Dr. Benjamin spent the evening reviewing his PowerPoint presentation on the topic, which I would be happy to share with anyone via e-mail, since he sent a copy to various committee members, and to me. I had previously studied the topic of Ward Systems and recent attempts to change some towns to using them in detail back in late January through mid-February, and I found that Dr. Benjamin’s presentation did not refute any of the details I had presented on my website back in February, but it did add some interesting discussion points I had not considered, especially if the Town Board were to ratify a ballot initiative, instead of a ballot initiative from the petition process. These points will be discussed below.
First, a critical point that many people are failing to remember is that Town Boards are both the Legislative and Executive branch of local government. There is no “separation of powers”, and the Town Supervisor is not the sole executive of the town. A Supervisor’s power to lead is based on his or her ability to persuade enough of the other board members to vote for the resolutions necessary for the government to function. The Town Supervisor is not the CEO; in fact, one can make the case that most towns have “at large” seats for Town Council because those Town Council members should also represent the entire town, just like the Town Supervisor is supposed to.
A good deal of the next section of the presentation dealt with facts I have already discussed in my earlier work on this website about Ward Systems. A key point that Dr. Benjamin made however, is that it is definitely possible for the Town Board to create “Ward Systems” that might be multi-member districts, hybrid “At Large & Ward” Town Council representation, and staggered election cycles with 4 year terms, for their electoral process. He hinted this might also be possible through a “citizen petition” process. My opinion on that is that since no other “citizen petition” process has yet tried anything other than a straight change from “At large” to single-member “Wards”, that there might be some legal issues which arise for any “citizen petition” process that tries to create more elaborate "Ward System" models.
Dr. Benjamin spent some time talking about Wards for School Districts. Special New York State legislation would be required. It is not something that can be achieved through a “citizen petition” process, since no law exists that allows a “petition” process for changing the way School Districts elect their Board of Education members.
Also discussed was the possibility to stagger elections in a "Ward System" so that not all the Town Council members were up for election at the same time every 2 years. One possible way is to elect 2 members to the Town Council from each Ward, to 4 year terms that are on different election cycles. This is done in Port Jervis right now. It would be similar to the way “At Large” Town Councils like Blooming Grove only elect 2 Council members every 4 years, so that some Town Board members are still in office after the results of every two year town election cycle that exists due to current New York State Town law.
The size of the Town Council in a Ward or “hybrid” environment would have to be debated. If the number of seats were to be increased by a “citizens’ petition” process, this increase will have to be a separate ballot initiative. If the number of Council seats in Blooming Grove were to be increased in size from the current number of 4 Council members, the Town would face new costs on how much to pay these members, and other additional costs related to training, pensions, seating at meetings, etc.
At the end of his presentation, Dr. Benjamin discussed which groups are protected, and which groups are not protected, by the Voting Rights Act. I will just say here that I don’t think this will be an issue for Blooming Grove at this time. But it might be a key issue down the road, if additional groups are added to the protection of the Voting Rights Act.
In summary, I found the presentation interesting. I think one proposal that might have merit based on this presentation, is to consider a proposal to have multi-member wards within Blooming Grove. In that case, the Town could go to a 4 district Ward System, with all Council members still elected to 4 year terms, with 1 Council member for each Ward being elected in the 2017-2021-2025-2029 cycles, and the other Council member for each Ward being elected in the 2019-2023-2027-2031 cycles. This could remove the problem related to losing all Town Board experience at once, but still allow the Town citizens to change the control of the Town Board within a 2 year cycle, as the Town Supervisor and 4 Council members could change every other year. Based on the 2010 Census, the 4 Ward Districts could be drawn to the existing Blooming Grove Election Districts as shown below, without changing the current Election Districts, which might be a difficult proposition prior to the next US Census in 2020.
Change #1: Make all Board seats (including the Town Supervisor) “majority required” seats at the time of the General Election. New York City uses this system for its mayoral elections. Louisiana has done this for its Unite States Senate elections (and probably other Louisiana elections too). Majority-required elections sometimes require “run-off” elections. An example would be: if Candidate A gets 40%, and Candidate B gets 35%, and Candidate C gets 15%, there is a run-off election between the two highest vote getting candidates a few weeks later. Majority-required elections mandate the position be won with 50%+1 of the actual vote, and such elections will dilute the power of special interest “bloc votes” in the general election.
Change #2: If people are truly worried about “At Large” seats being taken over by special interest “bloc votes”, make the number of Wards an odd number, and have the new Town Board elected every two years pick the “Town Supervisor” from the 5 Ward representatives for the next year (or every other year) at the start of the next calendar year, just like the “Prime Minister”, or the “Speaker Of The House” are elected in various Parliaments, or the United States House Of Representatives. This will lead to less-divided government in our town, and will ensure a longer time frame where the entire town government will not be taken over by a special interest “bloc vote” that might have a smaller population in the town, but a much higher and singularly-minded voter turnout. Using the 2010 population data, a possible 5-seat Ward system is drawn below, based on 2010 US Census figures, and not requiring any changes to the current Blooming Grove Election Districts until 2020 or later.