Letter: Open, Thoughtful and Robust Process Needed to Select a New Voting System
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Sustainable Port Chester Alliance is encouraged by the many positive responses and expressions of support for our work from the Port Chester community. However, recent actions and statements of the Board of Trustees (BOT) members are cause for concern. We are looking for an open, thoughtful and robust process that allows for the selection of an electoral system best suited to Port Chester’s particular circumstances. The hiring of Dr. Lisa Handley by the BOT to study and opine on certain legal implications of various proposals is a positive step, and Sustainable Port Chester Alliance eagerly awaits her final report. Toward these same aims, we urge the BOT to acknowledge the following principles and to act with them in mind:
It is the BOT’s responsibility to ensure extraordinary transparency and opportunities for public participation in the process of selecting a new voting method. While federal and state laws govern the permissibility of various electoral systems, the process for selecting a system is a local one: It requires the adoption of a resolution by the BOT and approval by a majority of voters at a referendum. The extent to which this process is open, accessible, and understandable to residents of Port Chester does not depend on what Dr. Handley tells us in February, the response of New York State agencies to recent inquiries by the BOT, or any other outside person or entity. It falls entirely on the BOT to set forth a process which provides a level of openness commensurate with the nature of the issue. The BOT should fulfill this responsibility by acting now to adopt reasonable mechanisms for public participation beyond its normal proceedings and affirmative disclosure of relevant information.
Public engagement in this process is critical to its success. This is true for reasons of perception as well as practical considerations. Selection of a new voting method is not like any other issue to be determined by the BOT because it will determine the composition of the BOT itself. To instill public confidence in this process, and to ensure that any future legal review of the selected voting method is not clouded by signs of impropriety, it is imperative that the BOT take real steps to engage the public broadly in a process of understanding and evaluating our options. (A good start in this direction would include welcoming new attendees and participants at BOT meetings.) Moreover, because any change to the village’s pre-existing and now illegal at-large voting method will automatically trigger a public referendum, the BOT should acknowledge the value of timely efforts to discern the will of Port Chester residents and build consensus around a system that will ultimately be approved by voters. A “no” vote at the public referendum stage would be a costly embarrassment to the BOT and would leave the Village vulnerable to being sued again if a new, legally permissible voting system is not on the books in time for the March 2019 election. Importantly, such a debacle is entirely avoidable if the BOT takes proactive steps to engage the public now.
The scope of appropriate and important considerations in selecting a new voting method is broader than Voting Rights Act compliance. The BOT’s efforts thus far have focused on determining which electoral systems would not leave the Village susceptible to being sued again. This is, of course, a critically important consideration, and Dr. Handley is well qualified to inform Port Chester in this regard. But ensuring that the new voting method is legally permissible is the bare minimum. We should seek to enact the voting method that is best for Port Chester – a system that ensures the accountability of trustees to all residents, that does not exacerbate racially polarized voting, that encourages participation by people with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences, and that excites people about participating in the civic life of their community. No system is perfect, and each has pros and cons. Port Chester residents have a right to educate themselves about this process and make themselves heard. Let’s get everybody involved in this process now.
Gregg Hamilton, Member, Sustainable Port Chester Alliance
Tom Kissner, Board President, SPCA
Rob McCreanor, Executive Director
Zeltzin Sanchez, Community Organizer, SPCA
Hudson Valley Justice Center