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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, January 07, 2018 1:00 am

Council post: Prestige, no power

'It's always kind of a compliment' from peers

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

It's an annual ritual. Each January, as required by state statute, the Fort Wayne City Council elects a president to run meetings, determine the weekly agenda and set discussion topics for special Fifth Tuesday sessions.

The council president performs routine functions, although being selected for the position can be prestigious. 

There's not a lot of room, however, for much partisan muscle-flexing by the council president, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.

“The City Council operates in a rather cooperative and cordial manner with only a few partisan battles in any given year. The number of partisan battles has a tendency to increase during a municipal election year,” Downs said, adding that former City Councilman Don Schmidt, R-2nd, used to refer to that time of year as “the silly season.” 

“We can ask which came first, the cooperative and cordial manner or restraint of power by the council president. I would guess that the cooperative and cordial manner has been more influential.” 

The council last Tuesday unanimously selected Councilman Tom Freistroffer, R-at large, as president. 

The position doesn't come with a lot of overt political power, Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, said, but it is an honor. 

“I think it's always kind of a compliment from other members of the council,” said Crawford, who was chosen as council's vice president this year. 

Crawford has served as council president four times. Presidents and vice presidents serve one-year terms and are replaced at the start of each year. 

There are also no monetary perks that come along with the title. Each council member earns the same $22,279 annual salary. 

The council president does have influence over appointing others to head the body's various committees, and Fort Wayne's various boards and commissions. It's the president's job to determine who would be best for those appointments. 

“For example, when we did the smoking ordinance, I asked to be chairman of the regulations committee so I could kind of keep track of the discussion,” Crawford said. Each council committee consists of the entire council. The committee chair reads each bill for consideration and moderates discussion. 

The council president does more than bang the gavel to start and end meetings, said Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd.

Didier, who was council president in 2017 and has held the position three times, said the council president should be informed of everything that's going on. The president handles emails from City Council Attorney Joe Bonahoom and from City Attorney Carol Helton, Didier said. The president also determines which ordinances will be discussed and when. Didier said he often did this to balance the flow of meetings.

“I would always want to be involved with everything that had to do with making sure the meeting would run smoothly,” Didier said. “It really is more than just hitting the gavel. It's about keeping everybody organized.” 

A council president could choose to exert more influence and power over colleagues, Downs said, but it's unlikely such a move would be well-received. 

“A president of the Fort Wayne City Council will accomplish more by working with the other members of the council than by flexing the muscle of the presidency,” Downs said. 

To the viewing public, the annual reorganization is one of the least dramatic meetings of the year. A nomination from the majority party is put forward and voted upon, usually with little to no discussion. Tuesday's meeting in which Freistroffer was elected lasted less than 10 minutes. The same is true for council's board appointments. 

But some councilmen over the years have attempted to challenge tradition.

In January 2008, some city council Democrats attempted to fight the Republican majority over board member selections. Typically, council officers and board appointments – when council members are selected as board and commission liaisons – are determined in a closed-door caucus before the official vote. 

Former Councilman Tim Pape, D-5th, took issue with the closed-door process and moved to delay the appointments until council members had an opportunity to request positions. 

Republican council members defended the process as one that's been used for decades by council majorities from both parties. Didier told Pape at the time that it was the Republican majority's right to make board appointments. 

That process hasn't changed much. However, Didier said city council members have largely become less partisan in how they deal with one another, leading to fewer contentious reorganization meetings. 

“I really don't see the politics in this,” Didier said. “Occasionally you'll see it, but it's not like it was before.”