Schenectady should increase number of wards, council members
As Yankee great Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
In June 2010, Carl Erikson was appointed by the Schenectady City Council to fill a vacant seat left by now-City Court judge Mark Blanchfield.
In April 2012, Marion Porterfield was appointed by the council to fill a vacant seat left by now-mayor Gary McCarthy.
These appointments were well-documented by The Daily Gazette and caused a swell of public discourse.
It’s happening again.
City attorney John Polster has urged the council to fill the vacant seat recently left by Denise Brucker.
An online poll performed by the Gazette earlier this month shows an overwhelming majority of readers believe the vacant seat should not be filled by the council. However, one could easily question the validity of an online poll.
On the other hand, some city residents came forward during a recent council meeting to push the council to appoint someone. Yet, a handful of residents do not represent an entire constituency.
The argument for appointing a person to the vacant seat hasn’t changed over the years.
The public has been told that it is simply unconstitutional to leave the seat vacant and destructive to the democratic process, because a six-seat council can lead to constant deadlock on important issues.
Past appointments have been held up by dissenting council members, but eventually enough votes were obtained to appoint someone.
Councilman Vincent Riggi has publicly announced his opposition to appointing someone to the vacant seat, but no other council member has come forward with their position. This could indicate that a decision is being made behind closed doors and at some point the council will move to vote.
The Schenectady Democratic Committee has already endorsed Ed Kosiur of Woodlawn. Coincidentally, he was appointed to a vacant council seat over a decade ago. Odds are, if someone is going to be appointed, it will be Kosiur.
There is no doubt that a full council prevents deadlock, unless members are absent or abstain from a vote. But will the appointment of Kosiur, or anyone else, really make for a better legislative body?
My first reaction is to say no, but that would seem that I am questioning whether or not the council needs a seventh seat in order to fully represent the residents of Schenectady. That is not my intention.
However, if I make the argument that a full representative council consists of an entire elected body, my stance against appointing someone becomes more solid.
Therefore, I believe it is in the best interest of the city for the seat to remain vacant until voters elect someone to fill it in November.
After all, incumbents have a distinct advantage come election time and an appointed council member should not be given that luxury.
So while Schenectady’s charter says the council “shall” appoint a qualified person to the vacant seat, it doesn’t state any consequences if an appointment is not made.
The controversy over this vacant seat has caused me to look at what I think is the bigger picture.
There are a little more than 66,000 residents in Schenectady, which means there’s nearly a 10,000-to-1 resident to council member ratio.
Looking over to our neighbors to the east, the City of Albany has a population of nearly 98,000 and a 15-member council. That’s a ratio of about 6,500-to-1.
In fact, Albany Common Council members represent constituents from 15 distinct wards throughout the city. The voters of these wards elect their own members to the council and it’s the responsibility of those elected officials to represent their ward.
So instead of unofficially representing a neighborhood, as is done in Schenectady, the voters of Albany have real representation.
I think Schenectady needs more representatives and more precise representation.
Increase the mix
Therefore, I propose the addition of two more council seats, making a total of nine, and that the state Board of Elections appoint an independent committee to draw up nine wards throughout the city.
The creation of these wards should be based on equitable representation of the city’s neighborhoods.
With the creation of nine wards, the entire council would need to be re-elected. This can be done during a November election or a special election if additional time is needed for preparation and campaign purposes.
Lastly, I propose that if a council seat is vacated, for whatever reason, only voters will have the power to fill the seat. A special election can be called in order to expedite the process.
Now there’s no doubt that a proposal such as this seems far-fetched and a non-starter, especially because voter initiatives are out.
But if a voter petition were started and 20 percent of the residents were to sign it; it could be presented to the state Department of State as proof that Schenectady residents are unhappy with the representation coming from their municipal government.
Maybe, just maybe, it could prompt some sort of action from the state government and cause reforms to be considered to Schenectady’s election process.
History indicates that the council will appoint someone to the vacant seat and while voters will get to decide in November whether they agreed with the appointment or not, history will keep on repeating itself unless ordinary people take action and demand change.
The residents of Schenectady deserve more and better representation.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.