Mayor McNally to start 7WCC forum

Be an informed voter

The 7th Ward Citizens Coalition will conduct a candidates & issues forum on Wednesday, September 24th, in advance of the November general election. The forum will be held at the D.D. & Velma Davis Center at Mill Creek Park’s Fellows Riverside Garden and is set to begin promptly at 6:30 p.m.

Youngstown Mayor John McNally will lead off the event with his statement in support of a City Charter Amendment to merge the Community Development Agency and the Department of Economic Development. Other issues currently scheduled to be presented during the program include the redistricting charter amendment (Anita Davis speaking in opposition and Chris Travers speaking in support), the Citizens Bill of Rights (“anti-fracking”) charter amendment (Jean Engle speaking in support with a speaker in opposition likely to be confirmed Wednesday), the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County levy (library executive director Heidi Daniel speaking in support), and a representative from the Mahoning County Commissioners speaking in support of the sales tax issue.

As of this time, no speakers in opposition to the last two issues have come forward with a request to participate, but they are still urged to do so by emailing the 7WCC at info@7wcc.org by noon Wednesday to submit their interest and contact information. Ballot issues are entitled to one speaker in support and one speaker in opposition. Three minutes for a statement is granted to each side of an issue.

Candidates participating in the forum include Democrat Anthony Donofrio and Republican Carol Ann Robb (7th District Court of Appeals), Democrat Susan Maruca and independent candidate Robert Rusu (Mahoning County Probate Judge), Democrat Michael Sciortino and Republican Ralph Meachem (Mahoning County Auditor), and Anita Rios, the Green Party candidate for governor. Each candidate will be allotted ten minutes: two minutes for an opening statement, seven minutes in which to answer questions submitted in writing from the audience and posed by 7WCC president Atty. Patricia Dougan, and one minute for a closing statement.

The 7th Ward Citizens Coalition is a 501(c)3 nonprofit neighborhood organization whose mission is to seek ways to improve the quality of life in the city’s 7th ward as well as Youngstown as a whole. It conducts candidates & issues forums twice a year as a means of educating city voters.

Travers for Guthrie

Purple4Don

Dear Don,

Just wanted to let you know that as an outcome of yesterday’s #Purple4Don Day, I discovered I don’t own one stitch of purple clothing.

No purple shirts.

No purple ties.

No purple pants (my wife would probably divorce me if I owned any and used them for anything other than waxing her car).

No purple jackets, purple sweatshirts, purple t-shirts, purple shorts, purple shoes. Not even a damn purple winter coat or hat.

I can’t believe I have nothing purple. This reminds me: I must also apologize to the Youngstown Phantoms, the purple-clad denizens of the Covelli Centre. This oversight will be corrected prior to next hockey season.

It seems I am bereft of all clothing of purple hues, right down to my Walter-Tighty-Whites.

Tighty Whitey

If only I lived next door to Breaking Bad’s Marie Schrader. I’m sure Marie would have lent me a purple throw from her purple couch in her purple living room for a quick purple-festooned selfie.

You know, I can’t find a purple anything in my house. Not even “Purple Rain,” “Purple Haze,” “Purple People Eater,” Deep Purple or New Riders of the Purple Sage in the CD collection. No The Color Purple among the DVDs. Dammit, not even a plum, an eggplant or a purple onion in the kitchen.

Believe me, I looked.

You had quite an enlightening impact on my day yesterday, Don. And at the end of my literally fruitless search for Alex-I’ll-take-things-that-are-purple-for-200, there came the sobering, bittersweet realization of why I was searching for purple stuff to begin with.

Truth be told, I couldn’t watch the interview you recorded a couple months ago with Stan Boney until just before I started to write this post.

Call it pain, call it denial, call it whatever you want, but it was undeniably hard for me – a complete stranger to you – to face the truth about your pancreatic cancer. I can’t begin to even pretend to imagine what you, your wife, your son, your daughters, and the rest of your close friends and family have gone through since your diagnosis. But nevertheless, in the remote corners of my mind I was, until yesterday, hiding from your reality.

About six weeks ago I learned about my brother-in-law’s niece who’s fighting bone cancer in her hip. This follows two thyroid cancer surgeries a dozen years ago and a mastectomy just a few years ago. She’s only 38 with a husband and a four year old son. I don’t know where you and she find the strength to carry on, but my guess is (even if you don’t know it) you probably draw courage to face the challenges of each day from something Leo Buscaglia once said: “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.”

Yesterday was resoundingly joyful. We all learned something from it in our own ways, I’m sure. Today, the outpouring of prayers and smiles will be there again. But with less purple.

