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Syracuse commission looks back on historic redistricting win

Four people sit at a table with four colorful maps sitting behind them. There are microphones and water on the tables as well as papers in front of each person.
Scott Willis
Redistricting chair Molly Lizzio, second from right, meets with common councilors in early August. Left to right, Councilor-At-Large Michael Greene, first district councilor Jennifer Schultz, Lizzio, and commissioner Jon Hamblin.

The chair of the Syracuse redistricting commission is reflecting on the successful conclusion of more than a year of work with Monday’s council approval of the new citizen-drawn council district map. Molly Lizzio says commissioners knew there was dissent on the council leading up to the 5 to 4 vote.

“We didn’t think that it would pass unanimously. We figured there’d be some people who would vote no. That’s just hard. There’s some real dissonance there between councilors profusely thanking us for all of our work and saying that they support the process; and then abruptly voting no in the same sentence,” Lizzio said.

Lizzio says the fact that four of the five district councilors opposed the map is a shining example of why the independent process was needed. Executive Director of Common Cause New York Susan Lerner says council approval exposes a weakness in an otherwise admirable Syracuse system.

“It shows the wisdom of the council in empowering citizens to draw the map. The limitation is that then the council had to approve it, and, unfortunately some councilors put self-interest ahead of the public interest in voting against the map,” Lerner said.

Lerner says other cities who effectively used citizen-led redistricting simply put the map into effect once the commission gives its final approval. Looking back, both Lerner and Lizzio say more community education ahead of the process might have helped get people engaged.

“Being able to hold some workshops, being able to hold some meetings and do more targeted outreach earlier in the process will bring people in at a higher level of engagement and information,” Lerner said.

“What does it mean to redistrict, how does that affect you, and what are even the laws and things that the commission has to follow, so that the community is also aware of our limitations in this process,” Lizzio said.

Commissioners were bound by the enabling legislation approved by voters and councilors, not to mention numerous other state and federal criteria. In the end, Lizzio says the commissioners feel they made history as the first city in New York and one of only a handful in the nation to successfully complete a citizen-led redistricting process.

“It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of drawing the map, and hearing public comment, and trying to accommodate that and find compromise. It was easy to lose sight of. But we’re still doing the right thing and we’re trailblazing, because it was just so hard at times,” Lizzio said.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at