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It seems I have a penchant lately for combining observations on certain things with references from popular culture. In late January I drew comparisons between Downton Abbey and Youngstown’s City Hall which I renamed Downtown Abbey. In early February I recast New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie as Col. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men with the governor having a “You can’t handle the truth” moment to justify his alleged involvement in the burgeoning George Washington Bridge scandal. And just a few days ago I painted YSU’s suddenly-departing new president Dr. Randy Dunn – the New Kid In Town who’s Already Gone – as a one-man Eagles concert.
Apparently I’m not done. Friday’s column by Vindicator politics writer David Skolnick has provided yet another such piece of inspiration.
Skolnick’s “Knives come out in Y’town council” took me immediately to Braveheart and the misty, gray/green, windswept highlands of Scotland where the three main leaders of the Scottish rebellion – William Wallace, Stephen (the live-wire Irish ally who “speaks to The Almighty”), and William’s childhood friend Hamish – are debating the tenuous virtue of Wallace’s invitation to meet with the noble heads of Scotland’s clans. Huge, ruddy man-mountain Hamish smells a trap and in a fit of frustration spouts this about the nobles: “The nest of scheming bastards couldn’t agree on the color of shit!”
Of course you have to have seen the original version of the movie to catch that line and not the sanitized version that’s been on AMC a thousand times lately. Nevertheless, failure by Youngstown City Council to agree on the color of poo seems to be a pretty accurate way of describing long overdue ward redistricting in the city.
How long overdue? Look at it this way. If your baby boy or girl was born the last time ward lines were redrawn, then they’re now nearing their mid-30’s and have provided you with a couple of grandchildren.
That’s an embarrassing lifetime ago.
When the seven wards were last reshaped in Youngstown in the early 80’s, the city’s population had dropped 17% from the previous decennial census to 115,000 and the districts were redrawn per the city’s charter to provide equitable balance. The 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimate puts the current number of city residents at 65,405 which would be an average of about 9,300 for each district. Existing ward populations range right now between 7,200 and 12,100. So there’s the problem. Things are a tad out of balance.
There are several issues at play in City Council’s kerfuffle over redistricting. First, Section 83 of the City Charter, amended and adopted by Council in 2012 and subsequently approved by the voters, states, “Following each Federal Census, Council shall re-district the city whenever there is a reasonable population change, so as to maintain a reasonable equality of population among the seven wards.” While the word “shall” momentarily strengthened Section 83 to make redistricting mandatory and not whimsical, the phrase “reasonable population change” – added by Council to the amendment submitted by the Charter Review Commission – produced elements of vagueness and subjectivity that took the steel rod back out of the law.
Next, there’s a big argument over whether or not to include in the population figures those serving time in lock-up, and given that there are three major corrections facilities within the city limits, this is no small issue. The Prison Policy Initiative, based in Northampton, MA, says “don’t” but Member of Council Annie Gillam (D-1st) says “do.” Loudly.
Finally, certain members of Council have done nothing to hide their disdain and/or discomfort of redistricting proposals created by Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies. More on this to come.
Let’s go back to the charter issue. Redistricting should not be deferred to the Municipal Department of Caprice and Whimsy every decade. Legislative districts at the federal and state levels are reapportioned every ten years and there is no good reason – none – why any municipality should be exempt from that same exercise. This should not need any explanation, particularly in a country founded on fairness and equality.
The question of whether or not to include guests of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, the Ohio “SuperMax” Penitentiary, and the Mahoning County Jail is a bit dicey. Council members are predictably divided on this, only one city in Ohio (Lima) does not include prison populations in their wards (although there are about 200 cities nationwide that make exclusion a practice), and the transitory nature of incarcerations further muddies the water.
Apartment dwellers and college students can be regarded as just as transient as prisoners, so the argument for exclusion needs to be made with care. This should be remembered above all, though: inclusion or exclusion in redistricting has no bearing at all on a prisoner’s representation. The interests of any single prisoner are no less important or less represented than those of a Vallourec employee who resides in Boardman, a St. E’s patient who’s from Poland, or a college transfer student lodged at YSU’s Lyden House. In these instances, the interests of Vallourec, St. E’s and YSU are still fully represented. Likewise, the prisons and jail are represented even if each individual inmate isn’t included in the numbers.