And it’s my fervent hope that all of this community support will continue to bring you full measures of happiness and comfort in each and every day ahead.

Your purple-less friend,

Chris

It’s time to draw the line

DTL logo 1

The inability of Youngstown City Council to responsibly pursue and adopt a plan that re-draws wards into seven equally populated districts has placed the issue squarely into the hands of “We the People.”

If you are a resident of Youngstown and eager to make a positive change in the city, then your help is needed in the petition drive to get an amendment to the city charter on this November’s general election ballot that will create a legally binding mandate for redistricting in Youngstown.

The time has come to “draw the line.” To actually draw the lines of city wards based on the legally mandated equal distribution of population and not registered voters, and by law and not personal interest. To draw the line against a majority of members of city council whose efforts at complying with the constitutional requirement of equal representation look like this:

Cats can be cute and funny when chasing their own tails, but there is nothing cute or funny about a city’s legislative body lacking the will to do something it hasn’t done in a generation (and even then it was recently revealed that they incorrectly – and unbelievably – redistricted in the early 1980’s by registered voters instead of census data). Should this measure get on the ballot and pass – and with your help it will – then our own city council chamber full of whirling cats can be put to rest when they have their tails ostensibly handed to them in November.

Monday’s meeting is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. at the offices of the Oak Hill Collaborative located at 507 Oakhill Avenue (corner of Oakhill and Ridge Avenues), up the street from Mahoning County’s Oakhill Renaissance Place. Monday, June 30th. That’s just a few days from now.

The key agenda items at the meeting include a review of the amendment, distribution of petitions, and training on how to properly obtain petition signatures.

The redistricting amendment to the Youngstown city charter has two crucial components. First, it will prescribe the number of city wards (3, 5 or 7) based on population. Second, it will set mandatory deadlines by which time redistricting must be executed in order to be in compliance with statutory and constitutional law. In doing these two things, it will create a rationale for the number of wards which has been missing in our city charter, and it will solidly prohibit anyone in our municipal government from engaging in the woeful practice of ignoring the decennial requirement of redistricting.

This issue has been well chronicled in the Vindicator here, here, here and here. The Vindy a few days ago published a spot-on editorial on this topic. I have been known to write a post here or there on the subject. If the sorry state of affairs surrounding this issue fires you up, then make a commitment to this petition drive and join the rest of the folks who care about doing things the right way in Youngstown at the Oak Hill Collaborative on Monday evening.

Enough is enough.

It’s time to draw the line and say to city council:

Trapped in the Bermuda Quadrilateral

Bermuda Quad

There is an urban legend taking shape in the area where Youngstown, Struthers, Boardman and Poland all sort of bump into each other. It starts with “Honey, I’m going out to [fill in the blank] for a quick minute. Be right back!”

And then they’re never heard from again.

It’s because they decided to cut over Thalia to South Avenue and are still waiting to turn left onto Lake Park.

Here’s a photo of someone I drove by yesterday.

Skeleton in truck

Call it a perfect storm, if you will. A perfect cataclysmic seasonal storm of construction that is making a three square mile swath of real estate between Midlothian Boulevard and U.S. Route 224 challenging if not outright hell to navigate.

Midlothian is undergoing repaving from Youngstown-Poland Road to Glenwood Avenue. The intersection of Sheridan and Mathews Roads is closed while they build a roundabout there. And work on the facelift of the 224/I-680 interchange that began last year is up to full speed again. The presumably unintended consequences of all this road work is heavy pressure on Thalia Avenue. It lies in the middle of this mess as the only “through” street linking South Avenue and Youngstown Poland Road unimpeded by orange barrels, single lane restrictions, flashing arrows and road equipment.  Therefore, motorists gravitate to it like mice in a maze in search of precious cheddar.

If you have the misfortune of being in this spot when people are heading to and from work, your best chance of survival is to be driving a fully-equipped Winnebago so that you can at least prepare and eat your dinner while you wait in line for a light or to make a turn.

I don’t know exactly how these things are planned or how information on neighboring projects is shared, but I’d take a small measure of comfort if I knew at least one person in charge recognized the decidedly un-harmonic convergence of all this stuff and did this:

I thought about using this space to lobby for temporary traffic lights to help ease congestion at Thalia and Lake Park, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill intersection. The place where South, Lake Park, and Thalia meet is an asymmetrical confluence of roadways apparently designed by Pablo Picasso, and they probably haven’t invented the technology to handle such a street cluster yet. So my recommendation is simply deal with it. Embrace the Bermuda Quadrilateral. Keep calm and carry on for the remaining 52 days until Mathews reopens. Otherwise, you’ll just end up like this miserable guy when you bring home that pizza you ordered two hours ago.

