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Municipal elected officials from across the political spectrum heavily criticized the state legislature’s eleventh-hour passage of a measure that may dramatically change the way most local elections are held around the state.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. James Skoufis (D-Cornwall) with Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) as its chief Assembly sponsor, shifts all town elections that are typically held in odd-numbered years to even-numbered years to coincide with presidential and congressional mid-term elections.
State Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro) strongly supported the legislation as a way to increase voter turnout for local elections. Turnout is almost always higher for what many citizens view as the higher stakes contests of congressional elections every even-numbered year and the Presidential election every fourth year.
“In some communities, 20 percent of the voters select who’s going to represent the other 80 percent,” Harckham contended. “To me that’s almost not representative democracy. If you can have 60, 70, 80 percent turnout that’s better representation. That is a more adequate and realistic representation of the voting public and who’s weighing in, regardless of party.”
Most elected municipal officials, both Democrats and Republicans, from across the area came out against the change. While the percentage of voters will undoubtedly increase, opponents of the bill said many of those voting won’t likely pay close attention to the local issues and end up voting party line.
“I think this is terrible governance,” said New Castle Supervisor Lisa Katz, a registered Democrat. “I think it’s bad for democracy. I think it’s bad for local municipalities because I think there are issues that need to be focused on and that constituents and residents and voters need to focus on in their local municipalities that have nothing to do with national politics as we saw in the last election.”
Many officials objected not only to the change but how it was done. It was passed by the legislature in the wee hours of the last day of the recently completed session, with no feedback from municipal officials.
“What I felt was outrageous was that municipalities had no input into this legislation,” said North Castle Councilwoman Barbara DiGiacinto, a Republican. “It wasn’t that there were municipalities throughout the state that were asking for this change. It was just imposed on us.”
Various municipalities and officials passed resolutions or sent letters to Hochul urging her to veto the measure. She has until the end of the year to make a decision.
Under the terms of the legislation, local elections in even-numbered years will begin in 2026. For the regularly scheduled 2025 local elections, any term that is two years, such as those for supervisor, will become one-year terms, and four-year terms, such as the next election for Westchester County executive, will become a one-time three-year term to get the elections on an even-year cycle. The Board of Legislators in Westchester will also be affected.
The bill will not affect cities and villages or any governmental body that has a three-year term, such as the Putnam County Legislature, where three of its nine seats are up for election every year. Also not impacted will be elections for judges, district attorneys, county clerks and sheriffs and contests in village/towns such as Mount Kisco and Harrison.
Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, another Democrat, said he found out about the bill late on June 8, what turned out to be hours before the vote. He learned of the pending legislation from fellow Westchester elected officials.
He argued that the law may actually make town officials less responsive to constituents if they know they can benefit from party-line voting.
“Currently, if a town official is not responsive to a neighborhood request, the neighborhood can organize and be heard,” Feiner said. “If elections for town offices are held in a Presidential year it will be much easier for local officials to ignore the will of the people because many of the people who come out to vote won’t be familiar with the local issues and controversies. It will be easier for developers and special interests to get what they want because the activists won’t have as much influence on Election Day.”
Some Republicans around the state accused Democrats of trying to swing local elections in their favor. But Harckham said there will be Republican-dominated areas of the state, such as Putnam County, that will make it more difficult for Democrats to gain inroads.
One former local candidate and former Mount Pleasant Town Board member, Francesca Hagadus, supported the legislation. She may be an example of what the GOP fears. In a special election in 2018 for a one-year unexpired term, which was a gubernatorial election and a mid-term congressional year, Hagadus easily won her race, the only Democrat to have served on the Mount Pleasant Town Board in the last 35 years. But the two subsequent elections, 2019 and 2021, she lost by comfortable margins when turnout was far lower.
She didn’t deny the timing of the 2018 election helped her, but said the change will be better for democracy and will make people work harder to hold onto their seats.
“I’m not saying it’s better for one party or another, but it’s better for democracy because it forces people to examine the issues and candidates and not do a knee-jerk vote or not vote at all,” Hagadus said.
Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) was one of only three Assembly Democrats to vote against the bill. He said it’s no coincidence that the other two, Steve Otis (D-Rye) and John McDonald (D-Cohoes), had previously served as a supervisor or mayor, just as Burdick did in Bedford.
“The great concern I have is that local issues will get drowned out,” Burdick said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/