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NAACP, INC. v. CITY OF NIAGARA FALLS

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

 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 ...


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