Monday, February 2, 2015

Why Do We Need Wards?

This map, made for The Mercury when the wards were last re-districted, hangs on the wall by my desk for easy reference. Do we really need to be any more divided than we already are?

We have a saying in the newsroom, that often-enough Pottstown gets trapped in a conventional kind of thinking we describe as "that's the way we've always done it."

We understand this, because we often find ourselves thinking the same way at The Mercury.

But something shook me out of my conventional thinking last month and I began to ponder the question above...."Why do we need wards?"

What prompted this rumination was the recent announcement of two Democratic candidates for the Fourth Ward seat being abandoned by Borough Council President Stephen Toroney.

Two well-qualified candidates -- one a Pottstown native and Pottstown High School teacher, the other a former candidate who serves on several board ran for mayor and regularly attends council meetings -- announced their intention to run.

(I received an e-mail Sunday from a candidate who has announced his intention to run for the Republican nomination in the Fourth Ward. Look for that story in Tuesday's Mercury).

Ross Belovich
Dennis Arms
So as I wrote the articles announcing the announcements by Ross Belovich and Dennis Arms, I thought to myself: "Boy its a shame we couldn't have both these candidates in the race in November. After all, half the time candidates run unopposed in some wards."

And that's when that final word caught in my mind.

"Wards" are what is preventing Pottstown from enjoying a campaign with both these candidates.

So I began to wonder what purpose they serve.

The obvious answer is to ensure even representation.

But how different are we really? We all pay the same tax rates, we all (presumably) want to see the borough revitalized and getting its fair share of public monies; to see our roads paved, our streets safe and our community desirable.

Is Pottstown truly so wildly diverse that a council person from Ward 7 can't understand the problems of someone who lives in Ward 1?

Now look at those two wards and recognize most people would consider Ward 1 to have a higher African-American population and so they might argue wards ensure a voice for that demographic on council.

And yes, previous occupants of that seat included Alison Hunter and Mark Gibson, one a Democrat, one a Republican; both African-Americans both independent thinkers.

But Ward 1 is currently represented by a Caucasian fellow named Ryan Procsal, who ran unopposed.

And Ward 7 (the "Rosedale" ward) is represented by Joe Kirkland, an African-American who not only ousted a Caucasian incumbent; he then, four years later, beat off a a challenge from another Caucasian ... twice.

So perhaps this is the right place (and time) to consider whether those racial markers matter any more. Wouldn't it be great if they didn't?

February is Black History Month and much of that history is devoted to Black Americans fighting to be considered nothing more than Americans.

Are there still differences? Of course.

Do we need to keep working at these things? Of course.

But maybe one way to do that is to do away with the idea that whites and blacks are so different in Pottstown that we need to encode representation for each in how we elect our representatives.

Pottstown is not the deep South, where laws are needed to ensure voting access for African-Americans.

Yes, Pennsylvania tried to enact a Voter ID law which, intended or not, disproportionately disenfranchises poor and black voters, but a judge thankfully tossed it, largely for those reasons.

And consider that our mayor, Sharon Thomas, is African-American and she defeated a Caucasian incumbent who had upset Thomas's incumbency four years earlier.

And the mayor is a post that is elected borough-wide.

Why isn't everyone else?

The school board is elected borough-wide and lord knows the taxes levied by that body tower over those levied by council.

Each election cycle, we see activists and politicos bemoan the difficulties in finding people with enough time, talent and will to run for public office. Why are we limiting the pool of candidates?

Two excellent candidates might be next-door neighbors. Currently, we could only have the benefit of one.

What if we increased that pool of candidates by a factor of seven? What would we lose?

When people think of Pottstown, this is all we should

want them to think of.
How often have we heard the lament that we have to "find a way to bring the town together?"

Indeed, the first obstacle might be said to be that we are officially and permanently cut into seven different pieces.

What better way to engage the entire community in a discussion of unity than to have a community-wide discussion about making us unified?

Then consider the matter of re-districting.

We're now five years late on the 10-year cycle of re-districting that is supposed to follow every Census.

Do we really have the time and resources in Pottstown to fritter them away on that exercise in futility while we face a host of other more important issues?

I mean come on people, we're 5.5 square miles. We're not Nebraska. What's the point?

It is probably too late to change the election framework for the current election cycle, but perhaps that's better.

After all, although current candidates brought this issue to mind, you can't change the rules of an election in the middle of an election.

