When the citizens of Youngstown step into the voting booth on Nov. 4, they will decide whether or not to amend the charter so that the number of wards in the city is based on population, which will affect the redistricting that takes place following each census.
Following a two-year fight in city council surrounding redistricting, a committee called “Draw the Line” has drafted an amendment and collected nearly 1,700 signatures to get the amendment on the ballot.
Mike Ray, D-4th District, was part of the committee.
“We’re a different city today. We need to look at having a different structure of government,” Ray said.
When the city charter was approved in 1923, it divided the city into seven wards. Prior to that, it had consisted of five wards. According to the census, Youngstown had 132,358 citizens in 1920.
The most recent estimates place the city’s population at 65,185 — yet the number of wards has remained at seven.
The proposed amendment allows for seven wards if the city’s population reaches 80,000 or greater, but reduces the number of wards to five if the population is below 80,000, as it currently stands.
Thomas Finnerty, director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban Studies, was involved in the redistricting process early on.
“Youngstown’s a charter city, so they can define their own amount of wards,” Finnerty said.
Charter cities are governed by laws outlined in the city’s charter — a document analogous to a constitution — as opposed to statute cities, which are beholden to state laws.
It is not unusual for the number of wards in a city to be determined by population. Cleveland’s charter contains an amendment that dictates that there is one councilperson for every 25,000 citizens.
However, Finnerty said he believes there are more important issues than the number of wards, pointing out that if Youngstown were governed by statute, it would have nine wards.
“In my opinion, seven’s not bad. That’s not what the fight should be about. The fight should be about actually making them match the population,” he said.
According to the Youngstown City Charter, the council is required to redistrict following each census, “whenever there is a reasonable population change, so as to maintain a reasonable equality of population among the seven wards.”
Until recently, council had last drawn new wards over 30 years ago, despite the fact that the city has lost nearly 50,000 residents since they last redistricted — resulting in disproportionate ward populations that range from 7,227 to 12,130.
The new amendment looks to prevent that from happening again by dictating that council redraws the wards within 120 days of each census. If they fail, the mayor has 90 days to present a plan for redistricting to council.
Supporters of the amendment also stress its ability to help cut costs.
Youngstown’s city council salaries are higher than several other cities in Ohio of comparable size. According to the charter, council members earn $27,817.24 per year, and receive full health insurance benefits. Eliminating two wards could save the city nearly $90,000 per year.
Ray said that, with other departments taking cuts, it is time for city council to pitch in.
“We’ve cut back everywhere else. The police department’s smaller. The fire department’s smaller. When we renew contracts, our unions are taking concessions,” he said.
Annie Gillam, D-1st District, who represents the ward that contains YSU, is not fond of the idea.
“The city is just starting to move forward. I don’t understand why we would go backwards,” Gillam said.
She said there are many issues facing Youngstown that require more governance and reducing the number of council members would set the city back, but Ray disagreed.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a workload,” Ray said. “Currently, I represent over 12,000 residents, but some my colleagues represent only 7,000. When the city was a lot larger, we obviously represented close to 20,000 people, so I do not think it’s a workload that’s unmanageable.”
If the city is divided into five wards, each council member will be representing about 13,000 citizens.
Gillam did not think the proposed amendment would have a negative effect on YSU, provided it remains in the same ward as downtown Youngstown.
“I would still want to have it connected to downtown because it’s so close to downtown,” she said.
Voters can see the text of the proposed amendment at http://drawthelineyoungstown.blogspot.com.