Raise $10K online to fund legal challenge
Members of a seven-person commission tasked with redrawing the legislative boundaries in Dutchess plan to sue the county to reverse a decision by the Legislature’s Republicans to dismantle it and start over.
Republicans, who control the Legislature, 15-10, voted last month to disband the Dutchess County Independent Reapportionment Commission, which was created to redraw legislative boundaries based on forthcoming data from the federal census. All 10 of the Legislature’s Democrats voted against the move.
Republicans cited the fact that one of the two members appointed by Democratic lawmakers is a school board trustee, which violated a provision that no member of the commission hold elected office. (Republicans also appointed two members, and the four selected the remaining three from a pool of candidates.)
Soon after, four of the deposed commissioners launched a GoFundMe campaign to finance a legal challenge.
It had already raised $10,000 when the county attorney and legislative counsel jointly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the organizers and copied to GoFundMe’s legal department. Dated July 22, the letter claimed that because the Legislature had voted to disband the commission, its members were private individuals and could not represent themselves as being affiliated with the county.
The lawyers added that even if the commission members were county officials, they would be prohibited from raising money without permission. They warned the organizers that they lacked “legal authority to create the webpage.”
John Pelosi, the other Democratic appointee to the commission, said GoFundMe temporarily cut off access to the funds but by Tuesday (Aug. 3) had resumed allowing withdrawals. He said the money was being used to pay a Poughkeepsie attorney, Dave Gordon.
“Despite their efforts to limit our ability to raise funds to support the legal action against their illegal action, GoFundMe said ‘no,’ ” Pelosi said. “We’ve raised funds and we’re going to use them for our legal defense.”
Shrinking the Legislature
On July 12, the Dutchess County Legislature voted along party lines, 15-10, to ask voters on the Nov. 2 ballot whether to reduce the body’s size from 25 to 21 seats.
Both County Executive Marc Molinaro and Legislature Chair Gregg Pulver have declared their support. Republicans argue that the Legislature is too large, per capita, compared to other Mid-Hudson counties. Dutchess has 25 lawmakers for 294,000 residents; Orange has 21 for 385,000; Westchester has 16 for 968,000. (Putnam has fewer, with nine for 98,000.)
Not all Democrats oppose the idea but said the timing was suspect because the Republicans voted the same night to disband the redistricting commission, which would have drawn a plan for 25 seats.
If the release of federal Census Bureau data is delayed beyond September, and the referendum passes in November, the newly appointed reapportionment committee could find itself redrawing legislative boundaries for 21 rather than 25 members for elections beginning in 2023.
The dispute began when Christian Cullen, the chief assistant county attorney, ruled in June that the months-old commission had to be dissolved because its chair, Richard Keller-Coffey, serves as an elected member of the Webutuck school board in Amenia.
According to the law that created the commission, its members “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.”
The law also specifies that a vacancy can “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 redistricting plan does not include evidence of compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act or it does not meet the statutory deadline for adopting and filing the plan.
However, Cullen argued that Keller-Coffey’s position on the school board not only made him ineligible but invalidated his votes in selecting the commission’s final three members, and that compelled dissolution.
Gregg Pulver, a Republican who chairs the Legislature, said in a statement that “not starting from scratch was too risky and would have left the adopted map open to lawsuits.”