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Ginther's Ethics Proposals Get Public Hearing

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Elected Columbus officials - including former City Council president and current Mayor Andy Ginther - have faced a series of ethical issues and investigations over the past year. A lobbyist connected to RedFlex admitted to funneling money to elected city officials to maintain the red light camera company's contract with Columbus. No former or current city officials were charged.  The Ohio Ethics Commission has launched two investigations - one last year related to a trip four current or former council members took to a football game in 2014 and another last month regarding contracts the city awarded to nonprofit organizations that have employed current or former council members. During his mayoral campaign, Ginther proposed a series of ethics reforms. Council on Wednesday held a public hearing to learn what residents think about the proposed changes.  Mike Foley reports.

Three pieces of legislation comprise the reforms, all with the goal of providing greater accountability and transparency. The changes include the creation of a searchable database of campaign contributions and expenditures and more frequent campaign finance filings. For example, nine campaign finance reports would be required during election years and four reports during non-election cycles. Elected officials and staff would receive additional ethics training and have to provide more specific information about gifts they receive. Lobbyists would be required to disclose their expenditures and interactions with officials and departments three times a year.  Columbus City Council hosted the public session, which featured only 5 speakers. For the most part they supported the legislation but wanted council members to do more.  Jonathan Beard with the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government brought up a common criticism about the legislation – its lack of caps on contributions. Here’s his exchange with Council Member Michael Stinziano, a former state legislator.

“Mr. Beard, so you start off with the cap on contributions. We had a cap at the Statehouse, we have a cap at the federal level. They’re raising a lot more money. And so just curious why you see caps as being an actual solution? As long as there’s transparency that’s being reported, I think that’s what’s most key. My concern with caps is kinda what goes on, that it’s being somewhat hidden.

“That’s a good point. Again, this is in the context of a whole bunch of things that need to happen. There’s no silver bullet. We think caps are one reason. The question for voters is…are our politicians being bought? So when Les Wexner gives $30,000 to now Mayor Ginther, does that mean something? When the Edwards give $42,000 to now Mayor Ginter, does that mean something? That’s a question for us as citizens – are people buying our public officials? And caps are important in that regard.”

Dana Moessner represents the Bronzeville Neighborhood Association and serves on the Near East Area Commission.  He expressed interest in a broader ethics measure.

“The appointment process to all commissions, boards, those various groups, needs to have more transparency.”

Others have criticized the plan for not establishing an independent outside consultant, but council seems receptive to that especially after the suggestion came from State Representative Mike Curtin, who was part of a small team providing council with recommendations on the legislation.

“Whether it’s two reports in a given period or three reports or four isn’t as important as real-time accountability, real-time transparency, real-time access and I’ve been frustrated with sort of the gotcha mentality at the state level on some of the de minimis stuff. As I fill out my reports – my umpiring fees for example – why does that matter? It really doesn’t and it’s not what the public cares about. So one of the questions I would have is how do we focus on the big stuff and not get people tripped over the de minimis stuff. “

Council President Zach Klein says he expects council to move forward with the legislation with a couple clarifications.

“One is whether it’s each individual council member needs to have an ethics policy or whether council itself. I tend to lean that the council body should have one ethics officer. I would like that to be our human resources officer who has been involved in ethics reform in the past. Instead of having seven piecemeal pieces, we’ll have one piece that governs the legislative branch. The second piece that needs clarification – how the definition of annual is determined – whether that’s every January 1 or on the anniversary of that engagement with the lobbyist. I think that needs to be clarified. We’re going to put forward these three pieces of legislation as a start. We’re going to look for an outside consultant, someone from outside Columbus to make sure that hey, you’re doing great here you’re doing poor here, so when we’re doing poor we continue to move forward and make a difference.”

Council is expected to vote on the reforms in the next couple weeks.      

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. He earned Broadcasting and Journalism degrees from the University of Florida.
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