DELMAR — The “DELMAR” dateline in this article references where Bethlehem’s seat of government resides, but of the town’s roughly 18,000 residents who live outside the hamlet, it’s a point of contention.
“The whole world, in our definition, seems to believe that the center of the universe is Delmar,” said Republican Town Board candidate and Glenmont resident Jim Carriero. “It is not.”
Of the four members seated presently on the Town Board, all live within the 12054 postal zip code. The town’s supervisor, too, lives in Delmar. Only Jim Foster can argue that he lives in Elsmere — a corner of town defined roughly by the neighborhoods west of the Albany city line, south of the Normanskill, north of the Route 32 Bypass and east of where the Rail Trail intersects Delaware Avenue. There’s room for argument.
For the first time in recent years, local politicians are deliberating over the creation of a ward system for the Town Board. As Town Hall has been busy hosting debates over a disputed road diet in Delmar, a town wide development moratorium and an unwanted affordable housing project in South Bethlehem, more residents voiced unfair representation.
Based on the U.S. Census, the Delmar zip code has the largest population (8,292). It’s followed by Slingerlands (7,646), Selkirk (6,775) and Glenmont (6,481). Lost in those numbers are Elsmere and North Bethlehem as neither hamlet is designated by zip code. Within those 8,000 Delmar residents are Elsmere households. North Bethlehem residents, too, would skew numbers from Slingerlands.
Those populations would factor into how the wards would ultimately be composed. If we are to assume six wards representing the commonly recognized hamlets, each would be divided by the same number of residents.
“I think, at the end of the day, I would like to support a ward system to provide greater representation and reflect the full diversity and the wonderful diversity of our community,” said Foster, who is running for reelection as an incumbent member and only Republican representative on the Town Board.
Republican Party candidates started the conversation over replacing the town’s current at-large model this year. The outside perception is that it could benefit the party’s attempt to wrangle control away from Democrats, but that’s not necessarily the case.
In year’s past, when Republicans held more power over Bethlehem politics, it was on the strength of voters living outside of Delmar. However, based on enrollment figures from Albany County, Democrats outnumber Republicans in all but one of the town’s 31 districts. Only in Normansville do Republicans outnumber Democrats — by a count of eight to seven.
Democrat Town Board candidate David DeCancio, a Selkirk resident, said he can appreciate why there would be a push towards the ward concept. While working on the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, he said he was often confronted with contempt while visiting sites in Selkirk or North Bethlehem.
“Here comes the Delmartian, telling me what I can and can not do with my property,” he said. “It’s not fair and I agree with the perception.”
Both he and Maureen Cunningham, the Democrat incumbent, agreed that they would welcome such a referendum if that’s what residents wanted, but residents may not want it.
Bethlehem investigated the ward concept with the help of a committee in 2012. Of the 164 towns with populations large enough to administer a ward system in 2010, only 13 did. New York state law allows for it so long as it is not inconsistent with (state) Town Law. The concept has never been challenged in court.
“It’s fair to say that legal impediment isn’t the reason why more towns don’t have the ward system,” the committee’s report stated in its conclusion. “If the voters want representation by ward they have the means to establish it. To date, they seem content with the prevailing mode of representation, the at-large system.”