How many times in your life will you be able to say you were an important part of an historical achievement in the town you call home?
For Youngstown voters, a truly special moment like that will arrive on Tuesday, November 4th. Election day. The day when filling in the oval next to YES on Issue 7 will produce one of the most significant changes to our system of municipal governance since the city charter was adopted 90-plus years ago. Tuesday’s the day when it’s hoped most people will be able to look back and say with pride, “I voted to defeat the status quo and make something really good happen in Youngstown.”
Issue 7 came into being for the simple fact that for decades Youngstown’s city council was in the habit of treating constitutional law with the kind disdain usually reserved for stink bugs. The concept of equal representation was apparently foreign to them because as the city’s population dropped precipitously with each succeeding census, they flagrantly neglected to equalize ward populations through the exercise of redistricting.
They thumbed their collective nose at our federal and state constitutions when the 1990 census showed the city population had declined 17% over the previous ten years. They stuck their tongues out and gave raspberries to the idea of bringing districts into balance when the 2000 census revealed the population had declined another 14%. And only after we had travelled nearly halfway into this decade after the 2010 census presented another whopping population loss of 18% did city council finally wake up from a Rip Van Winkle-like snooze to consider that the City ought to comply with the law.
There is no excuse – there is no defense – for this whimsical treatment of redistricting, for holding in contempt the right of equal representation that belongs to the citizens who pay the salaries of council members – the arguably inflated salaries, some would say.
Out of sheer frustration with city council’s repeated failure to responsibly deal with redistricting, Issue 7 came to be. The people spoke and said, “No more games.” No more inviting federal lawsuits. No more flouting peoples’ rights. The City shall redistrict after every U.S. Census and we the people will not rest until we are assured that city council will follow its sacred obligation every ten years to protect our 14th Amendment rights and comply with other laws.
As the language for mandated redistricting was forged at the many open public meetings leading up to the successful petition drive that got Issue 7 on Tuesday’s ballot, another important thought came to light. It was considered that Ohio cities similar in size to Youngstown like Hamilton, Springfield and Kettering functioned just fine with five or six council persons (numbers which include their presidents of council or similar posts). Our city’s population had dropped to a mere 65,000 since reaching its peak of around 170,000 between 1930 and 1960. So the question became, do we still need seven council seats? Or to put it another way since council members by charter provision are exclusively elected from the wards (and not at large), do we still need seven wards?
“No” became the firm answer on that and thus was born the other vital component of Issue 7: When Youngstown’s population is less than 80,000, we shall have five wards; when it’s 80,000 or more, we shall have seven.
It makes an enormous amount of sense. The Vindicator put it succinctly in an editorial on October 21st:
Reducing the number of wards by two will not be a hardship on the lawmakers, nor will it deprive city residents of services they expect from government.
A shrinking, financially-challenged city cannot afford the status quo.
To an unfortunate degree, the media and some other groups slapped a “ward reduction” label on the entire Issue as it was being developed. Granted, with our current population of less than 80,000 Youngstown will now have five wards under the amendment, but two wards will be added when the city grows again to that threshold. Voting for Issue 7 does not mean seven wards are gone forever, so “ward reduction” is misleading.
And let’s look at some math. Let’s say Youngstown attracts 15,000 residents to reach that 80,000 seven-ward threshold. Let’s say those 15,000 individuals translate into 4,000 households all making the median household income of just $23,000. That would mean the city would have an additional $2.4 million in annual tax revenue which would make the $90,000 per year spent in two additional council seats justifiable. Conversely, saving $350,000 on two less council seats in a four year term is exactly the kind of fiscal responsibility in which a “shrinking, fiscally challenged city” should be engaged.
By the way, when the charter was adopted by Youngstown in 1923, the city was rapidly growing to 170,000 residents yet it reduced council from 12 members to 7. There were nine wards and it was changed to seven. So this is not the city’s first rodeo on this. It’s just taken us nearly a century to tweak it to fit the times.
As for those who are shouting “keep your voice” in order to defeat Issue 7 and progress in Youngstown, whose voice are they referencing? Mine? I hope so, because I am required to have a voice through equal representation provisions in constitutional law. But if I vote against a law requiring equal representation, please explain how I will be keeping my voice. Please explain.
That’s right. You can’t.
The phrase “keep your voice” must apply to every Youngstown citizen, the 47% of us who are white, the 45.2 % of us who are African American, and the balance who are Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander (according to 2010 U.S. Census data). Not one single person in America deserves not to be heard, and that’s where the people and groups who’ve invested in those Issue 7 “no” signs obliterate the noble aspect of diversity by choosing instead to embrace the shallowness of majority politics.
The other side on this issue is also conveniently ignoring for their own purposes that city council will still maintain approval over ward boundaries when Issue 7 passes. That means Annie, Janet, TJ, Nate and the other three will still have their say. In other words, council will “keep its voice” on redistricting when Issue 7 becomes law.
Youngstown sits on the threshold of history. It’s now up to you. You are the one who will be standing in that booth at Martin Luther King Elementary. Or St. Nick’s Center by the Grove. Or St. Christine’s. Or the McGuffey Centre or any one of the other 14 city polling places.
I know that in spite of what I have said here or what others express as Five Good Reasons to Vote YES on Issue 7 at Draw the Line, some voters will still think everything’s just ducky and accept the status quo and allow the City of Youngstown to remain at a standstill by voting against Issue 7.
But I’m hoping you’ll look at the pencil you’ll be holding in that voting booth as an instrument of profound change. I’m hoping you’ll use it to literally leave your own personal mark on the history of Youngstown.
I’m hoping you’ll say YES to Issue 7.