My testimony to the Syracuse Independent Redistricting Commission

For transparencies sake I am releasing my written testimony to the Syracuse Independent Redistricting Commission (follow link for future hearing dates), I am also posting a video of the redistricting hearing. It is important to note I have no voting power on this commission and my suggestions are made as a City resident and not on behalf of the Onondaga County Board of Elections as a whole. The commission itself will draw draft maps and my maps should only be seen as a way of starting conversation. I encourage all City residents to come to the meetings and share your thoughts. Finally I also released the high res pdfs of the maps and data files at the end of the testimony.

Syracuse Independent Redistricting Commission

Public Input Sessions March 18, 2022

Written Testimony

My name is Dustin Czarny I am the Democratic Elections Commissioner of Onondaga County, co-founder of Fair Maps CNY, and most importantly a Syracuse resident and native.  I have had the honor to live in Syracuse for most of my life and the pleasure of living all over this city.  I have resided in 4 of the 5 council districts during my lifetime.  I grew up in Eastwood and currently live by Lemoyne college which is the 5th council district, in my twenties I had apartments on Court Street in the 2nd Common Council district, Oak St. in the first common council district, and on Hubbell Ave in the third common council district.  Though I have not had the occasion to live in the 4th common council district I did work downtown for over two decades and aspire to one day be a downtown resident in my retirement.

In 2010 while serving in the Miner administration for the City of Syracuse I was asked by then Common Council President Van Robinson to advise on the census data and redistricting that needed to happen inside the city.  Unfortunately, that advice never come to fruition.  The City of Syracuse Common Council decided not to change any of the districts, or more accurately decided not to decide.  At the same time Onondaga County Was undergoing a massive redrawing of districts that ultimately Turned out to be a political gerrymander that our county is still living with.  I knew then what I believe now, there must be a better way.

This citizen led effort in the City of Syracuse is a culmination of ten years’ worth of activism, and planning.  I am so happy to have had a part in bringing this possibility to the attention of City Leaders.  They gave up power to take a chance on a better way to do redistricting.  Common Council President Helen Hudson was a one-woman force moving this project to completion.  Former Councilor Khalid Bey and current councilor Michael Greene supported this project with legislation.  Mayor Ben Walsh and City Auditor Nader Maroon devoted city resources to give this project a great chance for success.  Susan Lerner of Common Cause, Chris Ryan of the Onondaga County Legislature, and Joe Barry of the Syracuse Corporation Counsel office, and Pereine Wasser of Fair Maps CNY provided expertise and activism during the charter change and subsequent enabling legislation.  Finally, the voters of the City of Syracuse overwhelming supported this project with 75% of them voting to change the charter to permanently make this happen. 

So now before you is the task to not only redistrict Syracuse in a fair and transparent way, but to set an example that other communities can look to take politics out of redistricting.  I believe you will meet this challenge and that is why I am happy to come before you today not as Elections Commissioner, but as a citizen of Syracuse, and give thoughts about some examples of changes that could be made to our districts to make them better.  I am submitting this written testimony as well as maps and data to buttress my oral testimony on March 18th, 2022, to start discussions on how we can reflect our communities and our values as an inclusive and welcoming city in this once in a decade decision.  I also want to thank Onondaga County planning, specifically Edward Hart, for help in putting together the maps and population estimates in my testimony.

Where We Stand Today

The decision not to adjust the districts in 2010 has had consequences.  The emerging New American community in the north side of Syracuse has grown at a dramatic rate since 2002.  This has put district 1 way out of proportion to the other districts.  Under current NYS law these districts can not continue as the difference between the top district (CC1 33,148) and bottom district (CC2 27,183) is almost 18%, well over the 5% difference called for by law. 

In addition, the growing student population at Syracuse University has radically changed the racial makeup of common council district 4.  Traditionally this district has been seen as a black plurality district and an opportunity for someone of color to be elected to the Common Council.  Syracuse has a rich and diverse history of electing candidates of color to our common council both city wide and inside various districts, but the fact there now are no black plurality districts in our common council districts is a cause for concern.   The current maps do offer 4 minority majority districts but outside of common council district 4 the margin is hyper thin and cannot be truly consider minority opportunity district.

Least Change Concept

It may be the wish of tis body to offer as little change to the current districts as possible.  There are valid reasons for doing so.  These districts have been in place for nearly 20 years and the citizens are used to the borders.  It would also be very simple to make small changes and balance out the population to comply with New York State law.  If the commission decided to do that, I offer this least change concept for consideration. 

