What Is A "Ward System" For Town Council Elections, And How It Could Impact Blooming Grove...
PLEASE NOTE: I believe all analysis below is correct in describing what a New York State Town Council "Ward System" is, and my opinions on its possible impacts. If you have any information that can refute this actual analysis, or if you need further explanation of either the analysis, or my opinions on possible impacts, please feel free to contact me.
(1) What is the Ward System?
The Ward System is one of the two ways, according to New York State Law, that Town Council members can be elected in a Town.
In a Ward System, based on New York State Town Law, there can either be 4 or 6 wards, each represented by a Council member to the Town Board.
Under a Ward System, each Council member is elected from a defined geographic area called a “ward” within the Town.
Only the residents of a specific ward can vote for the Council candidates running for office in that ward.
Candidates for the Council seat of a specific ward must be residents of that ward.
All Ward seats would be up for election every 2 years; the same odd-number years that the Town Supervisor election occurs.
These Wards must be near-equal in population (within a variance of 10% of the average population for each Ward), and each Ward must have contiguous (connected) Election Districts.
In Blooming Grove, if there were 4 Wards, the average population for each ward will be 4,526 residents. If there were 6 Wards, the average population would be 3,017 residents.
(2) How is this different from the system we have now?
The current electoral system used by 918 of the 932 towns in New York State, including Blooming Grove, is the "At-Large System". That means those council members are elected Town wide. This means all the voters in the Town can vote for all the candidates seeking the office of Town Council.
(3) How many towns are using the Ward System in New York State?
Of New York State's 932 towns, only 14 towns, listed in Appendix 1, utilize the "Ward System" as the way to elect members of their Town Councils.
10 towns were using a "Ward System" as of the year 2000. 4 more towns have adopted it in the 21st century. The most recent town to adopt it was Clarkstown in November 2015.
Most of these towns have significant differences to Blooming Grove.
Many are quite larger in population. Others are much larger in square miles.
If not either of those two differences, the other towns with Wards are still quite different because they might have been on a Ward System for a very long time, or they are suburbs to larger cities, often encircling those cities with distinct hamlets and villages.
In the Clarkstown example in 2015 - it has a population 4 times the size of Blooming Grove; it is about 32% larger in size than Blooming Grove. Finally, it has more, and larger, villages and hamlets than Blooming Grove.
(4) Is the ward system permitted in Blooming Grove?
Yes, a Ward System could be authorized under New York State Town Law Sections 81 and 85, since Blooming Grove does meet the state law population threshold (over 10,000 residents) which allows it to implement a ward system if it wants to switch to that electoral process for its Town Council.
(5) How can Blooming Grove be changed to a Ward System for Town Council elections?
A proposition to create a Ward System for Town Council elections in Blooming Grove will need to be on the election ballot for the town voters to approve, in an election prior to the Wards being created and used for the following Town wide election.
One of the ways for this proposition to be on the election process is if the Town Board decides it is in the best interest of the Town to pass a resolution to change to a Ward System.
Registered voters of the town also can attempt to create an election ballot proposition by gathering the required number of signatures on a petition, and forcing a referendum on the proposal. This petition method has been challenged with litigation in other towns in the past, and often has been found to alienate the other registered voters of those towns, when the petition method was done for partisan reasons. This alienation has led to the defeat of those partisan driven petition efforts at the ballot box.
(6) Is the "Ward System" proposition the only one that citizens can be asked to vote on?
If the creators of a "Ward System" ballot proposition for Blooming Grove wanted to keep 4 council members in a Ward System, this is the only ballot proposition that would be required.
If the creators of a "Ward System" ballot proposition for Blooming Grove wanted to go to 6 Ward members for the Town Council, they will need a separate ballot proposition to change the number of council seats from 4 to 6.
