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NAACP, INC. v. CITY OF NIAGARA FALLS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


September 29, 1994

THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE, INC. (NAACP) through its Niagara Falls, New York Branch; RENAE KIMBLE, Political Action Chairperson; BLONEVA BOND; FREDERICK L. BROWN; MATTHEW J. BUSHELON; WILLIAM FEAGINS; WAYNE GALLOWAY; BRENDA L. HAMILTON; JAY HARRIS; HOMER HICKS, JR.; MARY JOHNSON; JOSEPH JONES; ROBERT LASTER, SR.; CLINTON PALMER; EDDIE L. PALMORE; TERRY PRESSLEY; JESSE SCONIERS; ORE LEAN SIMMONS; CHARLES TOWNS; PAULINE WALKER and C. ALONZO WILLIAMS [Individually]; Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK, a municipal corporation; MICHAEL C. O'LAUGHLIN, Mayor; GUY TOM SOTTILE; BARBARA GERACITANO; ANTHONY REDINA; HENRY BUCHALSKI; MICHAEL GAWEL; ANTHONY QUARANTO; and JACOB PALILLO, members of the Niagara Falls City Council; ELSIE PARADISE, City Clerk; Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: SKRETNY

DECISION AND ORDER

 INTRODUCTION

 This case arises under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 1973. Plaintiffs are challenging the existing method of electing members to the Niagara Falls City Council, pursuant to Section 2 of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973. Plaintiffs include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP"), its local Political Action Chairperson Renae Kimble, and nineteen other registered African American voters of the City of Niagara Falls, New York. Defendants include the City of Niagara Falls and its Mayor, the present members of the Niagara Falls City Council, and the Niagara Falls City Clerk.

 Under the present method of electing members to the City Council, a method that was approved by a city-wide referendum in 1985, the seven members of the City Council are elected at-large. Plaintiffs object to this system. They demand that this Court enter a declaratory judgment that the present method violates Section 2 of the Act because it results in a denial or abridgement of their right to vote on account of their race. Plaintiffs believe that denial or abridgement is established by a showing that, under the totality of circumstances, the political processes leading to nomination or election to the City Council are not equally open to participation by African Americans in the City of Niagara Falls in that African Americans have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. Plaintiffs demand that this Court award them injunctive relief by ordering the implementation of a single-member district method of electing members to the City Council, and by requiring that any districting plan include an African American majority-minority district.

 A non-jury trial was held before this Court from October 5, 1993 to November 3, 1993. During their case in chief, plaintiffs offered testimony from four lay witnesses (plaintiffs Bond, Palmore, Brown, and Kimble), an expert in the area of demographics (Jerry Wilson), an expert historian (Lillian S. Williams), and an expert who testified regarding racial voting patterns and turnout (Michael McDonald). Defendants offered the testimony of ten lay witnesses, including defendant Quaranto and a number of other city officials, and their own expert, who testified regarding voting behavior, elections, and racial voting patterns (Harold W. Stanley). *fn1" In rebuttal, plaintiffs offered the testimony of an additional expert witness (James W. Loewen). By Order of this Court, Loewen's rebuttal testimony was limited to the issues of (1) Stanley's prediction of plaintiff Kimble's hypothetical success in the 1987 City Council general election; (2) the impact of staggered elections to the City Council on African American voters' ability to elect a representative of their choice; and (3) voter "rolloff" in the 1985 referendum that determined the form of Niagara City government. Lowen's testimony was limited to these issues in light of the evidence presented by the parties during their cases in chief, and the probative value of the testimony that plaintiffs expected to elicit from Loewen on rebuttal.

 The parties agree that plaintiffs have established the first two of the three prongs necessary to prove a prima facie case under Section 2 of the Act, pursuant to Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S. Ct. 2752, 92 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1986). Therefore, the only issue regarding plaintiffs' prima facie case is whether plaintiffs have established the third prong, i.e., whether "the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it -- in the absence of special circumstances . . . -- usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate. Id. at 50-51, 106 S. Ct. at 2766-67.

 This matter is now before this Court for a final decision on the merits. On the basis of the findings of fact and conclusions of law set forth below, this Court finds in favor of defendants on plaintiffs' claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. *fn2"

 FINDINGS OF FACT

 A. POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE CITY OF NIAGARA FALLS

 1. Niagara Falls came into being pursuant to an Act of the New York State Legislature on March 17, 1892, with the union of the Villages of Suspension Bridge and Niagara Falls.

 2. Originally, the City Charter provided for a mayor/aldermanic form of government, with the aldermen elected from wards within the city. In 1892, this form provided for eight aldermen, with two elected from each of four wards. The aldermen in each ward served staggered, two-year terms. The Mayor was elected at-large for a one-year term.

 3. In 1914, the New York State Legislature enacted the "Optional City Government Law," permitting certain New York cities the option of adopting one of seven different forms of municipal government.

 4. In 1915, a referendum was held under which the voters opted for a council/manager plan. Under this plan the Mayor and four councilpersons were elected at-large for four year terms. Terms of office for the Council were staggered, with two councilpersons elected every two years. These five officials served part-time, and comprised the City Council. The Mayor voted equally in Council matters.

