There are lots of anomalies in City Politics. Relics of by-gone days, anachronisms that once may have had a purpose but make no sense in the modern world. Like the County Recorder, a position which made sense when there were two or three literate folks in the Swamp, and only one that knew how to use a fountain pen to record land transfers on those teeny weeny transfer cards.
And then there are district seats on Toledo City Council.
Strong for the district
For most of the last century, Toledo Council was composed solely of at-large seats, elected from across the city. The city executive was a City Manager, appointed to run the day-to-days without pesky political considerations to get in the way. The Mayor was mostly a figure head and tie-breaking vote if Council deadlocked.
That changed when a few ambitious zealots decided Toledo needed a Strong Mayor form of guvmint. This necessitated a change to the City Charter, approved by the electorate and put into place for the election in nineteen ninety-three. The Strong Mayor would be the new city executive, elected directly by a vote of the people. We hesitate to add, the driving force behind the change, and the first Strong Mayor, was He Who Shall Not Be Named.
At the same time, the structure of City Council was altered dramatically. Gone was the eight-seat at-large council, with the Mayor as the ninth vote to break ties. Instead, there would be twelve council seats, with six at-large and six from newly created districts.
The districts were drawn to ensure diverse representation. Now, over a quarter of a century later, we can ask the big question. Are the district seats an anomaly that should be sent to the dustbin of history?
On one hand, the district seats have ensured representation from across the city. One only need look as far as Toledo School Board to see the danger of an all at-large body. The Board is completely filled by South Enders.
On the other hand, the history of at-large representation on City Council tells a different story. There have been at-large council reps from South Toledo, East Toledo, West Toledo, and the Central City since ninety-three. So the districts haven’t been needed to ensure geographic diversity.
In fact, the at-large seats have been much more diverse than the districts in pretty much every way. The only openly gay reps and only Hispanic reps have been elected at-large. There have been men and women elected at-large. The current at-large contingent is composed of African-Americans and Caucasians alike. There is diversity of ideology, from progressive to conservative. There is diversity of age and of income.
So what? The history of at-large members since the change shows districts aren’t necessary to ensure diversity. That’s not a reason to eliminate the districts. Are there problems caused by district representation?
Unfortunately, districts have all-too-often led to district members who think in overly parochial ways, privileging what they believe to be the good of their fiefdom over the general good of the City. They have led to squabbling over resources and cutting those resources thin to make sure everyone gets a slice. They have led to zoning decisions deferred to district reps rather than made for the common good.
There was a movement about a decade ago to reduce the number of council members to nine. It would have eliminated at-large representation altogether, with six districts and three “super-districts” composed of two each of the smaller districts.
Proponents called it “nine is fine.” It failed at the ballot box.
Perhaps the structure of council needs another fresh look. Perhaps we should return to a completely at-large council, composed of folks with a broader vision for the city as a whole. Perhaps the seats could be fewer in number. Perhaps that would allow for an increase in salaries for council, and lead to candidates who can do the job full-time.
Perhaps. After all, it couldn’t be worse than the gridlock we often have now.
This is the year district seats are up for election. After this, we have four more years before the seats come around again, which means four years to decide.. What structure of City Council would best serve the City?