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Voters venting via downsizing referendums

I'll agree with those who say downsizing town councils from five to three members doesn't do a whole lot to cut costs or the size of local government. But I think that argument misses the point, as Sandy Tan's story today underscores.

"I realize this has such a small impact on what we're doing, but we're hoping for a snowball effect," said the lifelong Alden resident, who struggled with her decision. "We have to do something, even if we start small."

... Voter Raymond R. Rebmann used those exact words to describe his desire for a trickle-up effect.

"We need to send elected officials a message, and we need to start somewhere," he said, referring to Tuesday's town vote. "This is what we have control over."

Yes, indeed, voters -- taxpayers -- are fed up and whacking a couple of politicians is the avenue open to them. The fact the pols are going out of their way to thwart the downsizing movement, as Donn Esmonde documented in his column the other day has only added fuel to the fire.

We have recently seen board members in four towns place a variety of rocks and roadblocks between people and democracy. The dirty secret: The more town officials try to stop this, and the sleazier their tactics get, the more people who may turn against them.

Donn goes on to document the tactics used by our "defenders" of smalltown democracy:

The towns change; the tactics stay the same:

• Open only a few polling places—or, in Orchard Park and Alden, just one.

• Limit voting hours, so people cannot stop on their way to work or after dinner.

• Find a ridiculous technicality that —despite the extra expense to taxpayers and inconvenience to voters—supposedly prevents the downsizing vote from taking place on the same day as a primary or general election, when large numbers of people come out.

The theory behind the voter-suppression tactics is that folks with direct connection to town government—and their friends and family—are sure to show up, while everybody else might be inclined to say the heck with it.

• Pass out unsigned fliers that play to people’s fears. One leaflet in Orchard Park claimed that the downsizing movement could “lead to regional schools [and] . . . the elimination of [the] police department.”

What’s next, swine flu and socialism?

This is not going to go away anytime soon, as Donn noted in another recent column.

I guess it now is official. This is not an accident or an aberration. It is a movement.

First, West Seneca and Evans. Now, Orchard Park. Voters there Wednesday, by a nearly 2-1 ratio, approved a measure to downsize the Town Board from five members to three. If folks in an upscale bedroom community are this fed up with government, the minirevolution seems unstoppable.

Kevin Gaughan is not some Tinker Bell sprinkling fairy dust in people’s eyes. The civic activist who is driving the downsizing train has clearly tapped into a current of communal frustration. The ire is fed by decades of decline and the failure of elected officials—many of them molded by political machines—to do much about it. In town after town, people are grateful for the chance to make even a marginal change.

Where does the "movement" go from here?

We'll no doubt see more referendums to downsize town councils. At some point, however, someone is going to decide to add meat to those bones.

The politicians could take the initiative and start negotiating agreements to consolidate services to save costs.

Villages could be folded into towns via referendums, and a change in state law that takes effect next year will make it much easier to put that issue to voters.

The there is the sacred cow of education. At some point, someone could very well challenge the status quo that sees 27 schools districts in Erie County -- plus two BOCES districts. 

The Town of Cheektowaga has four school districts operating within its boundaries. If someone gets it in their head that the town board ought to be downsized from its current seven members, including the supervisor, then what could or should be done with 24 school board members?


Local Government
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