Every 10 years, you get to shuffle this deck, and that’s a good thing,” said Aaron Mair, a local civil-rights activist.

The shuffling in this instance will be Albany’s wards. Albany is divided into 15 legislative districts (wards) as determined by the city charter. Albany’s Common Council chooses the boundaries of the wards using the results of the most recent census to determine how to best represent the varied demographics of the city.

The process is also dependent on the constitutional idea extracted from the Voting Rights act of 1965: one person equals one vote.

The Common Council appoints a reapportionment council of eight people, two of which are supposed to be nominated by the mayor, to oversee the process of redistricting.

Depending on whom you ask, it may or may not be going smoothly.

“We are moving right ahead, on point, trying to meet the needs of distribution of the population of city of Albany,” said Vincente Alfonso, chair of the Reapportionment Committee.  “We do not make the final decision, we make the recommendation, if [the Common Council] doesn’t like it, they [can] vote it down in November.” Alfonso, a nominee of the mayor, served on the last committee when the districts were finalized in 2003, using the 2000 census.

The census does a number of things, but put simply, it produces data. The United States conducts this formal survey every 10 years; it yields plenty of statistics about the people who live here.

The 2010 census indicated that the total population in the city of Albany remained somewhat static (according to the report, it increased by 2,198 people), and that the non-Hispanic white population decreased by 5,602 while the Latino, Black, and Asian populations increased by a total of 7,245. Other demographic groups make up the rest of the increase.

The city’s total population in 2010 was 97,856. Since there are 15, wards the ideal population in each ward would be 6,524. Based on that figure, eight wards currently come up short and seven have abundance. Of all of the wards, No. 13, which lies between Western and Washington avenues and is bordered by the Harriman State Office Campus and Albany High School, has the worst deficit (1,526). Ward 15, the southwestern corner of the city proper, is below Western Avenue and borders Guilderland, and has the biggest surplus (2,815).

“Redistricting represents one of the most important undertakings of our democracy,” states the City of Albany’s website.

“The wards are supposed to reflect that,” said Alfonso. “No one ward can have the advantage over another ward in terms of grants or awards. It has to be one man, one vote. We have been charged with a federal mandate; those are the things you have to take into consideration by law.”

“One of the first things our founding fathers did when they set up a government was to make sure everybody got a chance for an equal vote,” said Mair, noting that African-Americans originally were denied that right.

Mayor Jerry Jennings originally had recommended that Mair be on the commission. The proposal was rejected because Mair is a resident of Guilderland, not Albany.

“The city often uses out-of-town experts,” Mair said. “Then it’s not personal, there is no allegiance to any neighborhood association.”

Early on, Mair had drafted a map showing altered districts based on population.  “I wanted to show how fast it could be done according to the constitution,” he said. “I wanted to put the obvious out there.”

But when the map was unveiled, emotions rose. The commission held one public meeting in August and another in September, and many people expressed concerns.

“There was a lot of confusion,” said Richard Berkley, president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association. Berkley got involved in the redistricting process to educate himself and to represent his neighborhood.

“The neighborhood association is interested in keeping 6th Ward as much intact as possible,” said Berkley. “We like the way our neighborhood works now. City politics start with a well-organized and active neighborhood association. I feel like it’s better to get input in before the map is already set in stone.”

“We are considering and attempting to include feedback,” said Alfonso. “The first priority is one person one vote.”

“Redistricting is very important,” said Justin Mikulka, a resident of Albany’s Center Square neighborhood for the past 10 years. “I had initially interviewed to be part of this process. This type of thing is used to assign political power to certain people, especially those who are already in power.”

Mikulka answered the city’s second request for commission applicants last November. He said that he wasn’t asked to interview until February 2012, and the next communication he received from the city was on April 27.

“In May they asked if I wanted to be considered,” Mikulka said. “This has to be done by the end of the year I think and they pushed it to the last possible minute.”

The eight members of the commission were not formally appointed until June. The commission has to have its recommendations to the Common Council by either Nov. 27 or Nov. 29. The council will vote during the Dec. 3 session.

“I think they intentionally dragged this thing out,” said Mikulka. “When they want to get something done like Tulip Fest, it’s always on time. When the mayor wants to get something done it happens.”

Mikulka noted that if someone decided to run for political office in Albany, they would be at a disadvantage because of the uncertainty of the district lines. “If you wanted to run a good campaign you want to think about these things in advance,” he said. “If I wanted to run for council, I would wonder, ‘Who is my district and who am I running against?’ You spend a lot of time going door-to-door and setting these things up.”

“Ultimately, the Council had hoped to have the Commission appointed in February 2012; the Mayor delayed getting recommendations to us for three months after we had completed our process, with the added time to conduct interviews this resulted in a four month delay from where the Council was ready to move forward,” said Richard Conti, Albany Common Council member representing the 6th Ward, in an e-mail response.

“The whole process seems like we’re headed for a divisive vote on this,” said Mikulka. “Until we see some finalized maps, it’s all up in the air.”