One of the biggest challenges with elections in Youngstown is the lack of candidates who come from grassroots or community ranks.
These might be neighborhood group leaders, community organizers, project leaders or even small business owners. These people work the front lines and know the issues better than anyone. They are the backbone of the civic aspect of the community.
If you ask why they won’t run for office, many say they don’t want to get involved in politics. Naturally, a political party’s priorities are to run candidates, raise money, secure endorsements, win races and increase – or at least maintain – its power base. Being a team player is paramount. Leadership that gets results for the community – well, that’s always a plus.
Running for elected office isn’t always the most appealing option for folks who simply want to get some work done.
However, there is one race this November that does include a few community-groomed candidates: president of Youngstown City Council.
That race features three people:
Susie Beiersdorfer – A North side resident and Green Party candidate, who is known primarily for her passion regarding environmental causes – most notably anti-fracking and urban reforestation.
Chris Travers – A South side resident and Independent candidate, who has been active for years in leadership positions with groups such as the 7th Ward Citizen Coalition and Brownlee Woods Neighborhood Association as well as initiatives such as the Mahoning County Land Bank.
Chuck Sammarone – The current mayor, former council president and Democrat candidate. Sammarone is 70 and at the end of this year he will mark 30 years in government. He has served as a ward councilman, city council president (twice) and even water commissioner. He took over as mayor when Jay Williams left for Washington, D.C., in 2011. Also he is a retired school administrator.
As mayor, Sammarone has made some good and mostly practical decisions. Many of them have been long overdue. However, he’s also been criticized for being – at times – a harsh and inflexible micro-manger.
He’s also known for making cringe-worthy comments. During a radio interview with Louie Free, Sammarone was asked to describe his management style. “Kindness is weakness,” he replied.
There are fans of Sammarone’s hard-charging, accountability-management style. That approach has been effective at times. At other times – well – not so much. And that is because the iron-fist approach only works for so long before the table breaks.
OK, back to council president. This position has largely been a ceremonial one.
The official duties include breaking tie votes, running a few dozen council meetings and assuming the role of mayor should the occasion arise.
There are no committee assignments. There is no attendance requirement for committee meetings. The council president doesn’t have to attend neighborhood and community group meetings, although, one would hope the person in this position would be interested in these community gatherings if for no other reason than because they represent the city at large.
Also, this largely ceremonial position pays more than the other council positions, both of which are several thousand dollars more than that of the median household income in Youngstown. City council members make $27,817 annually, while the council president gets $28,117. The median household income in Youngstown is $24,318.
This is one reason the 2012 Charter Review Committee recommended eliminating the position. However, the city council thwarted a public vote on that recommendation.
So, if the position is going to continue to exist – and receive good compensation plus full benefits and a pension – perhaps there are some standards we should come to expect, such as attending community group meetings and council committee meetings.
That’s something both Beiersdorfer and Travers are campaigning on.
Now for the politics of the issue …
While supporters of Travers and Beiersdorfer like their respective candidate’s platforms, they also don’t like Sammarone. Given voting history in Youngstown, if Travers and Beiersdorfer stay in the race, the anti-Sammarone vote would be split.
That’s good news for the mayor and he knows it. He’s even said he wouldn’t campaign for the position. True to his word, he hasn’t.
When asked why he wants to run for council president yet again, the common response is so he can stay close to action at city hall, while still being able to “spend more time with his family” while also referencing how busy the job of mayor is (video).
Even by Youngstown’s political standards, that is pretty audacious.
The point of this column isn’t to bash Sammarone. It’s this: the man has contributed 30 years of government service to Youngstown. As mayor, he’s reached the zenith of politics in the city. He’s done it all. And he’s got two taxpayer-funded pensions to retire on.
Therefore, the honorable and city-minded thing to do would be for him to respectfully withdraw as a candidate for president of council and allow the public to choose from new candidates who have proven – through years of volunteer service – that they have the energy and idealism to take the position to the next level.
The chances of any long-time politico in this city stepping out of a race simply because it’s the right thing to do is the closest thing to “forgettaboutit” as you’re going to get.
That’s unfortunate, because as the saying goes, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” In a city like Youngstown, change is a rare and valuable commodity.
So, Youngstown, the choice is yours come November.
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. The views in this column are his and do not reflect those of The News Outlet.