While the Oklahoma City Council talks redistricting, south-side citizens ask for another inner-city ward 

John Foreman, a 29-year resident of Oklahoma City's Capitol Hill district, had a complaint.

On Nov. 9, he let the Oklahoma City Council know about it.

"Would you guys consider maybe creating an inner-city south-side ward?" Foreman asked the council during the portion of the meeting set aside for citizen input. "There's a feeling of frustration, of not being heard."

Foreman's request set off a debate among the council, with some arguing for the creation of two new wards, others arguing to keep the overall number of districts but redraw the lines, and others wanting to leave things basically the same.

The ward boundaries are redrawn every 10 years based on figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, and this year's census data is expected to be made available during the spring. The last redistricting took effect in January 2002, and is required by the city charter to be completed one year after the census numbers come out. The city charter states that wards must be divided as close as possible in terms of population, and that the City Council can create more wards to evenly distribute the population.

In a telephone interview, Foreman said he became frustrated when the City Council voted to raise utility rates in September.

"Someone who has a limited income or is very poor, $5 is a huge thing," he said. "When a dollar is separating them from $30 overdraft fees, it takes months to recover from that."

At the council meeting, Foreman said the council member currently representing his residence " Meg Salyer of Ward 6 " does a good job, but that she is too far removed geographically to fully understand the concerns of his neighborhood.

"She's a wonderful councilor, but she lives in a very different area than I do," Foreman said. "She's a great person, but I don't think someone who lives north of the (Oklahoma) River has the same priorities and concerns that the people who live in my neighborhood do."

The Capitol Hill District, located south of downtown around S.W. 25th Street roughly between Western Avenue and Shields Boulevard, was once its own city in the early 1900s, but it merged with Oklahoma City not long after statehood and experienced a decline of many businesses in the area beginning in the 1970s.

The district, home to several historic buildings, still has its own Main Street and has experienced a Hispanic population boom in recent years. Some of the buildings on Commerce Street " which is S.W. 25th Street " are abandoned, and most of the houses are modest, but Foreman said the neighborhood is a source of pride and the place he calls home.

Foreman's request had an eager audience with Councilman Pete White, Ward 4.

"I couldn't agree with you more," White said. "It (Capitol Hill) doesn't have the character, the integrity of an area that is represented. It, more than any part of Oklahoma City, has lost its sense of identity because of that. What was one time considered Capitol Hill is part of five separate wards. You can't name me another community in the city that has been treated that way. Not one."

White recommended increasing the number of wards from eight to 10, which would add two new council members to the governing body.

"We need to go to 10 wards, there's no way to create an inner-city ward like you're talking about without expanding the total number of council members," he said. "I've been looking at it for 20 years, and there's only one way to do it and that's to go to 10 wards."

Council member Patrick Ryan, Ward 8, said he was skeptical of increasing the number of council seats, adding that there are different communities spread across each current individual ward.

"If we draw the lines so close to represent each interest in a ward, we're going to have hundreds of wards," Ryan said.

White said that, under the charter rules, keeping the current eight-ward system would grow many of the already large wards, while making a few with high population density and growth even smaller. White said his ward was already 160 square miles, and would only get bigger after redistricting.

Councilman Ronald "Skip" Kelly, Ward 7, seemed to like the idea of having, if not more wards, more members of the council.

"I've always questioned why we don't have at least an at-large councilperson," Kelly said. "I don't know how we do it, but I think it has some merit to it, and I think it's probably something we should be very concerned about as we redraw the boundaries."

Rather than expanding the number of wards, Councilman J. Brian Walters, Ward 5, said that the council should possibly look at doing a better job representing all of the districts within their wards.

"Maybe the criticism lies with us and not with the lines," Walters said.

Councilman Sam Bowman, Ward 2, also said that the city's high Hispanic population is something not reflected on the current council.

"There are pockets of the city that don't get the full attention they deserve the way wards are drawn," Bowman said. "There's a portion of the city that I just don't think we do justice by not making that part of the equation. I would like to see if that could be accomplished within the existing eight wards first."

For some of those who live and work in the Capitol Hill District, the idea of having a council person representing their district seemed like a good idea.

"If it makes more progress for us to have one, it would be better," said Raphael Chavez, who works at one of the downtown shops in Capitol Hill. "We think there's too many (wards splitting Capitol Hill). We need one."

Jorge Hernandez, who owns an Allstate insurance agency in Capitol Hill, said he believes the district does not get the recognition it deserves and would like to see the council expanded.

"My initial thoughts on it are that it would be a great opportunity for Capitol Hill," Hernandez said. "It doesn't get the attention it deserves. Capitol Hill is an up-and-coming business district. We're seeing positive changes taking place."

As for Foreman, he said he believes a ward representing the inner city, one that includes Capitol Hill, is needed.

"I think there needs to be more representation of the inner city," he said. "These wards are stretched so far."

The issue should at least be talked about, he said.

"So many people are scared of the debate, it's frightening to me," Foreman said. "We need to be talked with, not talked at."

Photo/Mark Hancock

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