To achieve a more balanced population we can move Ward 1 Election Districts 6,7, & 8 from Common council district 1 to common council district 2.  In addition, we could move 19th Ward District 4 from the 5th common council district to the 3rd.  By doing so the population deviation would only be 5.9& from the top (CC1 30,462) and bottom (CC5 29,283).  While this concept will solve the population imbalance for the City of Syracuse it will not address any other concerns in my opinion as the racial and community makeup of the districts will remain the same.

The Quadrant Concept

If the commission were to wish to make a more substantial change to our districts, I would like to suggest what I call the Quadrant concept.  Our current districts cut through communities and ignore natural boundaries such as commercial roads that could help define the districts themselves.  This also makes it harder for individual counselors to serve more diverse needs of a district.  The City of Syracuse already has 4 councilor at-large office holders.  They are tasked with looking over the city, district councilors should look over the needs of their district.  That job would be easier if they represent like-minded communities.

In thew quadrant concept I envision 5 different districts with different needs.  Common Council 1 would unite the neighborhoods of Lincoln Hill, Eastwood, and Strathmore.  These communities already interact with each other and share Henninger Highschool as a common scholastic focal point.  Common Council District 2 would unite the North Side Little Italy community with Tipp Hill.  These communities are relatively small and different from the bordering communities around them.  Using the commercial corridor of Destiny USA to join them makes a district that is not much different than the current 2nd district but keeps the North side whole inside the district as well as Tipp Hill.

Common Council District 3 would be focused on Strathmore and the Valley district allowing the representative to focus on the southwest side of Syracuse.  This district would create a minority majority district and in time could become another black plurality district as the demographics of the city continue to change.  Much of this district also shares Corcoran High School as a focal point.  Common Council district 4 would focus on the center of the city creating a solidly black plurality district and uniting some of the poorer neighborhoods of our community.  By uniting them in one district we will give those voices power in government instead of splitting their voices into different districts.  Much of the district share ITC or Fowler as a High school focal point tying the families together.

Finally Common Council district 5 would be the east side district uniting the college communities of Syracuse University and Lemoyne.  The emerging student rental community is now split into 3 separate common council districts.  This highly transient university neighborhood combined with the Bradford Hills portion of the east side share Nottingham High School to bring families and students together.

If this concept were put in place the population deviation would only be 2.9% and well under the 5% state guidelines.  We would have two minority majority districts with one being a black plurality district.  Two other districts would only be a slight majority white, and demographics could overtake those districts overtime as well.

One alternate to the quadrant concept has to do with the 4th and 3rd common council district.  The South campus community in Ward 19 district 3 poses a large problem for redistricting, these students represent a large portion of the population but only stay in that community for one year as the move on south campus into other housing as they enter their junior and Senior years.  We must account for this population which is not as diverse as their neighboring areas.  If the committee wished to have a higher black plurality in common council 4 the south campus community could be included in Common Council district 3 and the neighborhoods around Onondaga Street in the 11th ward could be included in Common Council district 4. 

If these concepts were put in place the population deviation would only be 2.1% and well under the 5% state guidelines.  We would have two minority majority districts with one being a solidly black plurality district.  The second minority majority district though would only be slightly minority.  Two other districts would only be a slight majority white, and demographics could overtake those districts overtime as well.

Election District, Ward Line, and Assembly and Senate Line Considerations

Finally, I wanted to address some concerns I have as an election administrator.  I did the maps above using data compiled for the Onondaga County Reapportionment Commission, of which I was a member.  That Commission made the decision to try and do the changes based on existing election district lines.  The hyper short time frame and lack of consultants and investment led to this decision.  The Syracuse Independent Redistricting Commission has time and consultants to dive into the block level data.  You do not need to adhere to individual Election District lines.  If you make changes the Board of Elections will draw new Election Districts in 2023 to accommodate them.

I do as you keep in mind Ward lines as well as Assembly and Senate lines.  These are unmovable lines that the local Board of Elections has no control over.  Keep this in mind when you are considering the borders of your districts.  IF a border crosses these lines, we must make a new Election District to accommodate that.  Micro block long election districts can often result.  These micro districts are not only hard to define, but they can also have a voter suppression quality.  It is often hard to find adequate polling places inside the city and small block long districts may have to travel far to get to their nearest polling place.  Different ballot styles are created and cause confusion for election inspectors at time. 

Thank you once again for your willingness to devote your time and efforts to making our Democracy better.  I can’t wait to see the maps this commission comes up with and look forward to administering elections for them.

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