The moral equivalent of war

Urgent urgent emergency

It was a tsunami that hit us. With a capital TSU.

Last fall I was one of several locals interviewed by an international cable news crew that came to Youngstown to examine our city’s progress in the fight against urban blight. In describing to them the root cause of our neighborhood decay, I drew an analogy to a tsunami, which in our case was an economic tidal wave started by the devastating shuttering of Youngstown Sheet & Tube in 1977, followed by cascading closures of more steel-making facilities in the Mahoning Valley, and finally topped off by the more recent foreclosure crisis. As the “waters” receded, they revealed thousands of casualties, namely the thousands of vacant homes and properties that were left behind.

Yep. It was a damn tsunami.

And a recovery plan was urgently needed.

About seven years ago the Raymond John Wean Foundation got the wheels rolling on a neighborhood organizing locomotive that ultimately took shape as the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative (MVOC). As a precursor to the formation of MVOC, neighborhood stakeholders meetings were conducted and I clearly remember the one in my neighborhood in the board room of what was then the Brownlee Woods Presbyterian Church. We identified what every other stakeholders group in Youngstown universally pointed to as Public Enemy Numero Uno: Vacant properties. Long-empty homes were committing a multitude of sins. They were dragging down our property values not to mention our spirits. They were crime havens and arson targets. They were ugly. And they were many. Very many. Almost too many to count, it seemed.

The following year with support from the newly minted MVOC they were counted. Volunteers from a host of city block groups and neighborhood associations surveyed the city and tallied 5,000 empty homes and about 20,000 empty lots.

For a city that just a few generations ago had one of the highest home ownership rates in the entire nation, 5,000 empties accompanied by four times that many vacant parcels was a sobering eye-opener. Youngstown had one empty house for every 13 residents.

No reasonable human being expects the effects of a thirty year downward spiral to be reversed overnight, but everyone agreed that tolerating inertia – and perhaps apathy – in the fight against blight was unacceptable. In the last half dozen years, neighbors have organized themselves and literally stepped up to the microphone and reached out and tapped our elected officials and made demands. The result of working with the last several mayors and members of city council and department heads and county commissioners and county treasurers has led to a fairly impressive list of blight-fighting tools. This toolbox includes an active county land bank with some power behind it, ramped-up code enforcement demonstrating the City’s seriousness in addressing blight, mandatory vacant property registrations and rental property licensing, and the nation’s first fully-enforced foreclosure bond program – a little something that reminds lenders they can’t ignore an empty house and the land it sits on after they’ve set a foreclosure in motion.

Thirty years of watching a problem evolve has been met with six years of solid initial efforts to fix it.

It’s a good start.

But now we are at a bit of a crossroads. There has been a transition at the top of Youngstown leadership and at least one key player in the City’s revitalization effort is gone, all of which is resulting in some nervousness among the Youngstown populace that recent progress in the neighborhood blight fight could lose momentum and begin to backslide. This is what is providing the impetus for a special public meeting with Youngstown Mayor John McNally and a couple key members of his administration. Neighborhood stakeholders have been discussing and planning this meeting and hope to have it set sometime soon, sometime between next week and a month or so from now.

While a beachhead has been established in neighborhood improvement, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. There are more blight-fighting weapons and resources to be explored. In fact, watch this twelve-minute video, part of a presentation by Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation at the White House, and see if you think as I do that there is an opportunity here for something that will help us do a better job of monitoring vacant properties in the city if not all of Mahoning County.

There is no question that Mayor McNally “gets it” when it comes to neighborhood revitalization and knows what to do about it. He campaigned for office on the issue of stronger neighborhoods and has unparalleled abilities and knowledge – and tools – at his disposal to help the City of Youngstown continue making progress on this front. Nevertheless, even though I assure her I get it and know what to do when my wife asks me to fix a broken kitchen drawer, she might need to remind me occasionally how important it is to get it done.

By that same token, the mayor’s aides whose functions have either a direct or a significant impact on revitalization efforts need to assuage the deep concern of neighborhood stakeholders and convince them that they, too, understand the urgency of the matter and are prepared with effective daily action. They don’t spend anywhere near as much time as the mayor in the public eye, and perhaps because of that the images of the people counting on them to help lift the city’s neighborhoods out of their darkest days will remain with them as they go about their daily work. Certainly, the anxious denizens of our fair city hope not to get a clueless response like this:

To borrow a phrase from President Jimmy Carter, the fight against decay in our urban core is “the moral equivalent of war.” President Carter used that notion in an address to the American public in 1977 during an energy crisis, a speech in which he was the leader convincing the public of the extreme urgency in a given situation. Today in Youngstown, it’s the public’s turn to convince leadership of extreme urgency. Obliterating blight produced by three decades of neglect in Youngstown’s neighborhoods should be met each and every day as the moral equivalent of war, and very soon the public will get an opportunity to impress that idea upon the mayor and others.