 5. These five officials appointed a City Manager who ran the day-to-day affairs of the city.

 6. This plan of government was in effect until January 1, 1988, a period of 73 years.

 7. In 1984 the City created a City Charter Revision Commission composed of seven city residents, including one African American, with instructions to study City government and recommend any changes it deemed appropriate. As a result of this study, and after public hearings, a referendum was held at the general election in November 1985, at which time the electorate was given the option of selecting:

 a. A mayor-council form of government with the mayor as the chief executive officer and a seven member council;

 b. If a mayor-council form were adopted, whether the seven members of the city council would be elected from seven separate single-member councilmanic districts or at-large;

 c. A manager-council form of government with the city manager as the chief executive officer and a six member city council;

 d. If a manager-council form were adopted, whether the six members of the city council would be elected from six separate single-member councilmanic districts or at-large.

 8. On November 5, 1985 the voters of Niagara Falls voted in favor of a "strong mayor" plan with the seven members of the city council to be elected at-large. This Charter amendment became effective on January 1, 1988. The expanded council and new mayor were elected at the November 1987 general election.

 9. Under the present "strong mayor" form of government, the Mayor is the chief executive officer of the City, with veto power over the enactments of a separate legislative branch: the seven member City Council. The day-to-day operations of the City are under the direction of an Administrator, who is appointed by the Mayor. Both the Mayor and Council members are elected to four year terms, with the Council members serving staggered terms. Councilmanic elections are held every two years.

 B. CANDIDATE SLATING

 1. There are five recognized political parties in the State of New York:

 

a. Democrat

 

b. Republican

 

c. Conservative

 

d. Right-to-Life

 

e. Liberal

 2. A party must receive at least 50,000 votes statewide in the last gubernatorial election to remain on the ballot as a recognized party.

 3. The party receiving the greatest number of votes statewide in a gubernatorial election is awarded the top line on the ballot. The party receiving the next highest number of votes receives the second line, etc.

 4. The two top lines determine who is seated as commissioner in the County Boards of Elections, and which party nominates the election inspectors who are in the polling places.

 5. The New York State Election Law provides the method by which a person qualifies as a primary candidate.

 C. ELECTION OF CITY COUNCILPERSONS

 1. Under the New York State Election Law, if enrolled in a party, except for judicial positions, a candidate may circulate petitions during times designated by the New York State Legislature. A legislative "political calendar" is voted on and established each year by the New York State Legislature.

 2. The City Clerk notifies the County Election Commission which seats on the City Council are up for election.

 3. A candidate must obtain the signatures of 5% of enrolled voters in the City, established by the number of voters registered as of April 1st each year.

 4. The candidate must file the signatures with the County Board of Elections.

 5. If not objected to, the candidate is listed on the ballot.

 6. If more than one candidate files on a party line, that party holds a primary election, which is usually held in September. The top vote-getter goes on to the general election, which is usually held in November. The top vote-getters, consistent with the number of seats up for election, are declared winners.

 7. A voter may vote only in the primary for the party in which he or she is enrolled. However, in the general election voters may vote for any candidate whose name appears on the ballot, and may refrain from voting for any or all candidates.

 8. As provided by New York State law, to get on a minor party line a candidate files an acceptance with the minor party. Then, the party chair files an authorization. The candidate then becomes that party's candidate.

 D. POPULATION STATISTICS

 1. In 1900, the City's total population was 19,457 and its total voting age population was 6,476, of whom 153 or 2.26% were African American. From 1900 through 1940, the City's African American population never exceed 1.25% of the total population. In 1940, 975 or 1.25% of Niagara Falls' 77,915 citizens were African American.

 2. By 1950, the City's population had grown to 90,872, of whom 3,698 or 4.07% were African American.

 3. In the mid 1950's, the Power Authority of the State of New York began construction of the Niagara Power Project, resulting in a significant, but temporary, increase in population and economic prosperity. By 1960, Niagara Falls' population had increased to an all-time high of 102,394, of whom 7,664 or 7.48% were African American.

 4. In a special census taken in April 1967, the City's total population had fallen to 88,286, a decrease of 13.8%. The African American population had remained almost static since 1960, at 7,555. A decrease in white *fn3" population continued in the following years.

  5. In 1970, the total population of the City was 85,615, of whom 7,959 or 9.3% were African American. Total voting age population was 50,014, of whom 5,029 or 10.06% were African American.

 6. In 1980, the total population had dropped to 70,165, while the African American population continued to increase, to 9,079 or 12.94% of the population. Total voting age population was 53,231, of whom 5,362 or 10.07% were African American.

 7. In 1990, the total population further decreased to 61,840, of whom 9,634 or 15.58% were African American.

 8. According to the 1990 census, the voting age population of Niagara Falls is 47,073, of whom 6,129 or 13.02% are African American. *fn4"

 E. HISTORY OF ELECTIONS

 1. At the time plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in September 1989, no African American had ever been elected to the Niagara Falls City Council.

 2. In 1991, Andrew "Andy" Walker, an African American, was a successful councilmanic candidate in the Democratic primary, and was the leading vote-getter in the general election. At the time of trial, he was Chairman of the Niagara Falls City Council. 3. Plaintiffs have analyzed the following referenda and elections in which African American candidates have run: Year African American Candidate Election and Office 1969 William Abrams City Council Primary 1971 Arthur Ray City Council Primary and General Election 1975 Joseph Profit Mayoral Primary 1977 Joseph Profit City Council Primary 1977 George Matthews City Council Primary 1979 George Matthews City Council Primary 1982 H. Carl McCall Lt. Governor Primary 1985 2 Propositions Referendum 1987 Renae Kimble City Council Primary and General Election 1988 Jesse Jackson Presidential Primary

19940929

© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.



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