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The New Balance of Power

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


You could say that Mayor Tom Henry was the big loser in November’s election.

One could easily rationalize that the balance of power has shifted from the Mayor to Council, from Democrats to Republicans. But will Council Republicans have the skills and determination to do anything about it?

Democrats will number just 1.5 on the new council. For the last four years Tom Henry has had the highly articulate Councilman Tim Pape to present the Mayor’s arguments with rhetoric based on a clear philosophy. Backing up Mr. Pape was Councilwoman Karen Goldner and Councilman Glynn Hines. Frequently, Republican Marty Bender would support the Mayor, with the independent Democrat John Shoaff to give the Mayor that fifth vote necessary for passage of a controversial bill.

Now, however, Mr. Pape has yielded his seat to a fellow Democrat, Geoff Paddock, and Ms. Goldner was defeated by a Republican, Russ Jehl. Registered Democrats now number just three on council.

More importantly, none are truly loyalists of the Mayor, not like Mr. Pape or Ms. Goldner.

Mr. Hines has had his spats with the Mayor, especially over perceived encroachments on the councilman’s district. Mr. Shoaff and Mr. Henry have evolved their relationship from one of disagreement on specific ideas to a more fundamental dislike of each other that colors public business and the Mayor’s agenda.

And the Democratic newcomer on council, the staunchly pro-party Geoff Paddock, has wounds inflicted by the Mayor that may temper his cooperation with Mr. Henry — the Mayor tried to all but eliminate Mr. Paddock’s job running Headwaters Park and tried to eliminate the Headwaters Park Alliance from running the park. Mr. Shoaff, a long-time, close friend of Mr. Paddock, built the park, set up the Alliance, and hired Mr. Paddock to run the park as a public-private partnership.

So, of the three Democrats on Council, not one vote is sure for the mayor. He will start 0 - 9 on each critical vote. He will have to ask. He will have to trade, for example, changes to the State Boulevard widening, for Mr. Shoaff’s support. Mayor Henry might consider leaving Headwater’s management alone over the next four years to help heal wounds inflicted on Mr. Paddock. He might think about new sidewalks, street improvements and serious economic development in the neglected 6th District.

But, even then, he will be two votes short of policy wins.

On the Republican side things look perfectly rosy, on the surface. Russ Jehl, a self-styled conservative, replaced Ms. Goldner, a progressive. Former councilman John Crawford, possible mayor candidate in 2015, has replaced Liz Brown, and will immediately offer a strong, reasoned voice on Council that can not be dismissed as easily as the divisive Mrs. Brown.

Meanwhile, Republican Marty Bender has become the voice of the people. He has been on the Fort Wayne Police Department so long that he could have retired when Russ Jehl was in middle school. And along the way he has won the trust and admiration of the electorate. He was rewarded in the 2011 election with the highest vote total of any candidate. That had been Clerk Sandy Kennedy’s laurel of distinction for many years; it now goes to her close friend, Chief Bender.

Republicans sitting beside Bender, Jehl, and Crawford will be the affable Tom Didier, the calculating Mitch Harper, and the thoughtful Tom Smith.

It seems like a formidable front: six dyed-in-the-wool Republicans and their oft ally, John Shoaff, to form a veto-proof super majority on Council. One would think.

Ah, but there is a rub: Council is a diverse body of nine people representing different districts and different constituencies, facing the focused power of a unified and, now, well managed administration. The arrival of Deputy Mayor Beth Malloy and the rise of public information officer Frank Suarez as the single voice of the Henry administration has made the administration much more formidable, less vulnerable to death by a thousand cuts. Plus there are more than a thousand employees behind the Mayor, Malloy, and Suarez who are pulling together now more than anytime in the past four years.

Council, on the other hand, has one employee who endeavors to avoid “politics.”

In 2011, Mitch Harper took over the presidency of Council. He had a vision and wanted to make Council a more potent force in the management of City fortunes. Instead, he spent much of his time cleaning up procedural matters, such as eliminating the “prior-approval process” or poking away at details in various department budgets. He made some progress, but Council is still a reactive body offering little concerted leadership with no unified and stated vision for the future of the city.

Now, Council has a chance to shift the balance of power a bit in their favor and for the benefit of the community. Their strong majority on council allows them to formalize positions, offer legislation, change procedures. Here are a few suggestions: First, they need to form their own agenda: where should Fort Wayne be in four years and what are the steps to get there? Secondly, they need to choose their leader to preside over council and forget about the rotating presidency. Power is vested in the president, the president becomes the voice of the loyal opposition and should be a leader in fact, not a member of a rotating honorarium. Finally, they need more staff to help research and write legislation if they are to do anything other than react.

A result of the election was the investiture of more power in Council and the expression of a bit less faith in Tom Henry. Now, whether Council can play a greater role in governing the city, whether it is to be more than a group of reactionaries, whether it is to create a vision for the future of the community is up to Harper, Smith, Crawford, Jehl, Bender, Didier, and friends.

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©2019 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.