Opinion by Tom Ellis
ALBANY, NY: Would a huge reduction in the size of the Albany County Legislature be good for the county, the Pine Bush, and democracy?
The Albany County Charter Review Commission (ACCRC) issued a report in January recommending a reduction from 39 to 25 members. The proposal is touted to improve accountability, increase bi-partisanship, and save money for taxpayers. The local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) has endorsed ACCRC’s proposal.
ACCRC estimated the proposed shrinkage would save county taxpayers $400,000 annually — less than one-tenth of one percent of the county’s annual budget. The projected savings is equivalent to telling a person with a $60,000 annual income that if she or he cuts expenses by $40 a year, doing so will make some real improvement in his or her quality of life.
Both ACCRC and LWV have made a weak case in support of the proposal. ACCRC’s report is very skimpy. Only one sentence is devoted to a discussion of how the smaller legislature might improve efficiency; another contains the entire discussion of how the 39-to-25 reduction might improve bi-partisanship, and a mere two sentences discuss how the elimination of more than one-third the legislature might promote competition in elections.
This is what ACCRC wrote: “A smaller County Legislature could make the body more efficient in its ability to debate and deliberate legislation by allowing members to have a better understanding of how issues are viewed differently in different areas. Reducing the size of the County Legislature could lead to more bi-partisanship amongst members and a better understanding of each and their respective constituents needs and interests. A reduction in the number of members would make elections, especially primaries, more competitive. With fewer seats, more candidates would likely vie to hold them.”
ACCRC’s rationale is far too short to be taken seriously. The legislature should reject it as incomplete and unacceptable. I am surprised this is the best the Commission could do after more than a year of work.
Imagine you are a college professor or adjunct and have assigned a group of students to research and write one report on the advantages of reducing the size of the legislature. Months later they hand in a report containing four sentences in total supporting three of their main ideas. How could you possibly find it persuasive? Would you not wonder where are the supporting details?
The LWV explains its support with the following paragraph: “Reduce the size of the County Legislature by 14 members from 39 to 25. (This could not be done until after the 2020 census, taking effect in January 2024. Various sizes for the legislature could be chosen, but 25 balances the need for representation of various factions with a more manageable size. A smaller legislature would be more efficient and give each legislator more responsibility, thus enhancing accountability and influence, plus saving money. Within the last ten years, six other counties have reduced the size of their legislature. See the Commission’s Supplemental Report on legislature size.)” This is the LWV’s entire justification for drastically reducing the legislature’s size.
I am not saying 39 is the correct number or that the legislature is perfect but a much smaller legislature may be less racially diverse, rural residents would have even fewer representatives than now, it will be more difficult for candidates with limited financial resources or fundraising capacities to be elected, the power of party bosses and elites would be increased, and it would reduce the number of legislators available to serve on standing and ad-hoc committees.
Many county legislators are already busy with their workload. Government and society are becoming more complicated with each passing year. Technology is rapidly evolving creating both new dangers and opportunities. Thirty-nine legislators can think better than 25 and far more representative of the county’s diverse citizenry than 25. The county often faces new issues such as the massive quantities of gassy oil now be railroaded through the county or the new casino proposal. Having a larger legislature increases the likelihood one of them will have some expertise on these matters.
Reducing the legislature’s size may not save money because the remaining legislators would be in a stronger position to substantially increase their salaries due to their increased workload. Redistricting is always a highly political process but it would be especially so if one-third of the legislature were to be eliminated.
The Commission and LWV appear to value efficiency as an over-riding priority that must be improved. My sense is the Albany County Legislature is too efficient now. At monthly meetings, the legislature often blasts through the agenda as fast as is humanly possible with little or no discussion of most issues. With fewer representatives, there would likely be even less debate. If efficiency is measured by how quickly meetings are conducted, the county legislature is certainly more efficient than the 15-member Albany Common Council and it appears to be more dominated by its leadership than the Albany city council.
What I see are unstated but “so obviously true they need not be discussed” assumptions in play on this matter that in fact may not be true and must be examined. Two of these are the legislature is way too large and consumes too much of the county budget.
The legislature costs about $3 million per year to operate — about one-half of one percent of the county budget. Such an expense is not unreasonable or excessive. The legislature’s work is far too important to be shortchanged. Albany county residents would benefit if the legislature met twice monthly and had a larger staff, answerable only to it; this would facilitate extended and better informed debate on the important issues it deals with. Retaining the larger legislature is money well spent.
Published in May/June, 2014 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter