By Caitlin Fitch
and Ralph Lewis
The city’s charter- review commission is giving strong consideration to a controversial topic — redistricting Youngstown’s wards to address inequit- able populations in those seven sections of the city.
The current ward boundaries, untouched for more than 30 years, are unconstitutional and could spark legal action if left alone much longer, said William Binning, retired chairman of Youngstown State University’s political science department and a former Mahoning County Republican Party chairman.
For the first time in eight years, a commission is looking at recommending to city council changes to Youngstown’s charter.
The 11-member commission has until June 1 to provide those recommendations. It is up to council whether to place any or all of those recommendations on the November ballot for a public vote.
Redistricting the wards to make population in each more equitable is one issue discussed often by the commission. Also being considered is possibly reducing the number of wards — seven — and possibly having some council members run citywide for at-large seats.
The problem with the current ward system is as populations have declined and shifted, the wards do not reflect the “one-man, one-vote” rule used in the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, said Binning and local activist Phil Kidd, a charter-review commission member.
For example, the city’s 6th Ward is losing population while the 4th Ward’s population remains constant.
The 6th Ward takes in a portion of the South Side, while the 4th Ward encompasses most of the West Side.
Residents of the 6th and 4th wards both have one council representative for their population despite the differences in their size.
Youngstown, at its peak in the 1950s, had more than 160,000 inhabitants with seven council members and seven wards. Sixty years later and with almost 100,000 fewer people, the city has the same number of wards and council members.
According to the 2010 census, the population for the 6th Ward was 7,227, 10.8 percent of the city’s population. In the 4th Ward, the figure was 12,130, which is 18.1 percent of the population.
Councilman Mike Ray, D-4th, believes redistricting is a top priority.
“Before anything happens, we have to do redistricting. At this point, it’s a must because we currently don’t have equal representation throughout the wards,” Ray said. “The numbers across the board need to be equal and proportionate in size.”
Binning says there are some definite problems with the current system.
“I think what’s really a problem is that you could file a federal lawsuit against them [council members] because they are out of compliance with the constitutional law,” Binning said. “They have to redraw those boundaries and make them equal in population.”
In 2004, the review commission decided not to change the number of wards or council members in compliance with Section 83 of the charter.
The charter says “all wards shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory, as nearly equal population as possible, and bounded by natural boundaries or street lines.” After each federal census, “council may re-district the city so as to maintain a reasonable equality of population among the seven wards.”
Binning said council members have been reluctant to redistrict.
“It’s a difficult issue for them to handle. If they’re thinking of running again, there going to be running in a different district with different people voting,” Binning said. “And it’s conceivable, in a few instances, that you could end up putting two incumbents in the same district — they wouldn’t like that at all.”
Binning said many Youngstown residents are unsure of which ward they live in and which council member represents them.
Mayor Charles Sammarone said redistricting is the top priority.
“Once we take care of that, we can move forward to other things,” Sammarone said.
The charter review could lead to fewer council members in city government, but the mayor said he recognizes how important council members are to the community.
“In most cases, the council member works as warden for different problems,” the mayor said. “He could be the litter inspector, housing-code inspector, he could even be the watchdog for crime blogs. An effective council member who is out working is an important person for that ward.”
Council President Jamael Tito Brown, a former 3rd-ward councilman, said decreasing the number of councilmen or wards could stretch council members too thin.
“If you take a member of council off of staff, someone has to cover their area, or ward, so if you added another 4,000 people to the area that I serve, its going to be a bigger challenge for me to serve a bigger demographic,” Brown said. “It may be less population but a bigger area can affect the accessibility and the staff.”
He also said the population doesn’t drive the number of council members. For him, the area is his issue.
Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, thinks the number of council members should stay the same because of the workload.
“There are so many issues we go over at any given time that we need each member to help go through it,” Gillam said.
Her hope is that the population will increase and each council member will be necessary, despite a steady and significant decline in the number of residents in Youngstown during the past 60 years.
“Once we are able to control the crime problem, the population will jump back up, and new jobs will also bring the numbers up,” she said.
Some argue that the money the city spends on each council member’s salary could be used elsewhere.
Kidd, of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, an agency that focuses on issues such as vacant properties, health equity and other quality of life issues, still believes the number of council members should be re- examined.
“Youngstown’s government is a strong, mayoral form of government, meaning that the mayor and his administration have more of a direct say on city operations at large versus city council, which makes more or less legislative decisions,” Kidd said.
While council votes on city budgets, the administration has more power as it creates and proposes the budget for council approval, Kidd said.
Kidd thinks a couple of council positions can be eliminated.
“A city councilman makes approximately $27,000 plus benefits, so if you were to eliminate two of those positions, some people say that the money could go to hiring a city planner or two more police officers,” Kidd said.
Clerk of Council Valencia Marrow said each council member costs the city more than $50,000 — $27,817 in salary; $15,312 in health-care benefits; $403 in Medicare; and $6,676 in pension funds.
Brown said although his paycheck reflects a part-time employee, his work effort does not.
“It’s a full-time job — it’s well above a full-time job. A lot of our economics that we get we put back into the community,” Brown said.
Contributor: David Skolnick, staff writer. TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaboration among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM Radio, The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).