Residents must create change when city council won’t

Hubris: (noun) 1. Pride or arrogance; 2. (in Greek tragedy) an excess of ambition, pride, etc. ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin. – Collins Dictionary.

City sealRecently, Youngstown City Council met to discuss the obvious problem of ward redistricting.

I use the word, “obvious,” because it’s been 33 years since the last redistricting. This despite the fact the city’s charter suggests doing so every Census year. To put this in perspective, the last time redistricting happened, some Mahoning Valley residents were still working in those now vacant steel mills.

As you can imagine, Youngstown’s seven wards are a representative mess, with populations ranging anywhere between 7,200 in the 6th Ward to 12,200 in the 4th.

This is a problem.

Why?

Well, fairness, for starters. It’s hardly fair for one councilperson to represent nearly 40 percent more people than his or her peers. It’s also unfair for the same councilperson to receive a seventh of the resources when he represents thousands more residents. This is particularly true in a city struggling with declining population.

Beyond fairness, there is an even more basic and serious Constitutional issue regarding equal representation (one-man, one-vote), which could be challenged in court should a civil lawsuit be filed.

While this inaction is an obvious problem, the efforts that were made to deal with it are even more troubling.

In 2012, a Charter Review Committee was formed to address this issue among others. I was among the members. The committee made 17 recommendations to City Council covering a variety of issues. Naturally, one of the issues was redistricting.

The committee also recommended that the wording in the city charter be changed to require or mandate redistricting each Census year.

At first, several council members dismissed the need to redistrict. After a few months of public comment and media coverage, however, those same council members began to change their tune.

The council would eventually accept the Charter Review Committee’s recommendation, but not without meddling.

Despite opposition from the committee, the council changed the language of committee’s recommendation. So, instead of requiring redistricting in Census years, redistricting would be done “if a reasonable population change should occur.”

The problem: They didn’t define, “reasonable,” thus leaving it open to interpretation and creating new ambiguity, which could delay future redistricting efforts.

This legislative “Whac-A-Mole” left many Charter Review Committee members – not to mention many members of the public and the media – quite upset.

Of the 17 recommendations made by the review committee, the council approved four, those didn’t pertain to the council itself and the watered-down redistricting amendment.

That was in the summer of 2012. So, here we are eight months after voters overwhelming approved what recommendations did make it to the ballot in November 2012.

As The Vindicator pointed out in a scathing editorial July 7, while all other areas of city government are being asked to make major sacrifices, City Council is only pretending to sacrifice. This “forced” redistricting effort is an example of that. While other departments reduce their budgets this year, city council increased theirs.

To that end, there’s a bigger issue not being addressed other than redistricting itself. The council still maintains the same number of seats as it did at its peak population of 165,000 in the 1930s. Since then, the city has lost more than 60 percent of its population.

While these wards have gotten smaller, the pay for council members is the highest of any other council of comparable size in the state.

In fact, council members make several thousand dollars more than their constituents. Ward representatives get $27,800 a year, while the council president gets $28,100. They all get health benefits and a pension. That’s for a part-time job. Meanwhile, the per capita income for a resident in the city is $14,996 annually.

It’s difficult to justify those salaries, when at a time when the council represents a city with the highest concentrated poverty and the largest population decline in the nation.

So, what should city residents do? Demand two charter amendments to address these issues once and for all.

1. Base council seats on population (not wards). For example, if you were to base a council seat on 10,000 residents, with the current population of 65,000 there would be six seats plus a council president to break tie votes if needed. Cleveland switched to this model in 2008 and it worked out well. Three of seven Youngstown council members already represent more than 10,000 residents. So, this should be a fair and manageable figure.

2. Set council salaries at 80 percent of the per capita income. This percentage is the equivalent of the maximum hours allowed for part-time employment. This gives council members the benefit of the doubt regarding the amount of time they’re putting into their positions, especially since many council members have full-time jobs in addition to council.

Passing these amendments would:

1. End debate on how many wards and council members the city should have, when to redistrict and the appropriate salary for council members. If the city gains 10,000 residents, a seat is added. If it loses 10,000, a seat is subtracted. If the per capita incomes increase, so do council salaries. And vice versa.

2. Create an annual savings to tax payers of nearly $90,000 to $100,000. This money could be used in the remaining wards for street paving, demolitions, community projects and more.

In 2012, city residents learned a frustrating, but important lesson. You can’t have a charter review process that asks city council members to approve changes that affect them. It’s a waste of time.

Soon the Youngstown Neighborhood Leadership Council, a group of neighborhood associations and block-watch leaders, will meet to discuss the two charter amendments  and to organize volunteers to collect signatures for the two separate ballot initiatives.

You’ll likely see these petitions being circulated at grocery stores, festivals, street corners and, perhaps, even at your front door in the weeks to come.

If you feel it is time for Youngstown City Council to share in the collective sacrifice, signing these petitions and helping spread the word about them is your first opportunity.

It’s a fair and reasonable start. And all change must start somewhere.

Phil Kidd, a community activist, likes to be on the defense and the offense, and – most of all, he likes to be in the mix. He has ideas and opinions about countless issues.

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