But we should consider changing it for the next one.

In the coming year, I feel certain The Mercury is going to address this question, to find out how we eliminate wards and to ask you if you think they should be eliminated.

Tell me what you think, either in a comment here to be shared with other readers, or in an e-mail:

As it stands, the only good reason that seems apparent for keeping the ward system is "that's the way we've always done it."

After all, we're one school district. Why can't we be one town?


  1. I think the entire way of governing in Pottstown needs change. We need to go from a strong council weak mayor to a strong mayor weak council. Council President is not elected by the people, and the boro manager is not required to live in the boro. Give the mayor the position of Boro Manager, salary and all, and see what happens when they know that in four years they are up for reelection. I have lived in Pottstown 45 of my 60 years, and I see that we need a MAJOR change. Lot's more to say but till next time.

  2. Let anyone who has a financial interest in Pottstown run for council or the mayor. This means a restaurant owner, clothing store owner or the property investor- even if they don't live in Pottstown. Of course this would never happen because the residents of Pottstown would never think these people with strong business acumen could help a struggling town. Is it really time to think outside the box or is it only time to stay in the box the residents and Mercury want to create?

  3. Dear Anonymous,
    We're not trying to create a box, we're trying to think outside one.
    I think your idea is interesting but I think it might also be illegal.
    Changing it would require a change in state law, whereas eliminating wards, apparently, only requires local ordinance.
    But thanks for your thoughts.

  4. I think Pottstown wards are represented by more differences than you mentioned. 85%-90% of ward 1 is made up of renters. We know from statistics renters don't vote. All of the current council members own their homes. Sure you can make a statement a renter could run for council but the chances a renter would have a chance of winning besides ward 1 would be slim. This means 45% of the properties in Pottstown are currently and in your plan would not be receiving fair representation. At least Mr Gibson was a renter but when he decided not to continue his seat on council, representation for the renters was gone. At least the wards give the renters a chance to be represented. The current council, besides ward 1 council member, really have no idea what it means to be poor. Poor that $20 per month means 1 or 2 meals a day. This is a large section of Pottstown who experience this situation. 6 of the 7 current council members will say they understand but they do not really understand. In your scenario of no wards we all know the richer areas with more educated residents are the voters. They will vote for their neighbors. This will lead to more out of touch council members who do not understand the struggles of a large portion of Pottstown residents.

  5. Just another idea to have the white folks from the North End or Rosedale to make all the decisions. Trying to remove the minorities from fair representation. Decisions like this bring the ACLU to town. If you are not aware the ACLU was ready to get involved in the constitutional rights violation of that yearly rental inspection. Why do you think it was tabled?

  6. Tisk Tisk. Mr Brandt, Your friend Katy Jackson is attempting to discourage people from supporting a home for VETERANS! Mr Brandt - set the record straight. Do you continue to support all of Katy's activists stunts or will you now draw the line and stand up to her and support veterans? We understand you don't want to get on her bad side or she will make negative comments about you. Take a stand Mr Brandt. Do you support Veterans or KATY?

  7. First, as always, I am amused by people too scared to sign their name to a comment lecturing anyone on "taking a stand."

    Second, I'm not sure how a blog post about whether we need political wards relates to the proposal for a veterans boarding home in the old St. Peter's Church, I assume that's hat you're talking about, but hey, to each his own.

    Third, I am not aware that I am supporting Ms. Jackson in this regard. I have provided ALL the information to the community that was provided by the church that wants to establish this, which some might interpret as support, not opposition.

    As far as I am aware, she has expressed her opinion on that proposal in several venues, a right those veterans fought tot protect, I might add, and I have neither supported nor opposed her opinion on this.

    Fourth, if you ask her, Ms. Jackson will confirm that she and I have had some vociferous disagreements over the years, some of them quite public, but it has yet to degenerate into personal attacks. Reasonable people can disagree, and we have. I have also agreed with her on other things. That's the way of the world.

    Which brings me to point five: why must everything in Pottstown be "either or?" You're either with us or with the terrorists. Now I am supposed to have only two choices, veterans or Katy. I support veterans in any number of ways you know nothing about. Anonymous posters do not get to define how I act or the choices I face. .

    How about this? I'll give you the same courtesy. How about you support veterans by being at least brave enough to put your name to your opinion in support of them? Otherwise you don't support them at all. Take a stand.