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Disputed Lines

Tempers flare as Albany’s ward reapportionment process nears completion

by Erin Pihlaja on November 15, 2012

The third and final public meeting on the redistricting of Albany’s ward lines was held Tuesday night (Nov. 13) at the Arbor Hill Public Library. Members of the Reapportionment Committee, charged with submitting new maps of the city’s 15 wards to the Common Council at the end of this month, hosted around 40 people in a forum that lasted for almost two hours.

The committee seemed ready for the overall process to come to an end. Vincente Alfonso, committee chair, reminded the crowd that the process was “data-driven.” He added, “In order for us not to be political, the only justification this community will have is a data-driven map based on one person, one vote. That is the overriding principle.”

The wards lines will be redrawn to accommodate the 2010 Census findings, which reflected an increase in the minority population in Albany, and a decrease in the population of non-hispanic whites. Wards will be shifted so that populations in each electoral district are made equal in accordance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Various maps have been drafted, and the third draft was only recently unveiled.

“Since the first public hearing one month ago there have been maps provided,” said Joshua Oppenheimer, vice-chair of the committee. “After the first and second hearing, there were no changes to those maps because there was insufficient time. After the second hearing, a new study of comments resulted in another draft, number three, and a new draft of number two was revised. We are not going to be able to synthesize all of the comments but we will try to synthesize as many as we can.”

Based on the comments from the final public hearing, there are many issues that still need to be addressed.

“You stick to your changes based on the numbers,” said Council member Ronald Bailey (Ward 3). “We did not want this to turn political, and it has, and that’s a shame. Stick to the numbers—one person, one vote.”

But Marlon Anderson, a community advocate from the West Hill neighborhood, argued that the decisions should be influenced by other concerns as well. “This process has been about the numbers,” he said. “Numbers, while you are somewhat bound to them, should not be the main factor of this process. What about continuity of community? Continuity of constituency?”

That sentiment was echoed by others throughout the night. Stephanie Richardson, who described herself as a “6th Ward advocate,” defended the area as a “community of interest.” She added, “We are a remarkably diverse neighborhood that works in concert with one another all of the time. We have a remarkable cohesion across [the other] four neighborhoods [of the ward].”

One male speaker told the committee, “If it was just about data—they’d just have computers. That’s why you’re here, to put a face on it.”

Participants at the meeting seemed evenly split in support and criticism of maps two and three. “Plan three takes the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association and carves it up smaller than a Thanksgiving Day turkey,” said Todd Hunsinger, president of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association. “It may be one person one vote, and the 2010 census data, but your numbers are already irrelevant. The Patroon Creek apartments on Washington Avenue add a couple hundred more people.”

Hunsinger found flaws with the other map as well. “Draft two cuts off the head of the upper Madison business district of Ward 10 to add it to Ward 14, which extends up to the Normanskill,” he said.

Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin also took issue with the maps. “Draft two takes out the [Capital South] Campus Center, and draft three takes me back to 1990,” she said. Most of the members of the Reapportionment Committee responded that they had no knowledge of the project, which has received millions of dollars in grant funding and seeks to create an educational corridor and community center in the South End.

“My biggest concern is the upper Madison business district and its influence on the neighborhood,” said Leah Golby, council member for the 10th Ward. She also brought up refugees who live in her district who attend the Emmaus United Methodist Church at Morris and West Lawrence streets. “If you cut off West Lawrence for these people, it would be a big concern for me, for them. I like draft three better.”

One of the points that resident and property owner Michael Guidice said he wanted to “hammer home” to the committee was that, “Draft two is unacceptable for the Mansion district.” He also said it didn’t matter to him whether the neighborhood got shifted to the North or South as long as it stayed a downtown ward.

At times, it appeared as though the patience of Alfonso had run out. In between speakers, he said, “The population shift must be accounted for,” and warned that if the deviation between wards was too large that “we could get sued by the federal government.” Finally he said, “We will not please everybody. It’s just not going to happen.”

Although this hearing marked the end of the process for public involvement before the Common Council votes on the new wards in December, the Reapportionment Committee will welcome additional input at their remaining working meetings, the next of which is tonight (Nov. 15) at City Hall. Information can be found at albanyny.gov.