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Rich Macke: A Greater Port Arthur for decades to come

Port Arthur is in a much different place from where it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.

Port Arthur’s demographic make-up is ever changing. Prior to Tropical Storm Harvey, African Americans made up 38 percent of Port Arthur’s population; Hispanics, 33 percent; whites, 22 percent; Asians, 7 percent.

This percentage of population breakdown is expected to change again in the 2020 Census audit. Therefore, many citizens across our community feel its time for a drastic change to our municipal election process.

Currently, the Port Arthur City Council consists of seven elected positions. Districts 1 through 4 are single member districts; Positions 7, 8 and the mayor are elected citywide or at-large.

PACC was formatted this way back in the 1980s to increase equal opportunity voting for minority races. That was the right move for that time.

But now, with ever-changing demographics bringing races more in line with each other, we see a more balanced community. That tells us there is a need for a different structure more in line with other communities our size.

The National League of Cities states 49 percent of all cities with a population under 70,000 use at-large positions across the board. Twenty-six percent use a district format, while only 25 percent use a mixed system with both at-large and districts. The last is what Port Arthur uses.

Communities that elect strictly at-large council members believe:

  • Council members in an at-large system can be more impartial, rise above the limited perspective of a single district and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community.
  • Vote trading between council members is minimized.
  • Because candidate pools are larger, better-qualified individuals are elected to the council.

In Port Arthur, we continue to see the same faces over and over elected to their single district with just a couple hundred votes. That makes our election process at the district level more of a popularity contest than an election to foster a better community.

Individuals currently on PACC that support the district format make up 57 percent of our council and may counter:

  • District elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially minority groups. Several court decisions have forced jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to district elections, and in most cases the reason was to allow more representation by specific ethnic and racial groups.
  • District elections may improve citizen participation because council members who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.

Both points above we can debunk by the current demographic population breakdown stated above and the continued low voter turnout in each individual district, year after year. Additionally, a district format is used most commonly in communities where the population is 200,000 or greater. Port Arthur population is around the 50,000 mark.

The time has come for a major overhaul to the municipal election process in Port Arthur. I propose that all council seats become citywide elected seats, with successful candidates voted into their positions by citizens of all districts.

By doing so, we create a stronger council for the entire community. We will see a stronger pool of qualified candidates from which voters might choose, which would result in better decision-making. Ultimately that would encourage a better community with a long-term focus.

The growth of our community depends on citizens appreciating the need for positive change, and perceiving what is holding us back. District seats to which perennial candidates get elected continue to churn out fewer and fewer votes every election. So why should single-district elections continue to degrade and push our city in a negative direction?

It has been well documented the questionable actions by some council members, poor decisions and wasteful spending that have totaled nearly $1 million dollars over the past year.

Repeated poor decision-making by the council continues to frustrate citizens and forces us to think harshly about our elected officials and our city’s governing process. Citizens need to take back our city from those who have treated it so poorly.

Changing the election process won’t be easy. Many insiders like the process the way it is. Change would need to be made in the City Charter, which can only be changed every two years. The last time was in November 2016, when citizens approved removal of district seats 5 and 6. Two years would be November 2018.

A petition will be required. Citizens need to petition City Hall with just over 1,400 signatures to push the issue through.

If citizens want lasting, positive change in Port Arthur, we must overhaul our municipal election process. We cannot continue to allow our city to be held back.

The key is you. Citizens must make this happen.

Rich Macke is publisher of The Port Arthur News.