It is possible that only 1 of the 2 propositions might be approved by voters. This is what occurred in Clarkstown in their 2015 ballot propositions. Starting in 2017 they will now have a Ward System with 4 Wards. They were trying to get 6 Wards (and 6 Council member seats) created, for their larger population, which is more than 4 times the size of Blooming Grove.
It is also possible a "Ward System" ballot proposition can be defeated, but that the number of "At-Large" Council seats might increase to 6, if two propositions were on the ballot at the same time.
(7) How are the individual wards established?
If a proposition is passed by the voters, the Orange County Board of Elections is responsible to draw a map and establish the specific wards.
The Blooming Grove Town Board can give advice to the Orange County Board of Elections, but the Orange County Board of Elections is required only to make Ward districts based on near-equal populations (with no more than a 10% variance), that are in a contiguous area of town. The County BOE is not obligated to follow any recommendation from the Blooming Grove Town government if it decides to.
The Orange County Board of Elections will be required to use the 2010 US Census figures, updated slightly by the New York State Government in regards to prison population, to create these wards. The County BOE may find the easiest option is to just utilize the existing Election Districts (we have 16 currently in Blooming Grove), and to only break up an Election District, or alter the existing boundaries of some Election Districts, if they receive the Ward creation request, as they must consider variables such as village and County Legislator boundaries as part of the process of altering Election Districts.
I have been involved in non-partisan efforts to promote resident-friendly New York State Congressional districts, and Orange County Legislator districts, in the past. Based on that experience, I believe I can estimate the likely Wards that will be developed if Blooming Grove either approved the "4 Ward" or "6 Ward" system before the 2020 US Census. These details, and further impact analysis, are listed on Appendix #2.
(8) When would a new "Ward System" take effect?
If a Ward System is approved, it takes place for election purposes at the next Town election cycle after the "Ward System" proposition ballot is approved by voters, as long as the Orange County Board of Elections creates the Wards for the Town within 120 days prior to the beginning of that election cycle.
According to New York State Town Law - All Council Seats for the Town that would extend beyond that first "Ward System" November election date are now terminated as of December 31st of the election year the Ward System goes into effect. This is because all Ward seats must be up for election during every 2 year election cycle for a town. Please refer back to question (1) above when I first mentioned this detail.
The legal interpretation of the italicized (especially underlined) sentences above is that if a "Ward System" was rushed to ballot proposition in 2016, and if it is approved on the November 2016 ballot, or any election ballot prior to 120 days before the town's 2017 primary election season, that the November 2015 election results which elected the Council members in 2015 for four-year Council terms, are terminated early. The actual fact is that the majority of the residents of Blooming Grove who voted in 2015 will have their election choices, which were to last until a December 31st 2019 end-date, nullified, if a Ward System is proposed and adopted in the next 16 months.
(9) Can a Ward System be implemented that is a hybrid of both "at-large" and "Ward" Council Seats so that the 2015 election choices will not be affected?
There is no way a "petition" process can implement a hybrid system for Town Governments, according to New York State Town Law. The "petition" process only allows voters to change from an "at large" to "Ward" system, or vice versa.
It may be possible, but has never been attempted under New York State Town Law, for a Town Board to create a local law via proposition that would create a hybrid "Town Council" in New York State. However, because this has never been previously attempted in New York State, and will likely face some legal challenge by any group that doesn't want that precedent setting Town legislation. A legal challenge that our small town of Blooming Grove would likely not want to defend in court and in lawyer fees.
(10) What is the term of office for each council member in a Ward System?
Two years. Same as the Town Supervisor.
So, every two years, Blooming Grove will have the luxury of seeing candidate signs not for 5 town-wide election races, but instead, for 3 town-wide races plus 4 to 6 ward races. I believe candidates will still put up signs where traffic flows, whether or not that traffic flow is in his or her Ward. It is just the nature of political campaigns. This will dramatically increase the blight of political lawn signs in the Town from before primary season through the General Election completion. Another reason you have to be careful of unintended consequences.
(11) What are the possible costs of going to a 6 member Town Council?
