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KEVIN LEININGER: New political reality on City Council has worked out just fine — so far

Given its political split, 5-4 votes like this one could be a common site at City Council this year -- but not always along party lines. (Courtesy photo)
Kevin Leininger

With the GOP’s majority on City Council dwindling from 7-2 to 5-4 on Jan. 1, some predicted the first test of Democratic loyalties would come with the choice of whether to uphold Mayor Tom Henry’s pocket veto of bill to weaken his administration’s control over Fire Department discipline and promotions.

The reasoning appeared sound enough: The bill passed in December by a 7-2 vote, and an override decision created something of a conflict between Democrats’ impulse to back a mayor of their own party and their traditional support for organized labor. So when the override fell one vote short of the required six last week, it seemed to suggest that council’s new composition will produce many such 5-4 votes this year.

That may still happen, but the 5-4 vote upholding the veto was not along party lines at all, with two Republicans (Paul Ensley and Jason Arp) supporting Henry and one Democrat (Glynn Hines) supporting the bill to give more authority to the Fire Merit Commission. As partisanship drives Congress to the brink of total dysfunction, council members’ performance so far this year proves party differences need not overpower principle or courtesy.

Perhaps that’s true in part because Henry, whose lack of communication with council has been criticized in the past, attended the Jan. 7 organizational meeting and again last week, when his presence assured some council members they could uphold the veto because the administration will take action to resolve lingering animosity between firefighters and department commanders. “We should take the time to do this right, but if there’s no progress we can bring (the ordinance back) within 90 days,” Arp, one of council’s most conservative members said in a sentiment that was echoed by Geoff Paddock, D-5th.

Would council have been willing to take another look at the bill had the GOP kept or even increased its 7-2 majority? Maybe not, meaning a bill even supporter Russ Jehl, R-2nd, concedes was imperfect could have taken effect. If the ongoing discussions produce a mechanism that will ease departmental tensions without excluding Chief Eric Lahey and other command from decisions in which they should participate, all the better.

If there are Democrats on council who expect their Republican colleagues to surrender their narrow advantage for the sake of “balance,” they will be disappointed. The presence of a Democratic mayor, in fact, may make GOP solidarity that much more important — especially if Henry tries to make Fort Wayne more “progressive,” as he indicated he would at the Jan. 7 meeting. The expectation that at-large Democrat Hines might serve as council president this year after serving as vice president last year was also unrealistic.

But Republicans can and should be generous, and it was a mistake for new President Tom Didier, R-3rd, to deny Hines’ request to chair the Finance Committee in the second half of the year, when budget priorities are set. Didier offered Hines, council’s longest-serving member, the job during the first half of the year, and when Hines declined Democrat Sharon Tucker, his successor in the 6th District, got the job.

Overall, though, despite concerns expressed by Tucker and new at-large Democrat Michelle Chambers that council appointments to various boards have lacked political balance, council’s performance to date has belied its seeming partisan divide, with members demonstrating a commendable amount of collegiality and insight even as they disagree. Would a seemingly imminent resolution calling for a public memorial to Martin Luther King’s 1963 visit to Fort Wayne have happened without the election of two more Democrats, both African-American women?

Maybe, but the new council’s performance to date indicates diversity, in all its forms, really can be a strength after all. Hopefully their willingness to focus on policy, not personalities, will continue even if Democrats make good on their pledge to revisit Republicans’ controversial party-line abolition of collective bargaining for most city employees. Such an effort should fail, but cordially.

Electric Works update

Saturday I reported exclusively that the developers of Electric Works are seeking an extension of their agreement with the city in order to finalize a letter of intent with an anchor tenant — a corporate headquarters that would occupy about 200,000 square feet. Would the city agree to extend the current Feb. 1 deadline to meet certain leasing and financial benchmarks into April?

In a statement, spokesman John Perlich said the city is “encouraged about the news of an anchor tenant . . . We are anxious to learn more as soon as the developer and the prospective tenant are able to do so. As it relates to a possible extension, the public financing partners are in active communication with one another and the development team on what the next steps might be.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.