Maintaining momentum is vital. And just by showing up at this meeting you will demonstrate exactly how vital it is.

Keep an eye on this space and the T4Y Facebook page for the date, time and place for that meeting.

It was a damn tsunami, I tell ya. But with the right amount of urgency and effective action, someday it will be a dim memory.

“We’d take down Wells”

Wells Bldg

(UPDATE:  Strollo in discussion with several banks to help project move forward.  Story published June 26, 2014 in Business Journal Daily.)

Something reported Saturday morning in the Vindicator is beginning to convince me that CIC stands for Community Indifference Corporation rather than Community Improvement Corporation.

The troubling comment that led me to this conclusion is a quote from CIC’s project manager, Dave Kosec. In discussing the predicament that has put the proposed redevelopment of downtown’s long-vacant Wells Building in peril, Kosec made the statement, “‘We’d take down Wells if Strollo doesn’t work out’ and turn the entire area into a parking lot.” (“Strollo” is a reference to Strollo Architects which wants to revitalize the building at the corner of West Federal and Hazel Streets and convert it into office/residential space, a $4.7 million project.)

Let’s replay that. “We’d take down Wells…”

Not, “We’re going to do everything we can to help Strollo keep this project on track” or “Every effort is going to be made to save this iconic building” or “Demolition’s a last resort and we are nowhere near that yet.”

No, in so many words we got what came across as a hasty, “We’re gonna take it down and put up a parking lot.” Might as well have added, “Because we’re good at it.”

And that’s the chief complaint here. Comments like the one in Saturday’s paper give the clear perception – deserved or not – that the CIC’s only interest in downtown redevelopment is in the price of asphalt.

Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corporation. Its stated mission is “to revitalize the Central Business District through the zealous pursuit and promotion of the downtown development activities.” Created by state statute 24 years ago, it seemed reasonable back then to believe its vision would be something like this:

Rendering

Instead, we seem to be getting a lot of this:

Parking

They seem to enjoy presenting us with the fuzzy side of the lollipop after it’s been dropped on the floor.

The CIC will probably object to this criticism even though they should be getting used to it by now due to the public outcry over architecturally significant buildings they owned for decades being transformed into parking lots. But if the CIC wants to say, “Wait a damn minute! You don’t know anything about the good we do. You’re not telling them about all the building deals that have fallen through. Your criticism is unfair,” then I say:

The accomplishments of the CIC are boasted on the home page of its website. To its credit it acted as owner/developer of the Taft Technology Center (home of Turning Technologies) and the Morley Center for the Arts. It also helped renovate the Semple Building adjacent to the Taft.

The CIC, however, has also been behind the construction of the nondescript, vanilla, architecturally blasé twins, the Voinovich Government Center and the Mahoning County Children Services Board Building. And it also takes credit for the 7th District Court of Appeals, a somewhat dignified building awkwardly situated on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. A storefront courthouse if you will. It looks uncomfortably out of place. If you’ve ever worn a suit to a party where everyone else is dressed in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, you know what I’m getting at.

Overdressed dude

Of course, the neighbor to the left of the Appeals Court in the above photo – the Kress Building – is leaving the party as a victim of the wrecking ball. Which brings us to the CIC’s Demolition Hall of Shame.

According to the National Building Museum’s website, “Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955) envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape.” Evidently that contribution did not have enough value to save Youngstown’s Kress building from its current disappearing act. The Paramount Theater, just up the street on the other side, has already vanished. And now the Wells Building could be next.

It’s not the CIC’s fault that one or more lawsuits connected to a project in Atlantic City, NJ, has had a chilling effect on the type of financing Strollo Architects is trying to cobble together to save the Wells. But at least it could act as though it cared a little more about a successful outcome that truly meets the spirit of its mission rather than reaching for demo permit applications.

The financing issue facing Strollo is complicated. An article published by Thomson Reuters explains it this way:

In the absence of published guidance from the IRS regarding the “dos and don’ts” for a partnership dependent on historic tax credits, taxpayers and practitioners will need to consider the potential impact of [court of appeals case] Historic Boardwalk and make appropriate changes to the traditional partnership structures to which investors have become accustomed. Those changes will involve increasing the risk profile to the investor, limiting sponsor/developer guaranties and, if possible, devising a realistic upside from the partnership through a greater share of partnership cash flows and distributions.

