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Legislature had disbanded redistricting panel
A judge will decide if Dutchess County broke the law when it disbanded a commission tasked with redrawing legislative boundaries following a lawsuit by exiled members.
The Legislature shut down the panel after the county attorney ruled that the appointment of one commissioner had violated a prohibition on elected officials.
Five former members of the seven-person Dutchess’ Independent Reapportionment Commission are asking county Judge Hal Greenwald to invalidate that June 24 ruling that the body had to be dissolved because its then-chair, Richard Keller-Coffey, serves on the Webutuck school board in Amenia.
Bryan Faubus, Hance Huston, Whitney Lundy, John Pelosi and Christina VanHorne, who raised more than $10,000 via GoFundMe to challenge the ruling, allege in a lawsuit filed Aug. 20 that the county attorney’s office lacks authority in the matter and that Keller-Coffey should have been replaced through a process outlined in the law that created the commission.
They also argue that the prohibition on elected officials “was never meant to include nonpartisan elections such as school boards” and asked Greenwald to bar the county from “further interference with the commission’s work,” order it to pay their legal fees and invalidate legislation passed in July by the county Legislature’s Republicans requiring that a new commission be appointed.
Dutchess has yet to file a response but told the judge it would ask him to dismiss the suit. Greenwald has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 28.
In a memorandum that accompanied their legal filing, the ex-commissioners argued that no one party should have control over the commission. “The two major parties have equal — and limited — ability to shape it,” they wrote.
When the Legislature unanimously authorized a referendum in 2019 to create the commission, both parties praised its independence. Voters overwhelmingly approved the commission in the November 2020 general election.
Keller-Coffey was one of two commissioners appointed by the Legislature’s Democrats. Republicans also chose two commissioners, and those four commissioners then chose the remaining three members from a pool of candidates.
The law specifies that, in order to be eligible, a commissioner cannot be an elected official; employee of the state, county or any town, city or village in the county; or a member or officer of any political committee, currently or in the three years before the commission was created.
It also says that a vacancy “be filled in the manner that the vacant position was originally filled.” It calls for disbanding the commission under limited circumstances, such as not holding public hearings or missing deadlines.
The county attorney argued that Keller-Coffey’s position on the school board not only made him ineligible but invalidated his votes in selecting the three at-large members, although all had been appointed unanimously, 4-0.
In response to the county attorney’s ruling, the Legislature on July 12 voted along party lines, with the Republicans in the majority, to restart the application process for the commission. The seven original commissioners were barred from serving.
Republicans also approved language for a referendum to reduce the Legislature from 25 to 21 seats, which will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot. Under the new law, the new redistricting commission will not be appointed until after Jan. 3, after voters have decided whether to shrink the Legislature.
The original commission met monthly from February to June. Because the U.S. Census Bureau did not release redistricting data from the 2020 census until August, its work was limited to hearing presentations.