Activists sue Buffalo over Council redistricting
Buffalo’s Common Council members might have thought this summer’s contentious redistricting was behind it. If so, they were wrong.
This afternoon 11 Buffalo voters and good-government organizations filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court, asking a judge to reject a redistricting plan adopted by the city’s Council in July and signed by Mayor Byron Brown in August.
The city’s redistricting process, led by the Council, “failed to meet the basic requirements of the law,” the Article 78 complaint contends. Those failures deprived city residents of meaningful opportunities to take part in the process, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs in the case are Our City Action Buffalo, the University District Block Club Coalition and nine city voters who claim they were damaged by being cut out of the process.
The defendants are the City of Buffalo, the Council, the mayor, and the Erie County Board of Elections, which is charged with implementing the map in time for next year’s election cycle. All nine Council seats are up for election next year and candidates will start collecting signatures on nominating petitions in February. Also named is the Citizens Advisory Commission on Reapportionment, which was empaneled by the Council and the mayor this spring to draw new district lines.
Our City Action and its allies have put forth an alternative redistricting plan, which they contend does a better job promoting racial equity and keeping neighborhoods intact than the commission’s plan, which was adopted with minor alterations by the Council and the mayor.
The lawsuit centers on the process, which the plaintiffs describe as secretive and driven by Council members more interested in preserving their districts than serving the best interests of voters.
Representing the plaintiffs are attorneys Stephanie Cole Adams, Samantha White and Adam Bojak.
“There was no true, meaningful way to provide your input to the Common Council, to the redistricting [commission] or to the mayor,” White said during an online meeting in August, organized by Our City Action to discuss the possibility of a lawsuit.
“It was just a big old waste of time,” White said. “It was just a big old show.”
Every 10 years, to account for changes in population and demographics revealed by the U.S. Census, legislative districts across the country are reconsidered and redrawn.
According to state and federal law, new districts must have roughly the same number of people — in the case of Buffalo’s Council districts, around 31,000 each. They should be “compact,” which means fairly regular in shape, without odd appendages. They should keep intact neighborhoods and communities of interest — in particular minority communities — so as not to divide or dilute their voting power.
The process is almost always political and partisan and dictated by strict timelines. The release of 2020 Census data was delayed by four and half months due to Covid, however, upsetting those timelines in many municipalities.
Still, Brown and the Council were even later to get the ball rolling.
The city’s redistricting commission should have been empaneled by the end of February 2021, according to the city charter. But the Council did not even begin to solicit applications for members until August 1 of that year — seven months late. The members were not confirmed until March 2022, over a year late, leaving little time to commit to the task or to solicit public input.
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The commission met once in April and twice in May, with little notice and no published agendas or minutes, before unveiling one proposal at a public hearing on May 18. There is no evidence the commission sought public input prior to the public hearing. There were no meetings in the community. No block clubs or other organizations were solicited for advice or opinions.
Indeed, the commission’s web page didn’t launch until about an hour before the commission presented its plan. Minutes of the commission’s meetings did not appear online for another month, and contained no documents or data the commission considered in formulating a proposal.
Only two members of the public attended the commission’s May 18 public hearing. One, longtime Seneca-Babcock community activist Art Robinson, spoke approvingly of the commission’s proposal.
The other was Russell Weaver, a data geographer with the Cornell ILR School in Buffalo, who served on the Council’s 2011 redistricting commission. Weaver was appalled by the proposal, which left intact gerrymandering of the Fillmore and Ellicott districts, which he had voted against a decade earlier. He was also astonished by the haste and secrecy of the process.
“I think the biggest issue is they were kind of lazy,” Weaver later said of the commission’s proposal. “They took the districts that we had in place for the last 10 years … then they just tinkered around the edges.”
Weaver began that evening to draft an alternative proposal, which he hoped the Council would consider before voting to adopt the commission’s plan.
Weaver’s alternative plan found a champion in Our City Action Buffalo, a coalition of community activists founded in 2020 to “[build] power through grassroots political organizing.”
