By David Skolnick
City council agreed to place a charter-amendment proposal in front of voters Nov. 4 to reduce the number of wards in Youngstown from seven to five.
By its votes Tuesday, council agreed to approve the proposal as legislation that wouldn’t be subject to collecting signatures on petitions, said Law Director Martin Hume.
A group that includes Councilmen Mike Ray, D-4th, and Paul Drennen, D-5th, had submitted petitions with about 1,700 signatures.
To get on the ballot, the committee would have needed at least 1,216 of the signatures to be valid.
Drennen and Ray said they were confident the petitions had enough valid signatures to get on the ballot, but said they were pleased council opted not to go through that process.
At council’s special meeting Tuesday, the legislative body approved two ordinances with the same language regarding the ward-reduction charter amendment for the Nov. 4 election.
One, sponsored by Ray and Drennen, had council back the charter amendment, and the other, sponsored by Mayor John A. McNally, had council approve moving the petitions to the board of elections to count signatures, Hume said.
The votes mean city council will allow the issue to be on the ballot without the need for the Mahoning County Board of Elections to count signatures on petitions and determine if there are enough valid ones.
While five of the seven council members don’t support the ward reduction, both proposals passed by 6-1 votes.
Councilman T.J. Rodgers, D-2nd, was the lone no vote on the ordinance sponsored by Ray and Drennen.
Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, was the only no vote on the mayor’s proposal. After the meeting, Gillam said she voted against the legislation because she “wasn’t clear because the amendments are the same. I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t going to vote on it.”
These votes come less than two weeks after council approved legislation redistricting the seven wards to balance the population.
The city charter requires that be done after every census, but the lines hadn’t been touched in 30 years, causing major population discrepancies among the seven wards.
The legislation must make its way from the city council clerk’s office to the Mahoning County Board of Elections by Friday to get on the Nov. 4 ballot. Also, the elections board needs to have a special meeting in the next two weeks to formally vote in favor of the charter-amendment proposal.
If approved by voters, council would eliminate two of its seats. It would take effect with the 2015 election.
Under the proposal, council would have 30 days after the certification of the Nov. 4 ballot to redistrict from seven to five wards, Ray said. If council failed to do so, the mayor would have 14 days to redistrict, he said.
Councilman Nate Pinkard, D-3rd, who doesn’t support the ward reduction, said he voted yes because “my constituents want to have it on the ballot.”
“I’m pleased my colleagues passed both of these,” Ray said. “We sometimes get hung up on our differences and we need to come to a middle ground. The people were adamant it be on the ballot.”
Gillam, however, said the relationship Ray and Drennen have with her, Rodgers, Pinkard and Janet Tarpley, D-6th, is “strained. There’s something going on that’s causing a whole lot of division among council.”
Pinkard said, “I don’t have a strained relationship with anybody, but we need to come together to work for the betterment of the city.”
When asked if that’s not happening now, Pinkard said, “It’s been the case, but we need to do a better job.”
Gillam also said there’s a problem between a majority of council, and McNally and the mayor’s administration.
Gillam said she’s lost faith in Hume’s ability to objectively serve as law director.
This stems from an ongoing dispute among council members and that some on council have with the administration over who controls the hiring of the downtown events and special projects coordinator.
Hume refused a request from Gillam and Tarpley to allow council to have up to $40,000 for outside legal counsel. The money would be used to hire an attorney to defend a majority of council who don’t agree that McNally has the authority to hire.
Last month, Hume wouldn’t write legislation permitting council to select a coordinator.
Council has controlled the hiring of that position for several years. But Hume said the city charter doesn’t give council that authority.
“The relationship between this council and this administration is going south,” she said. “Something is going on here.”
Tarpley said, “There’s a system of checks and balances. The law department is opposed to writing it up and discussing it at a council meeting.” Echoing Gillam, Tarpley added, “There is something wrong in city hall.”
Hume said that if proposed legislation is “not in accordance with law, I’m not going to write that legislation and that’s what I’ve done.”
Hume said all of his legal opinions are based in law. “I’m aware of conflict of interest being raised because of my appointment by the mayor, but there is no conflict,” he said.
“You keep doing this and it takes all of our confidence away” from you, Gillam said.
At an Aug. 20 meeting, council voted to give hiring power for the coordinator to the mayor, realized the mistake, and an attempt to reconsider failed for a lack of majority.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council voted 4-3 to repeal, but needed six votes for the action to be done by emergency measure. Without the support of six, council would need to have two other votes to pass the ordinance. McNally, however, said he doesn’t recognize council’s authority to control the appointment, and he’s moving ahead with selecting a person for the job.