OP-ED BY MICHAEL RICONDA
Last month, the Town of Ramapo agreed to allow a vote on a ward system, a potentially major change which could swing the balance of power significantly. In essence, the approval of a ward system could temper the inordinate sway the Monsey/Kaser/New Square “bloc vote” can sometimes wield in local elections and allow a greater voice for neglected municipalities.
The referendums, which will take place between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on September 30, will allow voters to decide whether or not they wish to split the town into six separate wards with their own representatives for council and whether or not they wish to boost the number of board members up from four to six.
Ramapo and all other Rockland towns currently have an at-large voting system, meaning candidates can be elected from any area within Ramapo as long as they are approved by a majority of the town’s residents. With a ward system, each separate ward would select a representative to advocate for their local interests on the town board. In effect, the Ramapo Board would reflect a more nuanced, geographic representation of the town.
The strength of a ward system lies in its geographic delineations. It often ensures all residents in a particularly large area are given an equal voice, rather than being bound by the whims of one group with an inordinate sway over the entirety of a voting district. Clearly, this would be beneficial to Ramapo residents at large.
Critics often point to the resiliency of Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, a consistent beneficiary of the “bloc vote,” as evidence that the system cannot continue as it is. In spite of being under federal investigation and making highly controversial decisions such as building Boulder Stadium to the tune of upwards of $60 million, the recent Orange Avenue PILOT approval in Suffern, the persecution of former Finance administrator Melissa Reimer, continued inaction on the re-purposing of the Tilcon Quarry for flood relief and a host of other controversies over pay raises, appointments of “consultants,” and fiscal mismanagement, St. Lawrence has remained in his position for years and faced not a single close electoral contest.
Even an FBI investigation into the ballpark deal coupled with a raid on Ramapo’s Town Hall was not enough to come close to loosening St. Lawrence’s hold of his seat. Critics often presume this is because his favoritism toward developers and projects that benefit the “bloc vote” power brokers precludes a town-wide effort against him.
A ward system would not automatically nullify the power of St. Lawrence or other officials, but it could mean other officials might be brought in as a foil against him, adding more discussion and debate to the equation. The town might even begin to roll back tax hikes and work to curb the over-development, which has plagued Ramapo for years.
On the other hand, it is worth noting the process could be subverted. If such a system is built to work, it will be districted to allow the greatest number of residents the greatest voice possible. If it is built to work for the bloc vote, however, the town runs the risk of merely complicating the existing system by drawing up a map that maximizes the power of the bloc vote in each specific ward.
A successful set of referendums do not mean the town should abandon its vigilance, because anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the electoral process can tell you there are always inherent imperfections in the district-making process, which can be exploited for partisan ends.
They can attempt to minimize the impact of a more nuanced town voting system, but the possibility of ward voting still seems to have Ramapo officials nervous. The town has consistently fought efforts to bring the question to a vote since the early 2000s. Only after a State Supreme Court decision in late July validating the referendum petitions brought by activists Mike Parietti and Robert Romanowski did the Town Board unanimously vote to schedule the referendums.
More representatives means more votes, and when those reps are brought in from areas that are not historically represented, actual debate of controversial topics and projects will finally face the electoral weight of popular opposition. And that is how it should be in any democracy.