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St. Lawrence County officials rebuke legislative lines

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In the decennial Albany musical chairs game of redrawing state legislative boundaries, there are winners and losers — the assemblyman who gets a more favorable electorate to suit his party or the senator who is drawn out of her own district.

But in 2012, an entire county has landed flat on the ground after the music stopped, officials complain.

“I’m certainly disgusted,” said Sallie A. Brothers, the St. Lawrence County Legislature chairwoman. “To me, it was almost embarrassing.”

County officials such as Mrs. Brothers are furious that four Assembly members and three senators will each have a part of St. Lawrence County in their districts, which, they say, will make the county a jack of all legislators but the master of none.

And they’re upset that three of the four legislators who represent the county voted to approve what has been described as the political “filleting” of the Big County.

The St. Lawrence County example offers a window into a monthslong process that culminated early Thursday, amid backroom deals, a mass walkout in the Senate and a possible court case that could again throw everything into disarray.

“Deals are cut and we aren’t part of it,” said Mrs. Brothers, D-Norfolk. “Nobody will ever admit it happened. We have been left behind by our representatives. For whatever reason, we don’t carry a lot of political weight. We end up being the sacrificial lamb.”

The three legislators who voted to approve the plan — Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton — said their work in St. Lawrence County won’t be diminished after the November elections, when the plan will become a reality.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush was the lone outlier who took to the Assembly floor to denounce the plan and the effect it would have on St. Lawrence County residents.

As a member of the Legislature’s minority, Mr. Blankenbush, R-Black River, had very little sway over how the lines were drawn. Perhaps not incidentally, his district was also the only one to have changed dramatically. Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate control a task force that draws the lines. Critics say Democrats draw the Assembly lines to help Democrats and Republicans draw the Senate lines to help Republicans.

“I think it’s just unfair for St. Lawrence County to be broken up that way,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “I couldn’t vote for it.”

Another factor in his decision was the fact that he had pledged to support independent redistricting, which would take the process out of the hands of lawmakers.

That didn’t happen this year, he noted.

When they ran for public office in 2010, Mrs. Ritchie and Mr. Griffo had pledged to institute an independent process for 2012, but the legislation stalled in the Senate in 2011 because Republicans said changing the process required changing the state constitution.

But a change in the state constitution would take effect only in 2022, for the next round of redistricting, so this year, the partisan process held firm. Mrs. Ritchie, like all the other north country legislators, voted for a bill that would change the process for 2022. It’s been criticized by some good-government groups as too weak, while others have embraced it.

“There’s nothing that’s more important than the constitution when it comes to New York state government,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “I believe voting for a constitutional amendment to take it out of political hands next time around is something that is a good thing to do.”

A panel approved by legislative leaders would draw the lines; the Legislature could accept or reject those lines, and if they’re rejected, could draw the lines themselves.

Mr. Griffo is the sponsor of a bill that would give each county in New York one senator, regardless of population. He acknowledged that the product in 2012 was “far from perfect,” in part because “The preference is always ... to keep things as whole as possible.”

“It is what it is at this point in time. That’s why we tried to make it a better product in the future.”

But until then, St. Lawrence County residents will have to deal with their poverty of legislative riches.

St. Lawrence County Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, said he also was upset by what he believes will be a lack of cohesive representation. Some parts of the county could be represented by Assembly and Senate incumbents who now live in Peru, Newport and Queensbury.

“I don’t care if they’re Republican or Democrat,” he said. “That far away, they can’t equally represent us.”

St. Lawrence County GOP Chairwoman Nancy K. Martin said the redistricting means the county has lost its identity.

“In this case, more will not be better and there are serious representation issues as a result,” she said. “Take a look at Tri-town, which is Brasher, Lawrence and Stockholm. One school district and two senators and two Assembly persons. Makes no sense.”

Distance will be a problem, Mrs. Martin said.

“It takes four and a half hours to get from Madrid in the north to Stark in the south in the new 118th Assembly District,” she said. “Think of the gas expense and think of the time spent on the road and not with the people of the district.”

Mrs. Martin noted another transportation-related issue.

“There is the contiguous factor. There are no passable roads between Clifton and Fine in St. Lawrence County and Hamilton or Herkimer counties, so our representative from the 118th Assembly District must travel out of the district to get from one end of the district to the other,” she said. “That is contrary to the criteria as established by the state constitution.”

The legislators who are running for re-election in districts that stretch into St. Lawrence County are Mrs. Ritchie, in the 48th Senate District; Mr. Griffo, in the 47th; Sen. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, in the 45th district; Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport, in the 118th Assembly District; Mrs. Russell, in the 116th District; Assemblywoman Janet L. Duprey, in the 115th District; and Mr. Blankenbush.

According to an analysis by St. Lawrence County officials, the population centers of those districts do not fall in St. Lawrence County. Only one lawmaker, Mrs. Russell, will have as a majority of her constituents St. Lawrence County residents.

But lawmakers are undeterred.

“I would say to each and every one of them that I have a pretty stellar reputation advocating for the county for 12 years,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “I was out there each and every day doing St. Lawrence County business. I’ve continued to do that. Even if I only represent half of the county, I would certainly continue to do that.”

Jefferson County, too, saw its Albany representation increased. Assemblyman William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, will represent Ellisburg, in southern Jefferson County.

Lewis County’s representation was unchanged: Mr. Griffo and Mr. Blankenbush will represent the whole county.

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