To the average person, that sounds like “blah blah blah woof woof woof the flim-flam’s broken on the jimmity jam.” But it is a real problem and it is hoped that above-average people are working with a keen sense of urgency to resolve it to keep valuable restoration projects intact. Meanwhile, the legal ripples at the root of the derailed preservation effort of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall are being felt here in Youngstown and they’re making Greg Strollo and the rest of us pretty nervous.

Especially if the CIC is warming up the bulldozer and fantasizing about more parking lots.

Remembrance of Lenny

Thom Grave

Memorial Day.

The day when Americans honor the memory of those who in the service of their country either gave or were willing to give, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “the last full measure of devotion” to the cause of freedom.

It’s also the day that more or less marks my introduction to a very special man who nobly served this country in World War II and the very special woman — a Youngstown native — who married him in June of 1944.

The holiday weekend was past its midpoint and Sunday afternoon was gradually sliding into evening. I decided I wanted to see Lenny. Well, not Lenny himself, exactly. I wanted to visit his gravesite. I wanted go there and just stand alone in my thoughts for a few minutes and in my own way pay my honor and respects to a true hero. A true American son.

Lenny’s not an uncle. He’s not a distant relative. He wasn’t even a friend of the family. Truth is I didn’t come to really know Lenny until just six years ago. But today my heart is fuller because I’ve built a unique bridge to the memory of this man and I’ve gotten to know the family he left behind.

Lenny was born in Sandusky. He went to Ohio State where he played a little tackle football for the Buckeyes, and while in Columbus he managed to meet an attractive young lady from Youngstown who was attending little College of St. Mary of the Springs, now Ohio Dominican. War, of course, broke out and interrupted their romance, and Lenny went off to join the Navy.

A smart, athletic guy and a natural leader, Lenny became the executive officer on board a fighting vessel. The “XO” executes the orders given by the ship’s commander.

The adage “war is hell” became a dreadful reality for Lenny and his shipmates on the night of August 1st, 1943. Their vessel was rammed in the darkness by a Japanese destroyer, splintering it into a couple chunks. Two crewmates were killed. After daybreak, Lenny and the survivors swam several miles to a small island, praying that they would not to run into sharks or God-knows what else below the water or enemy patrols above it. Finding nothing on that island to support their survival, they waded back into the sea a couple days later for yet one more marathon swim, hoping another nearby island might be a tad more hospitable.

By the sheer grace of God and all the angels in heaven – not to mention the timely help of some friendly natives and coast-watchers aiding the Allies – Lenny and the rest of the shipwrecked crew were rescued. After suffering the agonizing ebb and flow of hope and hopelessness every minute of every hour of every day for a week, they were alive and on dry land.

Imagine the terror. Imagine the pain. Imagine the despair. Imagine moonless nights so dark you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine watching men suffer from indescribable burns and wounds, knowing there’s virtually nothing you can do about it except pray and think of the next thing to say to keep the men from giving up.

I can’t imagine it. This was Lenny’s life for one week. Stranded on an island in enemy territory while his skipper swam in all directions for help, Lenny stayed with his men and somehow managed to draw from a seemingly endless source of courage and confidence to convince them they would be rescued. I stand at his grave and look down and think about all of that and conclude that I would not have lasted an hour. Lenny indeed was a special man.

Lenny came back to the States and married his lovely Kate from Youngstown at St. Ed’s on the north side just a couple days before D-Day. He started active duty in the Navy as an ensign, and when the war ended he was a lieutenant with a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.  Lenny became a dad to a boy born in ’45, he found a job with an insurance company in Columbus and started working on a master’s degree at Ohio State.  Kate was at home on Ohio Avenue on the north side expecting their second child, a girl, and preparing for the eventual move to Columbus.  The post-war future was indeed rosy for Lenny, Kate and their growing family.

And then the unimaginable happened.

In an absurdly cruel twist of fate, Lenny was killed in a car-train accident in early October 1946. After bravely dodging bombs and bullets, after surviving a shipwreck, after calling upon every conceivable fiber of his being to supply hope to his crewmates that they would be found and brought home from a desolate little island in the South Pacific, Lenny’s car hit the coal tender of a New York Central locomotive at an unguarded rail crossing on U.S. Route 224 near Deerfield while driving home on a Friday night. He died the following day.

Lenny was 29 years old.

