At what juncture is your effort to downsize local government?
Armed with the law I discovered that gives citizens the power to force downsizing votes, Western New Yorkers are approaching a tipping point that may result in decreasing Erie County’s 439 elected officials (that’s more politicians than in the United States Congress) to a more sane and proportionate 307.
What battles have you won?
I don’t consider my effort a “fight.” That’s what politicians do. And as they battle, they diminish themselves, the idea of public service, and us all. This is not a fight, but rather a right of people to decide the size and cost of their local government, and in the process define themselves and their community.
To date, we’ve downsized the villages of Lancaster and Depew, the Village of North Collins has agreed to my plan to merge its government into the surrounding Town of North Collins, and my proposal to reduce the Erie County legislature from 15 to 9 members appears headed for a public referendum this November (though the polls may dilute my idea by going to 11 members — but it’s all good).
And on June 3rd, for the first time in New York State’s history, two towns, West Seneca and Evans, will hold downsizing referenda that were compelled by citizen petitions without the support of elected officials.
Which ones are you still fighting to win?
Our volunteers (our website is www.LetPeopleDecide.org) are circulating petitions to hold downsizing votes in Amherst, Cheektowaga, and Alden, and a village government dissolution vote in Blasdell. This summer we plan to move onto the towns of Hamburg and Orchard Park, and the villages of Kenmore and Sloan.
Which towns have been the toughest?
They’re all a challenge, simply because no politician supports downsizing. But we shall succeed in every one, because virtually every citizen does. The Depew downsizing referendum passed by 89%, and the Lancaster one by 91%. The challenge is to get on the ballot. But once we’re on — and the law I discovered lets us get on by obtaining sufficient number of signatures — people celebrate their chance to make a difference by voting for change.
Which villages, towns, etc. have the most excess?
Sadly, all of our 25 town and 16 village government in Erie County have long ago forgotten their original purpose. If they did, they’d voluntarily downsize tomorrow, capture the resultant tax savings, plough them back into services and community, and thereby help produce a nurturing public environment for private investment. Which, of course, was and remains their purpose.
Have you researched similar initiatives in other states?
Most states lack New York’s bloated local government challenge. Most states do not have over 932 towns and 557 villages, as New York State does. New York has more governments than the nation of Japan.
How does downsizing regionally impact the city?
I disagree with the premise of your question, which supposes that our beloved City of Buffalo is separate from its surrounding suburbs. We are one community in Western New York, and whether we live in Amherst, Eden, Cheektowaga, or Black Rock or Town Gardens, we’re going to rise or fall together and as one.
Of America’s 3,086 counties, Erie County (that’s everyone from Buffalo to West Seneca) has the 5th highest local property taxes. Property taxes are so high because local government cost so much. To sustain our 439 politicians, taxpayers pay more than $32 million per year.
My local government study revealed that the highest concentration of politicians is in our suburbs because, among other reasons, we’re operating under a system that hasn’t been changed since before America’s Civil War. So reducing that disproportionate concentration of polls, decreasing the amount of mindless bickering they engage in, and creating a local government system that’s more effective, efficient, and fair, benefits us all.
Will this battle eventually encompass downsizing duplicate services?
Does your message take urban sprawl into account?
At my 1997 Chautauqua Conference on Local Governance, I learned that addressing sprawl (“urban sprawl” is a misnomer, as it conveys an unfavorable notion of the city) lies at the heart of community renewal. I define sprawl as development without growth, or growing by chance rather than by choice. The answer is a regional planning body that’s citizen based. In 1998 and 2001, I proposed such a body, and am thrilled to see the idea finally making progress.
Do government employees take it personally that you are trying to take away their jobs?
Government downsizing will not take away anyone’s job. All it does is reduce the number of elected seats, which in towns and villages are part-time positions, and are privileges not rights. If affected politicians are as good as they say they are, they can still run for the fewer number of seats, and I’m sure that voters will reward them with election.
What has been your most effective tool so far?
The thousands of volunteers, mainly senior citizens, who yearn for the power to actually change something in our community. To them, the petition and referendum law I discovered is the first tangible change tool they’ve held in their hands in perhaps their lifetime.
And the second most effective arrow in my quiver is these folks’ memories. They remember when their town or village was vibrant, active, had wonderful youth and senior services, and most important, offered sufficient opportunity for their children to stay here. Their desire to restore Western New York to that rightful place shall overcome all the fear-based tactics politicians are employing to thwart change.
Is there a regional public official that inspires you?
Yes. What James Madison called “citizen-patriot.” I think it’s the highest office in the land.
If you reached your goal to control cut bloated government today, what would you set out to do tomorrow?
Sit still (something I have trouble doing). Perhaps sleep. Then shower and go out and do it across New York State.
Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader. He is leading a citizens movement to let people, not politicians, decide the size and cost of local government in every suburban town and village. The first two public referenda that he and his volunteers have caused are scheduled for June 3rd in West Seneca and Evans. For more information on Kevin’s effort, visit www.LetPeopleDecide.org.