Commission disbanded as Republicans seek to reduce Legislature’s size
Dutchess County is two for two, but batting zero.
Twice, county legislators have voted to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to redraw the boundaries of their districts based on new census figures. Twice, the process has quickly unraveled.
On Monday (July 12), the Legislature’s 15 Republicans voted to approve a law reopening the application period for people interested in serving on the county’s Independent Reapportionment Commission, a seven-member body approved by voters in November 2020 to redraw legislative boundaries based on new population figures from the 2020 Census. Each of the Legislature’s 10 Democrats opposed the new law.
Republicans also approved on Monday language for a referendum to amend the county’s charter in order to reduce the Legislature’s size from 25 to 21 members. Both County Executive Marc Molinaro and Legislature Chair Gregg Pulver have declared their support for shrinking the body. Because the amendment abolishes offices established in the charter, it will have to be approved by voters during the general election on Nov. 2.
Both votes capped a three-week whirlwind that began when Christian Cullen, chief assistant county attorney, ruled in a memo distributed on June 24 that the commission must be dissolved because its chair, Richard Keller-Coffey, is on the Webutuck school board in Amenia and ineligible for membership because he is an “elected official.”
Commissioners, under the law creating their body, “shall not currently be nor have been for the three years preceding the formation of the commission an elected official, employee of New York State, Dutchess County or any town, city, or village in the county, or a member or officer of any political committee.”
Cullen argues in the memo that Keller-Coffey’s position on the school board not only made him ineligible, but also invalidated his votes in selecting remaining members. The commission held its first meeting on Feb. 25 and only met for monthly sessions four times after that. Its work has been limited to hearing presentations because the Census Bureau is not releasing population counts needed for redistricting until September at the earliest.
“You have a situation here where you’re vulnerable to attack in the future,” said Cullen on Monday in arguing that the commission needed to be disbanded because someone could challenge its redrawn districts in court over Keller-Coffey’s eligibility.
Keller-Coffey was selected by the county Legislature’s Democrats, one of two commissioners they were allowed to choose as minority party. Republicans, who hold 15 of the Legislature’s seats, also chose two commissioners, and the four members selected by the parties then picked the remaining three members from a pool of candidates.
The law creating the commission specifies that a vacancy “be filled in the manner that the vacant position was originally filled.” It only calls for disbanding the commission if it fails to meet requirements for public hearings, its plan does not include evidence of compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or it does not meet the statutory deadline for adopting and filing its redistricting plan.
The Legislature’s Democrats, who walked out of a committee meeting last week to protest the changes, disputed Cullen’s claim that the commission had to be disbanded and questioned whether a school board member qualifies as an elected official. Rebecca Edwards, minority leader for the Legislature’s Democrats, pointed to an email sent from the seven commissioners to Molinaro on June 27, three days after Cullen said they were disbanded.
Cullen did not give “a clear reason, basis, or authority for this alleged disbandment,” according to the email, and they asked Molinaro to provide, in writing, “the reasons for such action, who has decided that such action is necessary, and, given the commission’s independence, who you suggest has the authority to disband it and what the basis for this assumed authority is.”
Frits Zernike, a Democrat who represents parts of Beacon and Fishkill, said on Monday that “it has not been established that a school board member is an elected official to the extent that it then disqualifies him from eligibility.”
Edwards said a commission “still exists.” “In the very extensive debate in the United States around legislative gerrymandering … I have not seen any commentary about the nefarious work of school board members in getting in the way of fair drawing of legislative districts,” she said.
Dutchess County’s first attempt at creating independent redistricting came in 2009, just before the 2010 census. The Democrat-controlled Legislature created a five-person committee but it was dismantled the following year after Republicans won control.