Last week Our City Action Buffalo — an organization of good government activists — scored two quick victories in a battle with the Common Council over redistricting.
First, Our City Action successfully packed a June 28 public hearing with speakers, more than 100 of them. All opposed the Council’s redistricting plan, first unveiled in May by a commission that did its work largely behind closed doors. The Council’s favored plan largely leaves intact district lines that were gerrymandered 11 years ago to benefit incumbents.
The speakers were unanimous in their support for an alternative redistricting plan created by Our City Action.
In response to the opposition, the Council chose to rush forward. On Thursday morning Council members announced they would meet the next day in a special session to consider their favored plan. Multiple sources told Investigative Post the Council intended to adopt the plan.
On Tuesday, more than 100 people at a public hearing rejected the Common Council’s redistricting plan and asked them to try again. The Council’s reaction: They’ve scheduled a vote to adopt the plan for tomorrow at 10 a.m.https://t.co/hbcg7TDQhg
— geoff kelly (@ghkelly1969) June 30, 2022
But Our City Action shamed, threatened and cajoled, inundating members’ offices with phone calls and emails, until — in the middle of a press conference on the steps of City Hall where activists decried Council members’ tone-deafness — the Council canceled the Friday session.
“The Council has decided to delay this meeting in order to provide more time to review and consider the details associated with the proposed maps and public input,” Council President Darius Pridgen said in a statement announcing the meeting’s cancelation. “We will be rescheduling this meeting at a future date to be determined.”
That was victory number two.
Since then, the Council has been mum on the matter.
The special session has not been rescheduled. No new public hearings have been announced.
Council members did not address the issue in Tuesday’s meeting of the Legislation Committee, where the Council’s preferred plan lay tabled.
Pridgen refused an interview request from Investigative Post, instead reiterating the statement quoted above, from Thursday afternoon.
While the Council has gone silent, Our City Action has kept moving.
Over the holiday weekend, the activists did what the Council has not done: It listened to feedback generated by its redistricting proposal, including responses from Council members, then it revised the proposal accordingly.
The revised proposal unites much of the city’s West Side into a long waterfront district. The central Ellicott District takes in much of what was once the Fillmore District. The Elmwood Village is largely united into one district, as it has not been in decades, with Allentown appended at the bottom.
The Our City Action revised proposal outperforms the Council’s plan in numerous regards:
- It more evenly distributes residents among nine Council districts, with a total deviation of 5 percent, as opposed to 6.3 percent for the Council’s plan.
- It is significantly more “compact” than the Council’s plan — that is, it’s not characterized by weird shapes and protrusions, as the Council’s plan is.
- It keeps intact 30 of the city’s 35 planning neighborhoods, which are designated by city government for policy and planning purposes; the Council’s plan keeps intact just 16 planning neighborhoods.
- It creates four districts where voting-age Blacks outnumber voting-age whites; the Council’s preferred plan creates three. The Our City revised proposal also increases the voting power of the city’s Latino population, concentrated on the city’s West Side.
The existing district map, as well as the map the Council had hoped to quietly approve, has six majority white districts, though whites comprise just over 47 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. One goal of geographer Russell Weaver, principal author of the Our City Action plan, was to create more racial equity.
“So it’s more of a five-to-four split along those demographic lines,” Weaver said in a Tuesday morning appearance on Partnership for the Public Good’s weekly radio program on WUFO 96.5 FM.
Weaver, director of research at Cornell ILR School’s Buffalo Co-Lab, was a member of the commission that drew the current district lines 11 years ago. He was the only commission member to vote against those lines, which the Council’s current preferred plan follows closely.
“I think the biggest issue is they were kind of lazy,” Weaver said, asked to critique the Council’s preferred plan. “They took the districts that we had in place for the last 10 years … then they just tinkered around the edges.”
Weaver was joined on the program by Jillian Hanesworth, the city’s first official poet laureate. Hanesworth endorsed the Our City Action plan, describing the Council’s plan as motivated by “this other game that politicians play called self-preservation.”
“We have to take note of what our elected officials’ priorities are. And if we don’t fall on the list, they have to go,” Hanesworth said.
Almost 800 people have signed a petition supporting the Our City Action plan. Last Thursday, the plan won the support of The Buffalo News editorial board. On Tuesday morning, the Elmwood Village Association signed on, as well, via an email to its membership.
According to the city charter, the Council must adopt a redistricting plan by the end of July. The adopted plan is sent to the desk of Mayor Byron W. Brown. (Brown has been silent on the issue thus far.) The mayor then must hold his own public hearing on the subject. When the mayor is satisfied, he sends the plan to the Erie County Board of Elections.
Our City Action filed its revised alternative plan with the City Clerk before Tuesday’s Legislation Committee meeting.
At a press conference outside City Hall, prior to the revised plan being filed with the clerk, community activist Jim Anderson noted that Our City Action has done the work the Council itself was meant to do: Its organizers solicited responses from the public and amended its map to reflect those responses. They reached out to Council members to hear their concerns.
“We heard them, but we haven’t heard from them since,” Anderson said. “Respectfully, we bring them our report. Respectfully, they should have responded.”