POLITICAL DOWNSIZING

November 16, 2009

Discouraged by unemployment and depopulation and frustrated by politicians' inability to solve either, voters aren't just throwing the rascals out of office -- they're throwing out the offices, says USA Today.

In what western New York calls "political downsizing," communities are voting by referendum to reduce the number of seats on town councils.  The movement's theory, as voiced by its founder, Kevin Gaughan: The best (and maybe only) way to cut government is to start with your own representatives.

So far the downsizing movement is confined mostly to western New York, but it's part of a national wave of frustration over big government that was illustrated this year by raucous town-hall-style meetings over health care and the rise of the Tea Party movement:

  • This year, all four towns that considered citizen-initiated referendums to trim their boards from five members to three have voted to do so.
  • They range from Orchard Park, the affluent suburb where the NFL's Buffalo Bills play, to the rural, close-knit town of Alden.
  • In several other communities, councils have voluntarily elected to downsize.
  • This month, Niagara County voters decided overwhelmingly to reduce the county legislature from 19 members to 15.

There's even talk of dissolving whole villages (which are parts of towns but levy additional taxes and have their own elected boards):

  • Last month, with visions of a 40 percent tax cut in their heads, the villagers of Limestone voted 3-to-1 to dissolve.
  • The next council downsizing referendum is Tuesday in this community of 56,000, where one candidate in the Nov. 4 election endorsed downsizing, even though it would eliminate the seat he was seeking; he won.

Downsizing is not unique to New York:

  • Holyoke, Mass., for example, has lost a third of its population over the past 75 years but kept a 15-seat council.
  • This month voters elected to consider changing the city charter and possibly reduce the size of the council.

"Everybody is becoming aware that local governments are spending well beyond their means," says Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute.  "There's a sense that something's out of control."

Source: Rick Hampson, "Political downsizing is latest weapon for voters," USA Today, November  12, 2009.

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