The Right Size for County Legislatures? It All Depends.
Practical and political implications of county legislature size.
Emeritus Founding Director - The Benjamin Center
Upon his reelection as chair of the Dutchess County Legislature this January, Gregg Pulver noted with pride the county's recent record of government reform and proposed to continue to build upon it. “Reapportionment, term limits and ethics reforms mean that we operate under the trifecta of good government,” Pulver said, “and further restructuring of the legislature may be up for discussion this year.” By “restructuring” one thing he meant was making the 25-member body smaller. “[D]ownsizing and other changes,” Pulver said, “would provide a more streamlined and efficient government for the people.”
The legislative downsizing idea has been around; it is not new to the Hudson Valley. Just over a year ago, in 2019, a bi-partisan group of Ulster County legislative leaders sought a charter change to cut the size of their legislature from 23 to 21 members.
It is also not just talk idle talk, there's been some action in reducing the size of county legislatures in New York State. Ulster County reduced the number of its legislators from 33 to 23 when it effected its first charter in 2012. Other counties that have reduced their legislative size within the last decade include, Broome, from 19 to 15 members in 2013; Niagara, from 19 to 15 members in 2012; Oneida, from 29 to 23 members in 2014; and Onondaga, from 19 to 17 members in 2012.
Reducing the size of the county legislature has also been seriously debated in recent years in Albany and Monroe counties. Why are our county legislatures such different sizes? Would smaller (or bigger) be better? Is there such as thing as one “right size”? These questions keep coming up because they have no easy answers. As founder James Madison wrote in Federalist 55, “[N]o political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution than that which relates to the number most convenient for a representative legislature.”
Unlike the case for towns, villages and school districts boards, there is no specification of alternatives for county legislature size in New York state law. Nor are there standards that guide local choice. The result is great variety. Currently, New York has 41 counties with legislatures; the smallest has 7 members (Franklin, Orleans), the largest 39 (Albany). Six legislatures have 9 members (Genesee, Montgomery, Putnam, Schuyler, Sullivan and Tioga), seven have 15 (Allegheny, Broome, Cayuga, Chemung, Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Schenectady). The average number of members in counties with legislatures is 16, the median 15. Albany's legislature is the largest, Monroe is second largest. Dutchess and Oswego follow with 25, then Ulster with 23. More populous counties tend to have large legislatures, yet the body in Erie – where organized effort has kept the question of local government size regularly before the public - functions with just 11 members.
One explanation for this variety in the size of county boards may be found in the history of county governance in New York. Counties were traditionally run by boards of supervisors comprised of the supervisor of each town, augmented in counties with cities by one supervisor elected in each ward of each city. When the U.S. Supreme court decided in Avery v. Midland County in 1968 that its one-person-one-vote standard applied to general purpose local governments, some counties retained their boards of supervisors (and still do) using weighted voting to comply with the court's equal representation requirement. However, 38 counties created legislatures, with members elected from single or multi-member districts. In the transition, many – Ulster is one example, Albany another - retained the same number of members for the legislature that had been in place for the Board of Supervisors. Others, Franklin for example, seized the occasion to downsize significantly and decreased their board from 19 members to 7 in 1970.
Partisan advantage and consideration for incumbents were no doubt factors in county decisions regarding board size, though rarely overtly argued. Then, as now, proponents of reducing county legislative size usually made their case on good government grounds. They said that downsizing will bring the county in question into line with comparable others, reduce the cost of government, improve representativeness, advance political competition, and make each legislator and the legislature generally stronger in the separation of powers system.
Defenders of the status quo respond that larger legislatures result in smaller district size, enhancing representativeness and demographic diversity in the legislative body. They say too that larger more populous counties require bigger legislatures to develop the specialization and expertise in committee systems needed for effective governance.
Let's take a look at a few of these metrics in further detail.
Representativeness – Representation is a complex concept, not easily measured. It is certainly not limited to constituent service. But one argument suggests that more legislators mean fewer constituents per legislator, and therefore a greater quantity of “representation” available per constituent. The number of persons represented by each county legislator in New York in 2019 varied widely, from 2,615 (Lewis) to 83,611 (Erie).
A legislator in Dutchess County has 11,749 constituents. If Dutchess reduced the size of its legislature to the state average of 16, each member would have 18,357 constituents. This would make its districts almost the same in size as Orange County (18,188), and eighth in population size in the state. In general, the reduction in the number of legislative seats in Dutchess and other counties does not appear to result in district populations of unmanageable size district populations.
Reflecting demographic diversity in the legislature is a more significant aspect of representation. If minority populations are geographically concentrated and district size is smaller, the election of minority group members to the legislature is more likely. This will become of even greater importance if preclearance of structural changes in local government with significantly sized minority populations becomes required by the NY state voting rights act now under consideration in Albany.
Cost - Legislators in most counties serve part-time for little pay. A detailed study of Erie County local governments done in 2009 showed that projected annual savings from cutting board sizes were minimal. Legislators are paid $16,391 annually in Dutchess and $14,000 in Ulster. Even if the salary numbers are doubled, to factor in the value of a legislators' benefit packages, the total impact of reducing the size Dutchess and Ulter County Legislatures to the state average would be $295,038 and $196,000, respectively. This is .06% of Dutchess's and .05% of Ulster's 2021 budget. Costs are not significantly cut by reducing legislative size.
Governance - Five member boards govern most counties in the United States. Five, Seven or nine member boards in New York State govern cities, towns and school districts with far larger budgets and greater numbers of employees than most counties. Big budgets don't require big legislatures. But a legislature does need to be of sufficient size so that its members may effectively deliberate on controversial matters. Also, enough members are needed to staff committees of reasonable size. This allows part-time elected officials – and they are part-time in most counties - to share the work while developing the expertise to make policy and oversee its implementation in an informed way in a substantial range of substantive areas.
Smaller bodies are more efficient, in that fewer agreements are required to achieve majority outcomes. Also, smaller bodies empower individual members. Each is more probable to have the decisive vote in closely contested situations.
In separation of powers systems like those operating in Dutchess and Ulster Counties, the size of the legislature may affect the balance in its relationship with the elected executive. On reason given for the proposed reduction of the Ulster County legislature was to make it easier to assemble the required 2/3 majority to override executive vetoes. The sponsorship of this resolution by legislative leaders of both parties suggested that it was motivated by institutional, not partisan goals.
In conclusion, James Madison noted that “The truth is, that in all cases a certain number at least seems to be necessary to secure the benefits of free consultation and discussion, and to guard against too easy a combination for improper purposes; as, on the other hand, the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude.”
Or to put it differently: What's the right size for a county legislature? It's a matter of balancing values. So…it all depends.