ALBANY — Members of the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission reconvened for a conversation smattered with logistical disagreements Thursday to appoint a commission leader before the group begins work to redraw state legislative district lines.
The commission’s 10 appointed members met for nearly 90 minutes Thursday to discuss and finalize logistics before starting the real work of altering elective district boundaries. The members discussed proposed bylaws, but did not provide much feedback in the week since the group’s last meeting Nov. 12 and did not adopt amended rules.
Former Sen. Jack Martins, a Mineola, Nassau County, Republican, nominated Republican Keith Wofford, who ran for state attorney general in 2018, to serve as commission chairman. Martins touted Wofford’s legal expertise, citing his position as a co-manager of Ropes & Gray LLP’s 400-lawyer office in Manhattan. The request was met with pushback.
Commissioner Eugene Benger, an appointee of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, threw support for chairman to Commissioner David Imamura — a litigation associate with Manhattan-based Debevoise & Plimpton LLP — and expressed the need for the group to appoint a vice chairman to ensure independence and serve in case of the chairman’s absence.
“Another option is, we can rotate chairs each meeting,” Benger said, suggesting the change would promote fairness from both sides of the political aisle. “A system of checks and balances is achieved on the commission by having five and five [members appointed by both parties]. Elevating one person above the others does not achieve checks and balances. It gives one side more power.”
Reapportionment of the state Legislature’s 213 districts — 63 in the Senate and 150 in the Assembly — occurs every 10 years following completion of the U.S. Census to determine boundaries for congressional and state legislative offices, taking ever-changing population demographics into account.
New York voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to change the redistricting process beginning with the 2020 census. Wofford argued the amendment mandates the commission’s independence and balance, and a chairman from the minority conference is most appropriate because of the state’s Democratically controlled Senate and Assembly.
“I’d rather have a structure that is, on its face, balanced,” he said. “I appreciate the sentiment a week ago as a way of avoiding ‘chair’ and ‘vice chair’ we would put bylaws in place in the last week, but that has fallen by the wayside.”
Commissioner Ross Brady, a Brooklyn attorney who ran on the Conservative Party line for the state’s 10th Congressional District in 2014, expressed frustration in the logistical gridlock of the group starting its work.
“We should endeavor ourselves as independent,” he said. “Our best foot should be forward ... time is fleeting here.”
Commissioner George Winner, a Republican and former state senator and assemblyman, was miffed by the hesitation to appoint a vice chairman and draft bylaws.
“I’m startled that there is any opposition to move forward... to have a vice chair,” said Winner, an Elmira-based attorney. “We want to have equality here. I’m disappointed. There’s no justification for opposing these [requests].”
Commissioner Elaine Frazier, chairwoman of the Capital Area Urban League Board of Directors, suggested the commission appoint two co-chairmen, as opposed to chairman and vice chairman, to promote equity.
“My hope is for this group that we can step over all this garbage,” Frazier said. “I would suggest, hope, pray that you would consider the word ‘co-chair’ ... and that we can get on to the work of this independent commission, OK? That is my ask because we are wasting time here. We have a tremendous amount of work to do.”
The board was equally split with five commissioners each voting in favor, and five voting against, separate tallies for Wofford and Imamura.
“We’ve been at this for almost an hour and we haven’t done any other real work,” Benger said.
The group proceeded to discuss other business.
Co-executive director Karen Blatt will contact the Department of State to determine the commission’s website and research the digital redistricting protocol in other states. The site will be critical for sufficient public input in redrawing district maps, said Imamura, advocating for community opinion in determining boundaries.
“If we don’t have explicit input first, we’d be blind to potential issues,” Imamura said.
Wofford favors community input, he said, but wondered if New Yorkers will be able to adequately understand the process or have valuable contributions in the early stages.
“I do question the job drawing three sets of lines — congressional, Senate and Assembly — whether members of the public have meaningful understanding of these and whether the feedback we received will be granular to be useful,” Wofford said.
The commission plans to have the site live and ready to accept public input by mid-January.
The commission’s drafted bylaws referenced the power and authority of the commission’s appointed chair and co-executive directors, said Commissioner John Flateau, a business professor at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College.
Flateau, appointed by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, is the former chief of staff to New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
“In my opinion, staff was overempowered in that draft at the expense of the commissioner,” Flateau said. “I’ve never read a document where staff was given the level of authority at the expense of the commissioners.”
The commission consists of 10 members — eight appointed by Heastie, Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski; and Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.
The eight commissioners appointed by the legislative leaders also selected two people not enrolled with the Democratic or Republican parties to fill the panel’s remaining seats.
The new state legislative and U.S. congressional lines are supposed to be in place for the 2022 elections.
Democrats’ new constitutional amendment plan must be approved again by a separately elected session of the Legislature. The plan to amend the constitution is slated to go before voters on the Nov. 2, 2021, ballot.
Commissioners plan to discuss and finalize the group’s 2021 budget at their next meeting.
The commission is next scheduled to meet 11 a.m. Dec. 3.