GOVERNMENT NOT SHRINKING WITH POPULATION

Declines in how many people live in a community haven't meant smaller government

TIM O'BRIEN STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, December 21, 2008

Correction: (Correction published December 22, 2008) A story in Sunday’s Capital Region section misstated the ratio of City Council members to residents in the city of Rensselaer. There is one council member for every 792 residents.

People come and people go, but the size of government rarely changes.


Since 1985, the city of Albany has seen its population drop to 94,172, yet there are still 15 Common Council members and a president.


Colonie, with a population of 81,759 and growing, still has seven elected representatives. No one's calling for its expansion.


"The institutional bias is toward stasis, no change," said Alethia Jones, an assistant professor at the University at Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs. "Any kind of change would upset the existing power structure."


The tendency of governments to stay the same size comes at a price. In Albany, each Common Council member is paid $20,314. The president, who votes only to break a rare tie, makes $30,938. All are eligible for health and pension benefits.


With the economy in turmoil and governments looking to trim costs, rarely do leaders' eyes turn toward their own institutions. The Albany council approved a 15-page list of recommended areas for cost reductions, Shrinking the council wasn't among them.


At a recent meeting, Tim Carney announced plans to run for council president with the goal of eliminating the job.


"We have 15 council members, and we could get by with half," which would save $1.2 million over four years, Carney said.


Council President Shawn Morris said talk of change for governments at all levels may spur a renewed look at the size of Albany's council, but any changes should be coupled with a re-examination of how city government works.


"People are giving more and more thought to how government works," she said. "I think that's a discussion that's ripe for being had."


Common Council members serve geographic wards not the community at large as many town boards do.


"When you're districted, you really do have a connection with the people," she said.


Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian tried to shrink the council's size from nine to seven in a referendum this fall after Democrats gained a council majority. The Democrats fought the proposal, which was defeated.


Troy's population has dropped from 62,918 in 1970 to 47,744. Elected officials on average represent some 1,600 fewer citizens each today than they did 38 years ago.


No community is as well-represented as the city of Rensselaer. There are 10 elected council members for every 792 residents. That compares with one board member for every 11,680 residents of Colonie.


The population of Clifton Park, one of the Capital Region's fastest-growing communities, nearly tripled from 14,867 in 1970 to 36,322 in 2008. No one is calling for expanding the five-member Town Board.


Supervisor Phil Barrett laughed at the very notion.


"Nobody has ever told me that more politicians is a good thing," he said.


Government leaders haven't always been unwilling to change.


Troy slashed its council to seven members from 18 in 1964. In 1983, the council was bumped up to nine. Steven Dworsky, a former city manager and council member who served on Tutunjian's charter reform committee, recalled that the increase came after neighborhood groups complained they weren't getting their share of city resources.


When Albany reduced the number of aldermen from 19 to 16 in 1973 to reflect the population loss from construction of Empire State Plaza, the city's wards were redrawn to create two where most of the population were minorities. said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who drafted the boundaries as an aide to Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.


In 1981, the council was cut once again to the current 15 seats, but not to 14, as the population decline would normally have prompted because that would have eliminated one of the minority wards, McEneny said.


Robert Van Amburgh, executive assistant to Mayor Jerry Jennings, said any reduction in the number of council members should hold off for now.


"We'd probably wait for the official 2010 census," Van Amburgh said. "We really don't want to jump the gun."


Staff writer Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at tobrien@timesunion.com.


PULLOUT:


No community is as well-represented as the city of Rensselaer. There are 10 elected council members for every 792 residents. That compares with one board member for every 11,680 residents of Colonie.


PULLOUT:


"The institutional bias is toward stasis, no change. Any kind of change would upset the existing power structure."


Alethia Jones


assistant professor at UAlbany's Rockefeller College