Proponents of a government merger between Montgomery County and the city of Dayton say economic gains would be a byproduct of such a move, but other fear that the city — and its African American population — will be left with fewer opportunities and a weakened voice.
Dan Foley, a Montgomery County Commissioner, is leading the consolidation effort called Dayton Together. He said “inclusion and representation” are foremost on the minds of the charter development committee as it works to complete a document as early as December.
“If we get the right amount of feedback and community involvement we believe we can do it right,” he said.
Foley, a Democrat, announced July 9 that work had begun in earnest to build a charter that could dissolve Dayton’s government and turn it over to a new entity formed with the county. Any change would have to be approved by city and county voters. An election could be held as early as November 2016.
One voter paying keen attention is Shirley Martin, 70, who questions whether her Westwood neighborhood in Dayton would have a diminished voice within a municipal government expanded to the entirety of Montgomery County.
“There wouldn’t be another black office-holder in the county,” Martin said. “Will I have representation? You’re going to be outvoted by the wide variety of white flight that has already taken place.”
County voting records prove Martin’s concern is not unfounded. While the makeup of Dayton’s city government effectively mirrors the proportion of the city’s minority population, just one black official — Willis Blackshear, the county recorder — currently holds one of the 11 non-judicial, elected Montgomery County government seats.
Only three African Americans have ever held non-judicial county seats, and only two won election to office, including Blackshear. And he’s the only one to win at the ballot box in the past 20 years.
Local politicians, civil rights groups, and citizens like Martin are closely watching how Dayton Together addresses the representation of minorities in its proposed charter.
“It’s important to know we are always looking for better ways to do things — reform if that’s what you want to call it — but to go with this type of radical reform that would disenfranchise 140,000 people is not the way to go,” said Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, who leveled the charge before the merger plan was made public.
Work in progress
Since 1995 there have been 27 Dayton city commission races, including those for mayor. African American candidates won 14 of the races in a city that’s about 43 percent black, according to the 2010 census.
Blacks, though, don’t enjoy that kind of influence in the county.
In 2010, African Americans made up more than 22 percent of Montgomery County, which includes Dayton. Yet Blackshear, who was first appointed recorder and then ran two successful campaigns for the same office, accounts for the meager amount of county elections since 1995 won by a black to an office that’s not a judgeship.
By contrast, African Americans make up nearly half the city electorate. That pull has produced black mayors and black majorities on the city commission and the Dayton Public Schools Board of Education.
“There is no realistic way they will ever have a majority on whatever council they have in this proposed system,” Owens said. “They would be going from about 45 percent of the vote to 20 percent of the vote.”
Shannon Martin, a Bellbrook attorney hired by Dayton Together, said the group would be working until December — and possibly longer — to draft what could be a 30-page document not just codifying how a new governing body would be structured but how citizens would be represented.
Representation is “not something that’s been determined yet,” she said. “It would be something the charter development committee would grapple with.”
What the committee has made clear, though, is that each township’s three trustees would continue to handle township business and the county’s incorporated municipalities not party to a merger would continue with their governments intact.
That leaves only the city of Dayton.
“What likely would happen is elected county councilpersons would function as the county commissioners do today and handle county business as to all the unconsolidated areas of the county, and they would function as the municipal council, as Dayton city council does today, as to the Dayton city business,” Shannon Martin said.
Those councilpersons could be elected at-large on a county basis, elected by districts, or some combination.
“The options are still all on the table,” she said.
The charter development committee likely will gravitate toward some form of district representation, Martin said.
Both Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and city commissioner Joey Williams have already cautioned that a new charter could disenfranchise Dayton’s minority citizens.
U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice, a Dayton Together officer, said the group is examining mergers in Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio and consolidations involving Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn.
Rice said any new charter will serve the dual purposes of preserving minority representation and growing the local economy so all citizens can prosper.
“African Americans have more voting power in Dayton than they’ve ever had. They’ve elected some wonderful public officials,” he said. “But the economy has just gone in a way that that increased voting power hasn’t given the people the benefit that it was hoped it would, and this is an attempt to address that.”
It’s hard to argue that black voting power in the city could be replicated county-wide, but it’s possible African Americans would receive greater economic benefit under a new government structure, Rice said.
“Minority voting power will now be spread across the entire county as opposed to primarily — not exclusively — in the city,” he said. “If the overall model improves the condition of everyone, then I submit majority and minority alike benefit.”
Derrick Foward, NAACP Dayton Branch president, isn’t quite buying it — but he said the NAACP is not against the idea, either.
Foward said he’s thought about a future under a county-wide government and it looks uncomfortably like the present. He said county actions and money have boosted development and jobs in Dayton’s suburbs along Miller Lane in Butler Twp. and Austin Landing in Miami Twp., but not along Salem Avenue, West Third Street or Gettysburg Avenue in the city.
A “whole package” of fair electoral representation and “an economic impact commitment” of investment dollars for west Dayton could help gain NAACP support, Foward said.
Darrell Cobbins owns a commercial real estate firm in Memphis, Tenn. He was chairman of Rebuild Government, which about five years ago pushed for a consolidation with Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn. He wasn’t even born before a prior effort to merge those governments in 1971.
Cobbins is black.
“It’s hard for people to even imagine you can reshape your government into something different,” he said. “Most people didn’t even know that the charter was something you could change.”
A merger vote was taken in 2010. Cobbins said African Americans made up 63 percent of Memphis and more than half of Shelby County — a far greater percentage than Montgomery County. The effort passed in the city of Memphis with a slim 51 percent but needed a successful county vote to proceed. It failed.
“Part of the point I was trying to make to the African American community was you’re 54 percent of Shelby County and growing. So rather than look at it as holding on to this small territory, you could have a larger role in a larger pie based on demographic trends,” he said. “It was a lost opportunity.”
As a local committee works to develop a charter here, there will be multiple sessions for community discussion, Foley said. He’s asking for the community’s help.
Foley has already taken political bullets from his own party chairman, absorbed blows from some in the public, and saw the chief administrators of both the city and county put his plan at arm’s length recently in letters to public employees.
But Foley moves forward undeterred.
“For those of us who believe that government can play a decent role in people’s lives — and I’m one of those — then we ought to be willing to consider that it can be improved,” he said. “We’re not out to create the perfect government, but we’re out to create a better one.”
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