Five minus two.
To some, it’s a first-grade arithmetic question. But solving it in several recently downsized town governments equals plenty of headaches, according to a recent sampling of local supervisors and council members.
“The amount of time wasted with a three-member board and the rules [constraining] a board of three members eclipses the monies saved,” said Steven J. Walters, Hamburg town supervisor. “There is a net loss.”
Added West Seneca Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan: “There’s no savings involved here at this level of government … only missed opportunities.”
On Election Day, voters in Alden and West Seneca will get a chance to add back a pair of town board members, thanks, respectively, to ballot propositions initiated by a citizen petition drive and a town board resolution.
Whether the “upsizing” push-back is about correcting an error or “right-sizing” town government, civic activist Kevin P. Gaughan, who has led the downsizing charge across the region over the last five years, unequivocally calls it “a mistake.”
“I’m going to pose a simple question: Since the board has been downsized, have your town services been diminished?”
Gaughan said he intends to ask Alden and West Seneca voters that question during door-to-door stops and community meetings in an effort to preserve his downsizing victories before the Nov. 6 votes.
“People, not politicians, will decide this, and I strongly believe it’s a wonderful thing,” Gaughan added.
Gaughan blasted West Seneca town officials last week for unilaterally placing the issue before voters despite the fact that a citizen’s petition fell about 200 votes shy of the required number to get it on November’s ballot.
West Seneca voters, at Gaughan’s urging, approved downsizing the board from five to three members in 2009 by a 6,245-4,252 vote. West Seneca and the Town of Evans were the first two towns to institute smaller boards starting in 2010.
Although West Seneca Town Board members suggest their resolution putting the proposition before voters again was about saving the costs of an “inevitable” special election costing the town $10,000 or more, they have, in recent months, grumbled about being shackled by state law governing open meetings.
That’s the most common theme heard from elected officials and citizen upsizing activists in the towns affected by downsizing, including Alden, Orchard Park and Hamburg. Those three are concluding their first year with smaller boards. Because two of three board members creates a quorum, board members in those towns can’t legally talk about town business, even casually, outside of duly-convened public meetings. That, they say, is causing the wheels of town business to grind.
“Things are taking longer to get done,” Walters said. “We are spending more time on projects than we used to, and time is money.”
Watching that in action at Alden Town Hall helped spur citizen activist Gary Wagner to solicit signatures there to get an upsizing vote on the November ballot. “Just for a simple copier – I’ve seen the rep come to Town Hall, go in and talk to the supervisor, come out and go in and talk to one council member and then another council member,” Wagner said. “[The three-member board] is just not practical for something that simple.”
“They can’t get anything accomplished. We’re spinning our wheels.”
Alden Supervisor Harry F. “Bud” Milligan said he believes his office has amassed “too much power” because of the reduced board size. “The board can’t talk to each other,” said Milligan, echoing the prevailing sentiment. “I’m seriously thinking if we don’t go back to five members, I’m considering seeking a term limit for the supervisor.”
In Orchard Park, Councilman David R. Kaczor said it’s possible costs might increase there because of the downsizing. Town Board members there involve themselves in “much more than policymaking,” he said.
Orchard Park has no human resources director, controller, financial director or full-time planning official. Board members have historically performed those duties.
“It’s a way of … saving the costs of hiring personnel,” Kaczor said, explaining that board members in Orchard Park review town insurance, negotiate union contracts and serve as liaisons to recreation, information technology, economic development and police in town.
Now that the board has lost 40 percent of its members, that means the workload has almost doubled for those left. It may require the town to hire additional help to perform those duties, he said.
“Most people didn’t realize that when they were voting on the issue,” Kaczor said.
Gaughan sharply rebutted complaints about the Open Meetings Law, saying it encourages good government and forces public servants to discuss all their business publicly. He further explained the sole purposes of a town board is to “number one: adopt a budget, and number two: set overall policy.”
“In my experience, I’ve never seen a town board member pick up garbage or plow a street or walk a police beat,” Gaughan said. “That’s what I have to get people to realize.”
Former West Seneca Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski, who lost his bid for re-election to Meegan last November by a vote of 7,367-6,643, championed the downsized board and said in the two years he served on it, it worked successfully and just as it should have.
“It sure prevents the town board members from speaking with one another,” acknowledged Piotrowski. “But, what are they speaking about? The goal is to prevent back-room deals.”
Piotrowski also criticized current West Seneca board members who have, since putting the proposition on the ballot, gone mum as to their stance on downsizing. Both Councilmen Eugene P. Hart and John M. Rusinski have reiterated an indifference to three-or five-member boards in recent weeks, saying they seek only “what taxpayers want.”
“They have an opinion,” Piotrowski said. “We as residents have a right to know. Are they for big government?”
In a recent letter to Meegan, Hart and Rusinski, Gaughan accused the West Seneca officials of “whining,” “bickering” and making “endless excuses for purposeful failure.”
Gaughan insisted elected officials must “work harder, do more with less and adapt” as well as charging “voluntary citizens committees” to help with the town’s work.
“Citizens, in particular senior citizens, are very eager to contribute to their community and their government,” Gaughan said.
It’s not that easy, according to Walters, however, who said that Hamburg has tried the idea. “We have 19 voluntary committee boards to assist the town,” Walters said. “Probably about 40 percent of the seats are vacant.”
Hamburg officials have advertised in an attempt to fill the seats to no avail.
“There were a couple of boards that are basically defunct because they’re not volunteering,” Walters said.
For instance, Hamburg’s town parks board was set up in 2010 “in anticipation of the downsizing,” explained Walters. “In two years, we had not one single volunteer. So, we took it off the books.”
That’s just another example of failed local governance if you ask Gaughan. “Devising and creating a structure (for citizen committees) takes time and effort on behalf of politicians,” said Gaughan.
There is no current effort, so far as town officials are aware, to place the issue before the voters again in Orchard Park or in Hamburg, where a brief movement last spring to upsize the board quickly fizzled. Town officials in those communities insist upsizing is a question best left to the populace to initiate.
“I don’t think anyone on our board thinks downsizing was a wise decision,” said Kaczor. “[But] we serve the people, and if people think a smaller government is better, we serve the will of the people.”
Added Walters: “We would respect a petition drive that came through.”
At least one local community shows no inclination to return to the larger town board – the Town of Evans. Taxpayers there voted in 2009 to downsize from five members to three.
“I haven’t heard that anyone even wants to think of going back to five people,” said Ed Conboy Jr., co-chairman of Evans United Taxpayers.
The taxpayers group helped mobilize the votes needed to back Gaughan’s downsizing proposal. It passed 2,222-1,326. Some acknowledge the dissatisfaction was aimed at town leadership and frustration over reassessments on homes.
“So far we’ve been happy with the three-member board,” said Conboy.
Town officials aren’t raising the issue, either.
“No,” said Supervisor Keith E. Dash. “That’s not on my radar. Not right now.”
Dash doesn’t get the sense that public sentiment in town has changed. Besides, he said, the timing wouldn’t be right. There would be a cost associated with putting the issue up for referendum, Dash said, and officials in the cash-strapped town don’t want to spend the money.
But, said Dash – who opposed the downsizing as a councilman in 2009 – that doesn’t mean returning to a five-member board won’t come up again in the future.
“Let’s see how it plays out in the other municipalities,” Dash said.
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org