December 8, 2021

City, county working to redraw districts

Shifting population will affect local representation

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

A man rides a bicycle down Elm Street in Cortland on Friday. The neighborhood lies at the crux of four city wards, which the city must adjust to assure fair representation on Common Council

With the recent release of data from the 2020 U.S. Census, including the drop in population, the city of Cortland and the Cortland County Legislature will be working on redrawing district boundaries in the upcoming months.

Cortland’s population declined from 19,204 in 2010 to 17,556, according to Census data.

A 20/20 Look at Cortland
The decennial Census is a treasure trove of data about the community. Here’s what the latest information shows.

SATURDAY: Cortland County’s population dropped more than 5% in 10 years. Except the minority population, which doubled.

MONDAY: The population is down, but the number of housing units is rising. Why?

TODAY: Population shifts within the county and its communities will affect representation in city and county governments.

To address these changes, Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin said Tuesday that he would speak with members of the Cortland County Planning Department to discuss what potential changes may occur in terms of city wards.

“One of the things that will have to be done is some of the lines need to be shifted to make sure the wards are balanced in terms of the number of voters,” Tobin said during the bimonthly Common Council meeting. “So what that means is it could be something as simple as a slight move here or there to make sure the numbers are where they should be or there could be larger changes,” though Tobin didn’t specify.

The eight council members would each represent 2,195 constituents — down from 2,401 — so ward boundaries would need to shift to reflect an approximate parity.

Changes would not go into effect this year, meaning that there wouldn’t be any impacts in terms of the reduction of the number of wards and therefore a reduction in ward representatives in the Common Council, he said. Tobin suggested that councilpersons speak with county legislators that share the same boundaries as them “so that there’s good dialogue between the two governing bodies as we’re heading toward the end of ‘21 and make sure that we have a good idea of what they’re talking about and make sure that we’re comfortable with what options come forward.”

On the county’s side, Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon and Truxton) will work to form a committee to evaluate Census data and create plans for redistricting, said Trisha Jesset, the director of planning for the Cortland County Planning Department.

The county’s population dropped to 46,809 from 49,336, so the number of constituents a legislator must answer to would fall to 2,753 from 2,902. However, the county has a weighted voting system where each legislator’s vote is weighted to reflect the district’s population, giving more authority to legislators who represent more people.

That would give the committee more flexibility in setting the district boundaries.

The city of Cortland lost about 8% of its population, but areas west and south of the city lost more, at least as a portion of their populations. Cincinnatus, Taylor and Willett — all represented by Republican Mitch Eccleston — each lost between 13.6% and 14.6% of their population, although Freetown grew 1.3%.

That would mean to maintain equitable representation, Eccleston’s 17th District would need to expand, pushing into what is now Paul Heider’s district of Cuyler, Solon and Truxton. Towns in that district, the 16th District, lost between 1.5% and 12% of their populations.

On the other hand, the 15th District, which includes Marathon and Lapeer and is represented by Republican George Wagner, grew about 3.7%, which might contract the district to maintain equal representation.

Under Local Law 2 of 1972, Heider shall appoint the committee to include two legislators from each of the two largest parties.

This committee will be formed within six months of the release of Census data and make changes within three months of appointment, the law states. Those changes can include a proposed local law to change boundaries of the legislative districts.

Jesset said that Heider “plans to form the commission as soon as possible.”

Heider was unavailable to comment Friday.