Amherst Democratic leaders once again are proposing that the town's council members be elected on a district or ward basis.
Currently, all board members are considered "at-large" members who represent residents townwide. A move to a district or ward system would be similar to what currently exists in the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda, but it is an unusual configuration at the town level.
Town Democrats submitted a citizens petition that would likely allow town voters to decide in the November general election whether they want board members to be elected based on districts. The petition was filed with the town clerk last week.
The petition represents the fifth time a ward system has been proposed in the Town of Amherst. The proposition has been defeated each time it's been presented. However, the proposition was defeated by what may be its narrowest margin - 51 percent to 49 percent - the last time it came up for a vote in 2010.
"We came so close last time, and I believe the time is ripe for our government to be more accountable to us," said lead petitioner Justin Gerstein, a Democratic committee member who also submitted the petition two years ago.
Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger said Wednesday that the petition needed 2,168 valid signatures and currently has about 2,600 signatures.
Proponents of the ward system say it makes council members more accountable to their constituents and less beholden to deep-pocket special interest groups. Opponents say having divided representation encourages council members to take a narrow approach to town leadership and can prevent a town board from working together in the interests of the town as a whole.
Jaeger, a Republican, pointed out that many of the people who were gathering petition signatures in Amherst came from the City of Buffalo or from other towns in Erie County.
"What's not strange is how many of them work for the county and the Board of Elections," she said.
As in 2010, the genesis of the petition comes from the Amherst Democratic Committee, though the Democrats tend to describe it as a "concerned citizens issue" and "good government initiative." Town Democratic Chairman Jerome Schad and others pointed out that none of the town's council members live north of Maple Road.
"We have a town that has a such a high population, and we have sort of a pattern of disproportionate representation," he said. "Particularly in the northern part of the town, people are very sensitive that they don't have anyone from their neighborhood on the Town Board."
A district-based system can make it easier and cheaper for anyone to run for office, not just well-financed candidates. Republicans are generally better funded than Democratic candidates in town.
Though there are currently six seats on the Town Board, including the supervisor, Council Member Mark Manna holds the only Democratic seat.
Schad said that if the proposition comes before voters and passes, it will be because voters of all stripes support it, not because Democrats champion it.
Petition objections must be filed within five days of its submission, Jaeger said. Any objection must state in writing why the petition is not valid and must be submitted to the Town Clerk's Office in person. Any objections would then be forwarded to the Board of Elections for further investigation.
Jaeger said she's already received inquiries about filing an objection, and one is expected.