Additional salary will have to be paid to the extra Town Council members.
In response to that negative impact, Clarkstown proposed lowering the salaries of their Town Council to 5/7 of their current salary had their proposal to go to 6 Ward members passed (it failed). Not really a solution that is either fair or acceptable to anyone running for Town Council in Blooming Grove, since Blooming Grove Town Council are paid less that 25% of the yearly salary of Clarkstown Town Council members.
Also unlike Clarkstown, the cost of pensions Blooming Grove might need to pay for could increase under a 6 member Town Council, since unlike Clarkstown, Blooming Grove does NOT have term limits for Town Council, and since it is possible for Town Council members to take part in the pension system.
(12) What are the possible costs of going to a Ward System?
There will be legal costs. We will be minimally charged for all Town Attorney time spent on pursing this mater, as we must follow certain legal steps if the Town Board votes to approve a resolution to put on the ballot.
Additional legal costs could be significant if there is litigation started by those opposed to a Town-sanctioned Ward System proposal, if for any reason a Ward proposal is considered discriminatory to certain groups of residents. That is one of the main reasons the Town should not authorize a "Citizen's Advisory Committee" to study the "Ward System". Town Council members and the Town Supervisor can study, and in some cases have, studied the "Ward System" on their own, and if citizens wish to speak out at Public Town meetings in regards to reasons to consider a Ward System, or to speak about any additional findings they may discover about the Ward System, the Town Board welcomes them to do so. This way, if something discriminatory is said or proposed by someone speaking out at Town meetings, or in print or electronic media, by non-sanctioned "study committees", the Town of Blooming Grove will not be liable in regards to litigation.
(13) What are the advantages of the ward system?
(A) Some claim it will be much easier to seek and win office as a council member since the cost to run a campaign is significantly reduced since the campaign would take place in a much smaller geographic area.
This claim may be true in regards to cost in towns with very large populations, or towns with large square miles, or towns with long distances from town locations (which is often the case in towns that encircle even small cities as suburbs).
In a small town like Blooming Grove with 35 compact square miles, and a small population that has about the same diversity whichever election district you look at, there is very little overall cost to running an "at large" campaign. In my opinion, running an "at large" campaign makes you a better representative for the Town because you get to meet and discuss with potential voters about all the issues in the town, not just issues impacting your closest neighbors.
Also a Ward System for a town like Blooming Grove can lead to fragmentation that does not currently exist, if the Ward Council members are more concerned about pleasing a small segment of the town, instead of what is good for the entire town.
The ability to get candidates for all 4 or 6 wards can be more difficult. In a Ward System, you might see a lot of uncontested Council races, or even the possibility of Wards with no candidates interested in serving. That will never happen if we stay in an "at large" Council election system for our small town.
Finally, because some wards might become impossible for challengers to win based on inherent advantages an incumbent might develop in that ward, going to a Ward System will increase the power of Council incumbents, and this could increase the power of future Town Supervisors who might have those incumbents as natural allies. I am a firm believer in decentralized power, and I think a Ward System makes it more likely that this additional government power might corrupt those who are elected.
(B) Some claim the Ward Town Council member would be more sensitive and accountable to the local issues in their own neighborhood. In the January 25th Times-Herald Record article that newspaper reporter Michael Randall wrote, he stated that Robert Fromaget sees the Ward System "as a way to ensure each section of the town would have a specific board member who could be designated to take the lead in addressing problems and issues that arise there."
Again - this claim may be true for those towns with very large populations and geographic distances. This claim does not seem accurate in the case in Blooming Grove. Any issue that negatively impacts one part of our town is affecting our entire town, and Town Council members are very sensitive and accountable to these local issues.
