Is participatory democracy dead in Youngstown?
That’s a legitimate question the 11 members of the Youngstown Charter Review Commission and all city residents may be pondering these days now that City Council members plan to crush much of the hard work and legitimate input of the committee and of many thoughtful residents throughout the city.
Specifically, the commission members appointed by council and the mayor were charged with reviewing the city’s charter, soliciting public input on changes therein and crafting proposals into amendments to the city’s governing doctrine for all Youngstown voters to cast ballots on this fall. That’s democracy in action.
But instead of responsibly heeding the call of the public and advancing to the ballot all or most of the charter amendments proposed by the commission, city council is poised next week to put forth only three of 17 proposals as written by the committee, revise another to suit its own tastes and torpedo the rest — at least for now.
Service vs. self-preservation
Such shameless snubbing suggests to some that the city’s elected lawmakers are more concerned about the politics of self-preservation than the goal of effective governance that responds to the changing size, needs and demographics of Youngstown.
Those few proposals accepted by council largely reflect no-brainer reforms. One would put the city in compliance with new federal standards on daylight saving time, another would require an anti-conflict of interest policy for city workers and a third would end the current two-term limit for the city’s mayor. The fourth proposal would require ward redistricting, but council removed the meaty language in the panel’s proposal to require it be completed within 90 days of each 10-year U.S. Census.
Of the latter two, the first could pave the way toward ending term limits for council members and the fourth could encourage stonewalling on ward redistricting. But at least council members are giving voters a say-so on those issues, unlike many other more substantial issues that could directly and — in many cases – negatively impact their legislative.
Those include reducing council salaries, eliminating partisan council elections to encourage a broader base of candidates, eliminating the council president as an elected post and making the process of recalling elected officials less cumbersome.
Is it any wonder that some of the commission members feel spurned? “The public gave us those proposals,” said Jerome Williams, president of the charter-review committee. Council “forgot who they work for: the citizens.”
Commission member Phil Kidd is equally incensed: “It’s politics trumping good government, and the five months we spent meeting on this were a waste of the committee’s and public’s time.”
Calls for action
Such outrage has begun to gravitate toward action. There is talk of bypassing council and launching a referendum drive to get all of the charter commission’s proposals on the ballot through citizen action. Council can avoid that potentially embarrassing scenario that could produce revised proposals that affect them more adversely. For example, their salaries and benefits could be cut more drastically (they already earn nearly three times the pay of their peers in Warren who lack full benefits) and a more open invitation to recall could be created.
They can avert such scenarios by listening to the voices of reason from The Regional Chamber and others in the community, change their minds and accept all of the commission’s plans for the Nov. 6 ballot. Then let all city residents have a voice in the city’s direction. That’s how democracy works in its purest form.
If they do not, a referendum this fall or next year would be an appropriate response. At least then, the hard work of the charter panel will not have been in vain and a semblance of participatory democracy could be restored to the city.