The New Albany City Council has undergone a major shake-up in recent years that’s led to several new members joining the board.
The council’s two longest-serving members both died within the last year. Another member could leave to take on a new role with the county government in November.
That means freshmen members will likely hold six of the council’s nine seats by the end of the year.
“Losing the experience that we had in the council with Bob Caesar and Pat McLaughlin, it’s just hard,” council President Jason Applegate said. “When they were around, they would be able to explain how things became what they are, which was probably mostly all positive elements. But then they would also remember some of the battles that went on in those discussions long ago.”
Applegate, a Democrat, is one of three council members who were elected to a first term in 2019. He said the council can’t replace the institutional knowledge of longtime members like McLaughlin and Caesar, who died in June and April, respectively.
The pair had nearly 30 years of council experience between them. Now, the majority of members have less than three years each under their belt. Another new face could join them later this year, if Republican Al Knable wins his race for Floyd County Commissioner.
Applegate said there are benefits to having so many freshmen at the table.
“When you have two thirds of anything that is new, the majority’s in the new, there’s going to be different ways new people look at things,” he said. “I think that that is overall a good thing for government.”
Democratic vice president Jennie Collier became her district’s first new council member in 20 years when she won in 2019, replacing five-term representative Dan Coffey.
Like Applegate, Collier said the lessons she learned from longtime members at the beginning of her tenure were invaluable. But she said fresh perspectives could be a positive change for an evolving community like New Albany.
Over the past 20 years, the city has embarked on several large-scale projects to improve downtown, the Ohio River shoreline and other areas.
Collier said new members can help push that effort forward.
“Even though we do have a lot of new faces and it’s sort of a changing of the guard, I think a lot of us have the same common values and vision for the direction of the city,” she said. “We’re trying to kind of continue with the good work that’s already been started and follow through and create our own in that same path.”
Republican Josh Turner, who also won his first term in 2019, agreed that bringing in new voices results in new ideas and new energy.
He said younger generations can help usher in changes prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically those dealing with digital accessibility.
“In New Albany, you can see there’s just an old way of doing things,” Turner said. “We don’t stream every meeting. We just recently started this transparency portal. The thing is, young people are connected to the internet, they’re connected to people.”
Despite the benefits of having so many new voices, Turner said he’s worried about the divide between elected council members and those who are appointed to fill a vacancy.
When a member vacates a seat, a small group from their party chooses a replacement at a caucus. Democrats picked McLaughlin’s widow, Deanna, to finish his term in July. They recently appointed Democratic Party Chair Adam Dickey to Caesar’s seat.
Turner said that process could result in cronyism on both sides of the aisle that causes political agendas to take precedence over citizens.
“When you can stand up there and have a disagreement and a crucial conversation, it creates dialogue and better outcomes,” he said. “And when you have groupthink and the vote, because they have the majority, is already set before you walk in that meeting, what good comes from that? It hurts the people.”
If Knable wins the county commissioner seat, Republicans will appoint another new member to the city council.
John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John’s coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.