He rests here in Youngstown at Calvary Cemetery.  Meanwhile, the girl he married back in ’44, Catherine Jane “Kate” Holway Thom Kelley, is 94 years young and lives in Greensburg, PA. I nervously reached out to her by phone one afternoon in June of 2008 and told Kate I was the one to blame for a Vindicator story about Lenny, her life with Lenny, and her life after Lenny. You see, when I discovered that Lenny was buried at Calvary, I blabbed it to the Vindy and the next thing I knew it was front page news on Memorial Day that year. She was warm and kind and wonderful to talk to on that first introduction to each other and we stayed in touch by phone, mail, and Facebook. I have had the pleasure of knowing Kate for half a dozen years now, and I finally had the joy and privilege of meeting her in person last July when I spent a delightful Sunday afternoon with her and her daughter Mary.

Kate’s Lenny is a genuine American hero. And when I look at the simple headstone on his grave, I say, “That should be bigger. It should scream your heroism to all who pass by this place.” But then I feel a nudge on the shoulder from an invisible hand that says, “Hey, I’m fine with it. No need to make a big fuss.  There were a bunch of other fellas on that boat when we got smacked by the destroyer, and every one of ‘em earned their stripes. Like Raymond Albert. Harold Marney. Gerry Zinser. William Johnston. Ed Mauer. Ray Starkey. John Maguire. Andrew Kirksey. ‘Pappy’ MacMahon. ‘Bucky’ Harris. And Barney Ross.

“And, oh yeah – Jack. Can’t forget Jack. After all, he was the skipper.”

Indeed they are all heroes and we remember them all on this Memorial Day. Some are buried at sea, the rest at cemeteries across the country. Lenny is right here in Youngstown at Calvary. And, actually, we all know where Jack is buried. He has a prominent grave at Arlington National Cemetery. You know him. He came from a wealthy Boston family and got into politics after the war.  He suspended his campaign for Congress to come to Youngstown for Lenny’s funeral and stayed at a house across the street from St. Ed’s.  A number of years later Jack became a U.S. senator and eventually the 35th President of the United States.

Lenny’s skipper was John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his boat was PT-109.

Leonard Jay  “Lenny” Thom, we hardly knew ye. You grew up in Ohio, married a wonderful girl from Rayen, became the father of two children, and served this country with considerable honor and distinction in the United States Navy. You poured more into 29 years than most of us do in a lifetime.

It has been an honor getting to know you. And it’s an honor that your final home is Youngstown.

John F. Kennedy (l) and Leonard Jay Thom (r).  Photo taken on leave in Hyannisport, MA, summer of 1944.

John F. Kennedy (l) and Leonard Jay Thom (r). Photo taken while on leave in Hyannisport, MA, summer of 1944.

Map of Calvary Cemetery.  Star denotes approximate location of Thom gravesite.

Map of Calvary Cemetery. Star denotes approximate location of Thom grave site.

(To see the Vindicator story explaining how I came to discover that Lt. Leonard Thom is buried in Youngstown, click here.)

The MadMen (and women) of Youngstown ward redistricting

UPDATE:  By coincidence, a front page story entitled “County elections board to offer redistricting plans” ran in this morning’s Vindicator.  To see the online version of the story, click here.

Draper for blog post

When it comes to the subject of drawing new lines to bring Youngstown’s wards into equitable population apportionment, it would appear that this city’s legislative body is hell bent on bringing to the table all the juicy flaws of MadMen character Don Draper who last Sunday night said, “Whenever I’m unsure of an idea, I abuse the people whose help I need, and then I take a nap.”

For Draper, it was a moment of unusual candor when he said that. For Youngstown City Council, it’s nearly a reverent motto. Now while this is not to suggest that our city’s august legislators are a bunch of boozing philanderers like the vexingly charismatic/enigmatic Draper, the majority – two in particular – consistently display Draper’s special brand of arrogance when they take up the issue of the embarrassingly long overdue redistricting of Youngstown’s wards. They seem to relish treating laws like Hector Barbossa treated The Code in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

So here’s where the issue stands as reported in The Vindicator. After blatantly disregarding a constitutional requirement that’s been sitting there for over a score of years, after diluting a proposed charter amendment designed to prohibit council’s whimsical treatment of decennial redistricting, after whining about this and that in an array of maps already paid for and produced by the law-embracing experts at YSU’s Center for Urban & Regional Studies, after simply stalling time after time on this issue, and after legislatively neutering two of their own for having the audacity to express opposing viewpoints on this matter, the remainder of city council voted a few days ago to award a contract between $7,500 and $10,000 to a Westlake firm to come up with something more appealing to them.