And so why exclude prison populations? The most convincing argument is in this portion of a law from Essex County, New York, prohibiting prison-based gerrymandering:
Persons incarcerated … live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of [the county], and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns…. The inclusion of these federal and state correctional facility inmates unfairly dilutes the votes or voting weight of persons residing in [the county].
And finally Part III of this mess, The Lines. Last July, Tom Finnerty of YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional studies came to City Council’s caucus room in City Hall for a public meeting of Council as a Whole and very carefully, professionally and patiently explained the process of creating the maps, one of which was based on Census tracts, the other on precincts. There were subtle differences between the two. Each followed guidelines as prescribed in the Ohio Revised Code and/or in Ohio State Supreme Court rulings which say that districts should be composed of adjacent and compact territory using common sense boundaries like streets, waterways, or other significant geographic features. He wasn’t pulling rabbits out of a hat. He had nothing up his sleeve. He merely explained how the Center took existing laws and guidelines and applied them to the map-making process in order to achieve equitable representation.
This and a handful of other meetings before and after that did not create anything even remotely resembling universally acclaimed results. Quite to the contrary, these meetings of the minds produced some notable head thumpers. Council person Gillam was very distressed to see that her home had been relocated to the 2nd Ward from the 1st. Janet Tarpley (D-6th), was quoted in the Vindicator, saying, “Another firm could ‘give us a better map,’ and said the expense, even if it reaches $50,000, shouldn’t be an issue.” T.J. Rogers (D-2nd) expressed some dismay over the geographical size of his ward. John R. Swierz (D-7th) and Nate Pinkard (D-3rd) said, respectively, there’s no cause to rush forward and that due diligence is the order of the day.
This is where Members of Council Mike Ray (D-4th) and Paul Drennen (D-5th) are revealed as the true Bravehearts in this whole debacle. They comprehended the logic used in executing these maps and supported YSU’s effort. The political cost? Drennen has been removed from two committee chairmanships and Ray one. Ray has also lost his position as Council President Pro Tempore.
The other five council members are acting like the nobles in Braveheart who were more skittish than Scottish, more concerned with titles and estates than the welfare of the people, more focused on self-interest than a united Scotland. It’s certainly not the first time that city wards have been treated like private fiefdoms, a concept that undeniably calls into question the general welfare of Youngstown because there is absolutely nothing – repeat, nothing – that goes against the public interest in the maps drawn by YSU.
One-by-one, let’s look at those misgivings and opinions noted above.
If one’s home is now in a new ward, so be it. You’re not being exiled from the city.
If a member of council thinks spending another dime on more opinions is a good idea, then perhaps that member should be introduced to the Board of Control that executes the City’s contracts and agreements. Mayor John McNally – a member of that board who’s sort of taking on the role of Robert the Bruce in this Braveheart scenario – has already publicly stated he sees no compelling reason to spend any more than the nearly four grand already paid to YSU for their work. And he’s quite correct about that on a number of levels.
The land mass of the 2nd Ward is really, really, really big? Of course it is. It’s got a ton of land but it is sparsely populated. And as Mr. Ray so eloquently pointed out once, “We represent people, not trees.” If size mattered, then Montana – a state whose land mass is about three times larger than Ohio (which has 16 House districts) – would have 48 U.S. Congressman and not just one. Representing citizens is what’s part and parcel of the constitution, not the ground they live on.
And as for not rushing into things? William Wallace was still alive when Youngstown’s wards were last redrawn. Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but the point is made. There is nothing wrong in being careful and paying attention to detail, but really, we’re discussing something that should have taken place in 1991 and again in 2001, and here we are chugging our way toward the middle of yet another decade. How much time do we need?
Well, time has run out. In the words of Robert the Bruce when he visited his father, “A rebellion has began.” A group of tired, frustrated, and angry Youngstown citizens are preparing to take matters into their own hands to secure passage of a charter amendment that will end this nonsense forever. When someone suggested an organizational meeting on the matter via Facebook, 50 people replied almost immediately with a “like.” Stay alert to your social media channels for updates as they become available.
Meanwhile, I’ll stand with William Wallace’s Irish buddy Stephen and say, “The Almighty says this must be a fashionable fight. It’s drawn the finest people.”