WARD MAP SESSION GETS LOUD

Albany council members argue over redistricting, but move proposal along

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D8

Date: Friday, February 1, 2013

ALBANY -- A routine committee meeting exploded into a shouting match Thursday night as city lawmakers sparred over whether to change the ward map crafted by their independent redistricting commission.


Councilman Richard Conti, chairman of the operations and ethics committee, was forced to repeatedly slam a courtroom microphone against the heavy wooden table in an effort to gavel the panel back to order while other members called for an adjournment.


Ultimately the panel voted 4-1 to send the map unchanged and with a positive recommendation to the full council for a vote -- but only after the redistricting commission's chairman called the spectacle "an insult to the people of Albany" and chided lawmakers for losing sight of the civil rights issues that underpin the entire process.


The dispute was sparked by a push by some members to make what they believe are minor changes in the commission's map in hopes of reuniting sections of neighborhoods, like Pine Hills and Park South, split by the proposed lines for the council's 15 wards.


To accomplish that, some members advocate splitting the largest census block in the city, which takes in three dorms on the University at Albany's uptown campus.


But others contend there are no such thing as minor changes to the map and that splitting the students amounts to putting the interests of Pine Hills residents over those of students.


It was that point that launched the heated exchange between 10th Ward Councilwoman Leah Golby, who represents Pine Hills, and 15th Ward Councilman Frank Commisso, who under the new map would represent the campus.


Commisso, the council's youngest member, accused Golby of discounting students because they are renters. But Golby angrily shot back that Commisso was distorting what she said, which was that the desire of taxpaying city residents to keep their neighborhood intact should not come after those of students who live in on-campus dorms.


After order was restored, Vicente Alfonso, the redistricting commission's chairman, sharply questioned why the lawmakers were fighting over neighborhood lines but not discussing the much weightier concept that each resident's vote should count the same.


By law, the map has to be redrawn after each decennial census to ensure, among other things, that populations of each district are in proportion and that racial minorities have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choosing.


"That's what we marched for. That's what we died for," Alfonso said. "It's the Voting Rights Act. It's not the Pine Hills (Neighborhood) Association."


The commission's map would increase the number of wards in which minority communities are a voting majority from four to six. None of the proposed changes would alter that change.


Council members Daniel Herring, Joseph Igoe, Commisso and Conti voted to move the proposed map out of committee. Councilwoman Barbara Smith was opposed. More battles could await when the proposal reaches the council floor for a final vote.


Councilman Anton Konev, the only lawmaker redistricted out of his current ward in the proposed new map, angrily dismissed his colleagues' refusal to tinker with the lines.


"This council has been a rubber stamp council in the past," said Konev, who represents the midtown 11th Ward. "The four members of this committee have proven that they are a rubber-stamp council."


jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com - 518-454-5445 - @JCEvangelist_TU