The first public hearing on a redistricting plan for Buffalo’s Common Council attracted just two members of the public. Only one spoke.
Tuesday night’s public hearing was another story.
More than 100 people attended the 5 p.m. session — 60 or more in person, another 40 or so online, according to Delaware District Council Member Joel Feroleto, who chaired the hearing.
At least half the attendees spoke. All used the three minutes allotted to them to disparage the plan drafted by the Council’s appointed Citizens Commission on Reapportionment, first unveiled at a May 18 public hearing.
“The only people who appear to be in favor of this plan are the sitting Council members, scared to stand for reelection,” said Simon Chabel, who lives in the Delaware District and joined the meeting via Zoom.
“This map is a coward’s map. This map is a corrupt map.”
The commission’s plan leaves the current districts largely as they have been for the past 10 years, with relatively small adjustments to reflect population changes revealed in the 2020 U.S. Census.
One speaker called the commission’s plan “partisan gerrymandering,” because it benefits incumbents who will run for reelection next fall. Another called it “political redlining,” because it fails to increase the voting power of minorities, who constitute a plurality in the City of Buffalo but occupy only four of nine seats on the Council.
Luz Velez, a Niagara District resident, gave most of her testimony in Spanish, to protest the Council’s failure to translate the commission’s redistricting proposal into other languages.
All the speakers championed an alternative proposal drafted by Our City Action, a good government advocacy group. Our City Action held two public information sessions in the past week, recruiting residents to attend the public hearing and demand the Council “go back to the drawing board,” in the words of one speaker.
“I’m just here to tell you that you did this all wrong,” said Jim Anderson, a long-time community activist and radio show host, urging the Council to consider the “better, more inclusive plan” presented by Our City Action.
One speaker noted that other cities in New York started public redistricting processes a year ago. Syracuse’s redistricting commission has an active Twitter account to engage with residents. Buffalo’s commission only posted barebones minutes of its meetings after its May 18 public hearing — and therefore all its work — had concluded.
“I am honestly appalled at how this whole process went down,” said Ariel Aberg-Riger, an artist who lives in the Niagara District. After learning two weeks ago that Council redistricting was moving quickly and quietly forward, Aberg-Riger created an illustrated guide to the issue and posted it on Twitter and Instagram.
She said it’s been viewed tens of thousands of times, more than anything else she’s posted on social media before, which she offered as evidence that residents want to know about and take part in determining what Council districts look like.
Many speakers expressed their belief the Council has not been interested in hearing from the communities they represent on the matter.
“You don’t want to hear our voices,” Anderson, the activist and radio show host, said. “You just give us these little three-minute shows.”
“People are here in chambers and online because we invited them, not you,” said Courtney Friedline, comparing turnout on May 18 to turnout on Tuesday evening.
Friedline lives in a two-block corridor of Ellicott District that was used in 2011 to connect the district’s East Side and downtown core to a strip of Lower West Side waterfront where its representative, Council President Darius Pridgen, lived at the time.
Under the commission’s map, Friedline would move into Fillmore. The commission’s plan splits that Lower West Side waterfront between Niagara and Fillmore, a once entirely East Side district that in 2011 was extended west to include Allentown.
“Fillmore was designed to advantage an individual who isn’t even here anymore,” said attorney Peter Reese, who lives in the Delaware District, referring to former Fillmore District Member David Franczyk, who chaired the redistricting commission this year.
The Council, Reese said, ought not be guided by “the dead hand of the past.”
Masten District Council Member Ulysees Wingo has been alone among his colleagues in questioning the commission’s plan. He took part in Our City Action’s workshop Monday evening and questioned the integrity and transparency of the Council redistricting process, both in his spoken remarks and his chat-room comments.
But he also offered a curious defense of that plan.
According to the city charter, Wingo insisted — both at the workshop and again at Tuesday evening’s public hearing — a Council member cannot be drawn out of their district.
This is a misreading of the city charter, according to several speakers.
The charter says redistricting cannot result in the removal of sitting members from office before their terms have expired. The plan championed by Our City Buffalo places the homes of two sets of sitting Council members — Pridgen and Wingo, Rivera and Nowakowski — in the same districts.
But that’s not what the charter prohibits. Rather, it prohibits a change that would remove a Council member from office in the middle of his term. All Council seats are up for election next year. Candidates will run in whichever districts the current Council adopts, then represent the new districts upon being sworn into office in January 2024.
Wingo took a drubbing for his assertion.
“Why is it okay for people to be moved around and drawn out of their districts but Council members can’t be?” asked one speaker.
“I can’t believe that was even said on the record,” said another.
Yet another described Wingo’s understanding of the charter as “indefensible at best, laughable.”
The Council has until the end of July to adopt a redistricting plan, according to the city charter. Once they do, it is referred to the mayor’s office. The mayor must also hold a public hearing before approving or disapproving whatever plan the Council adopts.