The Council published a form for the submission of public comments after the May 18 meeting. All those comments, 70 pages worth, opposed the commission’s proposal. Most expressed support for an alternative proposal prepared by Weaver and promoted by Our City Action.
Around 70 people spoke at the Council’s contentious June 28 public hearing. All opposed the commission’s plan, which had been slightly amended by Council members. Almost 900 people signed an online petition opposing the proposal.
The Council planned to adopt its proposed district maps just three days later, but canceled a July 1 special session in the face of opposition organized by Our City Action and a series of withering editorials published by The Buffalo News.
While the Council regrouped, Our City Action solicited public comments on Weaver’s alternative proposal and amended it in response. In essence, Our City Action did what the Council’s redistricting commission was meant to do, but on an even shorter timeline.
Finally, on July 19, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the plan so many had opposed. The plan was then sent to the mayor to accept or reject, after another charter-mandated public hearing.
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The mayor’s Aug. 3 public hearing drew about 200 written comments, all opposed to the Council’s plan, many urging the mayor to veto it. About 70 people attended the meeting, held during working hours, and 30 spoke.
None spoke in favor of the Council’s proposal. One inveighed against Our City Action’s alternative proposal and questioned the group’s motives, but did not endorse the Council’s plan.
The mayor signed it anyway, saying in a press release that the dissenters did “not represent a ‘significant’ amount of Buffalo’s Population.”
“[Brown] decided that the residents who did not participate in the process must necessarily, by default, approve of the Council’s map,” according to a summary compiled by Our City Action.
What happens next
The lawsuit asks the court for a preliminary injunction, preventing the Erie County Board of Elections from implementing the district maps adopted by the Council and signed by the mayor.
The plaintiffs will argue the city’s redistricting process violated the city charter and deprived the community of an opportunity to provide meaningful input. If the court disagrees, or finds insufficient legal reason to reject the Council’s adopted district maps, those maps will be used in next year’s elections.
If the court sides with the plaintiffs, one of three things might happen.
The court might:
- Order the Council to adopt the Our City Action alternative produced by Weaver.
- Redraw the district lines itself, or order a third party to do so. That is what a court did earlier this year to resolve controversy over a partisan redistricting of state Legislature and Congressional seats engineered by Democrats.
- Order the Council to start the redistricting process from scratch.
The third possibility is fraught, given that next year’s election cycle begins in four months.
However, if the court orders the Council to turn back the clock, Our City Action and its allies hope it will be inspired by an example just a couple hours down the I-90.
On Monday evening, Our City Action hosted an online seminar with members of Syracuse’s citizens redistricting commission. The Syracuse commission has been held up as a model for an independent, citizen-led process — a process adopted by Syracuse voters in a 2019 referendum.
Its 15 members were selected in a two-step process designed to insulate the members from political pressure. The first eight were chosen at random from a pool of more than 100 applicants; those eight then chose seven more from the same pool, based on their resumes.
The Syracuse commission held a dozen public meetings between March and July to gather public input and developed a robust marketing strategy to drum up interest in their work.
In the end, after many proposals and amendments, the Syracuse commission produced a map with which many incumbent council members quibbled, but which they voted to adopt last month.
“The Syracuse Redistricting Commission has shown us citizen-led, nonpartisan redistricting can work,” the Syracuse Post-Standard’s editorial board wrote before the vote, calling the commission “an experiment in democracy” in which “[v]oters drove the process.”
“Their effort stands in bright contrast to the secretive, partisan, politician-led redistricting of Onondaga County and New York state.”
“Secretive” and “partisan” describe Buffalo’s redistricting process, too, according to Our City Action.
“[O]ur history of gerrymandering along political and racial lines has created a concentration of power among Councilmembers, which has been used for the purposes of furthering their own agendas, and this year’s redistricting process has been a graphic illustration of how this de facto ‘incumbent protection plan’ works,” Our City Action stated in a press release announcing the lawsuit’s filing.