By David Skolnick
City council is halting the redistricting of the seven wards in order to get a second opinion on proposed maps.
Meeting on Tuesday, the legislators voted 5-1 to recommend it seek proposals from another entity to look at redistricting the wards. A vote at the next council meeting, Sept. 18, is needed to move forward with that process.
The city has spent $8,000 for Youngs-town State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies to provide ward data and provide several maps that divided the seven wards into populations that are more even than now.
Some council members opposed the maps proposed by YSU — particularly one that didn’t include the 2,612 inmates from a private prison that largely houses illegal immigrants convicted of federal felonies, and a state maximum-security prison.
Council met three times since late June to review the proposed maps. Council needs to redistrict the seven wards to make the population of each more equitable. Council hasn’t redistricted in 30 years, which has led to the wards’ populations ranging from 7,117 to 12,130, according to the 2010 federal census.
Hiring another firm will delay the process as the city must solicit proposals, select a company, determine how much it will spend and then wait for the report.
While some council members want redistricting to be resolved in a few months, the new wards wouldn’t take effect until the 2015 election so boundaries don’t need to be in place until the fall of 2014.
Thomas Finnerty, the YSU center’s associate director, said another university such as Cleveland State or Ohio State could do the work, but it probably would cost about $20,000. A private firm would be even more expensive, he said.
When asked if the process was starting over again, Councilman Nate Pinkard, D-3rd, said, “It seems that way. We’ll wait to get a second opinion. I was hoping to get it done by the end of the year. We need to take our time and do our due diligence and get it right.”
Pinkard said he was “pretty satisfied” with a map that Finnerty presented July 31 to council, as were most members at the time.
Councilwoman Janet Tarpley, D-6th, said another agency could “give us a better map. I’m hoping we can get it done in [time for the 2015 election], but it may not happen. I don’t know.”
As for the cost, Tarpley said it didn’t matter if it was $50,000.
“At the end of the day, it’s about making the city better,” she said. “We shouldn’t let money dictate the decision. We need to get it right and stop pushing it under the rug.”
Councilman Mike Ray, D-4th, voted against seeking another proposal, saying the end result wouldn’t be much different from what YSU has provided.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Finnerty proposed a map that didn’t count prisoners as a result of the Prison Policy Initiative, a think-tank organization that opposes that practice, raising concerns about the issue after reading about the city’s redistricting plans in The Vindicator.
If prisoners are counted, they would make up about 27 percent of the proposed 2nd Ward on the city’s East Side. Not counting prisoners increased the size of the 2nd Ward.
More than 25 percent of a ward’s population being inmates, most of who are illegal aliens who cannot vote, is “prison-based gerrymandering,” Ray said.
Ray and Paul Drennen, D-5th, who arrived after the meeting and thus didn’t vote, are the only council members who support not including prisoners in redistricting.
At one point Tuesday, Ray and Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, got into an argument about the prison-counting issue.
Gillam, whose district currently includes the private prison, said she’s received two letters from prisoners in her nearly six years on council, and that she wants inmates to be counted in any redistricting proposal.
Gillam also objects to the YSU maps as they take away her representation on the city’s East Side, including her residence.
“My [ward] is huge,” she said. “Some say area doesn’t matter, but it does matter.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “We represent people, not trees.”
Tarpley objected to “people not living in our city telling us what to do and what not to do.”
Gillam added that “special interests,” including this newspaper, “telling us what we’re doing is wrong.”
Despite complaining about the influence of those who don’t live in Youngstown, both voted to look at hiring an agency from outside the city to draw ward lines.