Something with a je ne sais qois as the French would say.

Or perhaps a picture with many happy trees, as the late Bob Ross would say.

Or a line drawn around a certain 1st ward residence to ensure it stays in the 1st ward, as member of council Annie Gillam (D-1st) might say.

The data crunchers and map mavens of Triad Research Group in Westlake might as well keep their mechanical pencils sheathed in their pocket protectors, however, because Mayor John McNally has reminded council, appropriately, that for Triad to get paid, funding must be approved by the City Board of Control comprised of the City’s Finance Director, Law Director, and hizzoner the Mayor. You can call the roll right now.

“Mr. Bozanich.”

“No.” (The Finance Director should see the immediate virtue of not approving an unnecessary expenditure.)

“Mr. Hume.”

“No.” (The Law Director should shake his head at this absurd move by council when a bundle of legally compliant maps are being used as a tablecloth in the caucus room.)

“Mr. McNally.”

“Not on your flippin’ life.” (The Mayor’s just using good common sense.)

At least one member of council is threatening to pull out a Sharpie and a city road map when the Board of Control lights a match under the contract approved by council for Triad. Janet Tarpley (D-6th ward), says council will make its own maps as a last resort. “I don’t want to do it ourselves,” she was quoted as saying, “but we’ll do that if we have no alternative.” Ms. Tarpley said they’ll do that – albeit reluctantly – because “we know where the people are at.” Dangling prepositions aside, the U.S. Census Bureau should feel embarrassed because apparently they’ve been looking in the wrong place for Youngstown residents.

Ms. Tarpley should be mindful of the conflict of interest such a notion presents. The maps constructed by YSU at a reported cost of $3,854 are already constitutionally and statutorily compliant and ready for council’s approval under the current charter. However, if council literally takes a direct hand in this matter, its effort will likely be rendered null and void. No court of law – let alone the court of public opinion – will tolerate anything that even has the slightest whiff of impropriety or perception of political purpose or benefit from one’s own hand.

Council’s approval of districts, maps, and the folderol of redistricting is one thing; to engage in the actual map-making process as suggested by Ms. Tarpley is quite another. The aforementioned Ms. Gillam has been an outspoken critic of the maps made by YSU from Day One. After the initial maps were trotted out last summer at a city council CDA committee meeting and then a council committee-as-a-whole meeting, she publicly observed that her residence was shifting from the first to the second ward and was not delighted. It was not a good move if her husband, former two-term council member Artis Gillam, was entertaining any idea of running for the 1st ward seat occupied by his term-limited wife. No longer in the 1st ward, Mr. Gillam would be faced with running against a presumed 2nd ward incumbent if he wanted to get back into council chambers. It is precisely this sort of thing that would poison the water if council takes map-making into its own hands.

Speaking of the 1st ward, by the way, its geography as drawn over 30 years ago is a bit novel. It’s almost as if the map-makers waited to do the 1st last. It looks as if it went down this way: It was almost midnight, they were out of coffee, they were dog-tired, and someone said, “What’s left?” Someone else said, “Well, we got this long stretch of real estate that goes from the Volney Rogers statue near Glenwood and Falls on the south side through downtown and all the way to Landsdowne Airport.” They all yawn. “Fine,” says a third person as he scrawls a big, fat “1” on the map.  “First ward. Done. Good freakin’ night.”

Fortunately, the Center for Urban & Regional Studies at YSU does not engage in that sort of nonchalance, takes the constitution seriously and adheres to the application of laws in their work.

If you need any further convincing that the current members of city council (with the exception of 4th ward’s Mike Ray and 5th ward’s Paul Drennen) are wallowing around in their own redistricting swamp water and can’t be trusted to do the right thing, then read the February 25th editorial in The Vindicator. Try to get past “flaunt” in the headline. It should be “flount.” On the other hand, on this one particular issue council has indeed “flaunted” its arrogance like so much ostentatious bling.

The cure to this craziness may soon be in the hands of We the People. In his latest weekly column, Vindy political writer David Skolnick reported that a group of Youngstown citizens is preparing to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that would determine the number of wards in the city based on population (five would be the current number based on the formula in this proposed amendment). It would also remove council’s capricious attitude toward redistricting and ensure it would happen every ten years. (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer and his wife participated in meetings with this group.)

This charter amendment deserves the support of each and every citizen of Youngstown because going more than three decades between municipal redistricting exercises is unconstitutional, absurd, inexcusable, and patently ridiculous. I know where the words are at, and them’s the words that describe this incredible mess.