Personally, after seeing Mr. Randall's January 25th article on Supervisor Fromaget's concerns, I reached out to Supervisor Fromaget with a proposal to form a "trial liaison" system for current Town Council members, so that each one could be the "lead" contact for specific portions of Town (i.e. Washingtonville, South Blooming Grove, western unincorporated Blooming Grove, and eastern unincorporated Blooming Grove). I proposed this as a compromise alternative vision to his Ward System concern stressed in the daily newspaper, and I did send the entire Town Board copies of my compromise solution, which could test so-called positive aspects of a Ward System out for a year or two, before having the Town go further into researching this proposal.
Unfortunately, Supervisor Fromaget wanted no part of a compromise "trial liaison" solution that I suggested. I tried to discuss what I believe was a fair solution that would not require election changes that might have legal costs; a solution which does not require the Orange County Board of Elections to be involved. Supervisor Fromaget told me he was not promoting the "Ward System" be studied for that reason (so each part of the Town had a specific contact person / liaison they could reach out to for issues). He was promoting the "Ward System" to be studied by a Town-sanctioned committee so that it can be implemented in the near future, if the committee made that recommendation.
(C) Some think Wards will help towns resist possible zoning changes, and perhaps other problems, posed by special interest groups that might vote in a bloc manner.
This has been the focus of many attendees to our Town Board meeting since early February 2016, when the focus of some people demanding the Town Board sanction a Citizen's Advisory Committee to "study the pros and cons of Blooming Grove going to a Ward System" changed.
I can personally appreciate the concerns of those residents, who do not want to see a change in the zoning of their village and their town, and what those zoning changes may bring. But the Ward System will not address the underlying issues that are driving the possibility of future zoning changes. In fact, it will make it easier for the Town Council to be represented by candidates supported by groups who vote in a bloc manner, because the smaller voting populations of Wards make it easier for candidates, supported by special interests groups, to win Council seats even though those candidates have diametrically opposite interests versus the best interest of all the Town's residents.
For those residents with those concerns about unethical or illegal actions from any special interest group, I do recommend you continue to inform your Town Board, your village board, and your Orange County, New York State, and Federal representatives. I can tell you I will work with all residents of Blooming Grove concerning any issue, as long as the solutions being proposed are ethical and legal.
(14) "Final Thoughts" from the author of this page:
Since it was raised in early January 2016, I have been concerned about why the Town Supervisor would raise this issue immediately after I took office, because the "Ward System" issue that was NOT discussed at all during our 2015 Blooming Grove election cycle. I personally visited hundreds of homes, and contacted thousands of our town voters, and not a single person I contacted ever brought this topic up as an issue. One couple did bring it up during an autumn Town Board meeting in 2015 prior to the election. The fact that this issue was not raised once, other than that lightly-attended Town Board meeting, makes me question the motivations of the Blooming Grove Town Supervisor, and his long-time Democrat party activist allies, who are now actively pushing this topic as a critical issue for this town.
I did what other Town Council members have also done, I started to study the issue, even before the situation escalated at Town Board meetings in February 2016. My fact finding mission has led to the current analysis above, and in Appendix #1 and Appendix #2. At the end of all my research, I have not found a single significant reason we should sanction, and/or continue to pursue further study on this matter.
However, I have found many reasons that any CAC study, or actual proposition, of a Ward System for the Town of Blooming Grove, can have many negative consequences, and how it can cause a bitter divide in our town when our Town residents deserve better. Our residents deserve a Town Board that is focused on keeping property taxes from rising any further. Our residents deserve a Town Board focused on looking into real solutions for the many actual problems the Town faces.
The Town Supervisor continues to push this matter, when most of us on the Town Board think there are more significant issues to deal with. I will leave it to others as to what is motivating the Town Supervisor's continued push on this non-solution to our Town's problems, when it is very obvious the majority of the Town Board does not support any changes to our Town's election laws at this time. That being said, I consider my "Ward System" research complete, and I will not support the Town Supervisor's Ward Study resolution on February 23rd, 2015.
Copyright ©2016 Mark J. Levy, All Rights Reserved (this page last updated 02/22/2016)