Whether or not Youngstown’s city council comes to its senses and finally adopts one of the maps already completed by YSU, the people of Youngstown will put forward their own solution. The work by the Center for Urban & Regional Studies was performed properly, constitutionally and legally and in the vital interest of Youngstown citizens and not in the interest of those who are supposed to serve its citizens. Those citizens are gearing up to resolve this matter once and for all because they are profoundly weary of a feckless city council that has chosen to languish in a legislative stupor and impetuously prolong this redistricting nightmare.

With passage in November of the charter amendment, perhaps the majority of city council will finally come to grips with something even Don Draper has learned: when to sober up.

Bravehearts

Blog post Bravehearts.pub

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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 1stJanet 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.”

Fowl play: How a lame-duck Penguin becomes an Eagle

Dunn Eagle blog art

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As the shockwaves began to soften and recede from the announcement that YSU’s recently installed president was already moving on to greener and more familiar pastures in Illinois, something slowly occurred to me.

Everything surrounding this situation makes Dr. Randy Dunn a one-man Eagles concert.

Seriously.

And if I were Dr. Dunn, I’d give strong consideration to adding this to my curriculum vitae.

When word leaked out that Dr. Dunn was the front-runner to fill the position of president of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, my first thoughts were, “He’s Already Gone?  He just got here! He’s still the New Kid In Town.  And he’s heading to a university in a town the size of New Castle?  Even if it pays more it doesn’t sound like Life in the Fast Lane.  Stuff like this makes me lose my mind.”  Thus the Dunn-as-Eagle concept began.

Word of his abrupt plans to depart YSU filtered out through SIU’s student newspaper, the Daily Eqyptian.  By the way, if you want an explanation for that name and a reason why the Carbondale region is called Little Egypt, all I can say is I Can’t Tell You Why.  Nevertheless, the Daily Egyptian broke the news with a very quiet tweet that incubated for several days before hatching into a giant, steaming omelet 514 miles away.  It did not create a Peaceful Easy Feeling in this town.  The rumors, which eventually proved to be true, painted Randy Dunn as an academic Desperado.

From the appointment of Homer Nearpass in 1924 until the departure of David Sweet in 2010, YSU saw only seven presidents at the helm, an average of over 12 years each.  Given the disturbing news – or if you will, another Heartache Tonight – that the University was now going to be seeking its third president within four years, there was no way anyone in the Mahoning Valley could be expected to Take It Easy.  Suddenly YSU was in jeopardy of becoming Rodney Dangerfield University whose motto according to Google’s translation tool would likely be Et nos ergo non secundum, or “we get no respect” (everything always sounds better in Latin).  No one wants their school viewed as The Last Resort of job seekers.

Most public opinion on the matter was pretty clear.  Dunn’s decision not to stick to his contract and Take It To The Limit was overwhelmingly viewed as a betrayal of trust of the highest magnitude.   His credibility evaporated.  Any expressions of commitment made by him in the last seven months were now perceived as having been delivered through Lyin’ Eyes.

At a special meeting of YSU’s Board of Trustees after the news broke, Dr. Dunn did indeed confirm that he agreed to an offer from SIU.  Somehow the board managed to keep the two and a-half hour meeting from becoming contentious, apparently choosing instead to show The Best of [Their] Love and let him off the hook, electing not to hold his feet to the fire by enforcing the Hotel California clause in his YSU contract.  You know, the one that states he can check out any time he wants but he can never leave.

Youngstown State is a strong and resilient place.  It always finds a way to “sing it’s vict’ry song.”  And in spite of this recent drama there is belief that YSU will be better off in The Long Run.  Dr. Dunn’s pending absence leaves a hole in the executive staff but not a Hole in the World.  And in spite of the Wasted Time and money that brought him here in the first place, YSU will land on its feet soon with a new president who won’t have to promise No More Cloudy Days to gain community support so long as he or she demonstrates true commitment to the University and the city.  As a bonus, whatever baggage Dr. Dunn brought to YSU from Murray State can now be quickly loaded back onto a moving van and shipped off to Carbondale, Waiting in the Weeds there instead of here.

If Dr. Randy J. Dunn is moving on, then so should we.  So go downtown One of These Nights, enjoy another Tequila Sunrise, and just Get Over It.  Don’t invest any more time stewing over this miserable episode unless you want to plan Dr. Dunn’s reception should he return in the fall when SIU arrives at Stambaugh to play some tackle football with the Penguins.  For what it’s worth, it should be the kind of party truly befitting an Eagle, one that says he’s always welcome back – When Hell Freezes Over.