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Issue One Debated At Columbus Metropolitan Club

Alison Holm

Supporters and opponents of a ballot issue that would change the structure of Columbus City Council continue to debate the issue for the public, with a forum Wednesday at the Columbus Metropolitan Club.  Alison Holm reports.

Issue One calls for replacing the current city council of seven members elected at-large, with a 13 person body, composed of three at-large members and 10 elected from and representing yet-to-be determined wards, by 2018.  The group Represent Columbus supports the measure, saying it will give a voice to parts of the city that have been neglected under the current system.  The opposition, lead by the group One Columbus, says the proposal would balkanize council, and pit one neighborhood against another.  One Columbus representative and one-time Democratic mayoral candidate James Ragland says while people may be frustrated with city government, a ward system doesn't address the problems.
"I think that what the people are clamoring for is effectiveness.  We're not looking for fights at city hall, we're looking for more impact on our neighborhoods, we're looking for more effectiveness in our neighborhoods....  Does Issue One mean that every single neighborhood in Columbus is going to look like German Village?  Absolutely not.  Can we accomplish the goals that are needed in Linden and Franklinton and some of our other communities under an at large system?  Absolutely I believe that we can.
But Represent Columbus' co-chair Whitney Smith, a Republican who is running for Franklin County commissioner, says the city has outgrown the current system.
"Fundamentally, you cannot represent 800-thousand people in the city of Columbus.  It's not fair to the city council members to have that task, and it's also not fair to the people that are asking for a representative in their neighborhood to talk to, and tell about whatever issue they have that is very specific to their neighborhood."  
Issue One does not address appointments to fill city council vacancies, an issue that has been blamed for creating a one-party stranglehold on council.  Smith's co-chair, long time neighborhood activist Jonathan Beard notes that in the past 30 years, only 3 council members have won a race without first being apppointed to fill a vacancy.  He says that makes it impossible for voters to control their own council. Narrowing the field, he says, will open up the system.
"In a city-wide elections that costs a quarter of a million to run a competitive race against an incumbent.  Nobody can raise that kind of money.  So, once they're in offfice, the people cannot remove them.  once they're in office they can irritate somebody on the southeast side and get their votes on the northwest side.  Local representation breaks it down to where we've got a managable political system that we can make an impact on.  Right now, as citizens we've lost control of our government."
But One Columbus campaign manager Bryan Clark says wards won't take money out of politics.
"You have districts that are roughly the size of a statehouse district, and that's certainly not a grassroots campaign, as we see every election cycle here in Columbus.  And as we see in Austin and Seattle, both cities in their first ward elections, set new records for candidate spending and special interest spending in their elections.  Record spending.  So this notion that moving to wards will magically remove money from politics, or make our elections more competitive, has been proven wrong time and time again."
The last city-wide August special election was in 2009, a city income tax proposal that drew less than 19% of registered voters.  Critics at the time charged city officials had deliberately scheduled the issue for an August vote, when many people would be out of town and small group of motivate supporters could sway the vote. One Columbus' Clark says the same reasoning is behind the timing of this vote.  
"And if you look at social media and the discussion about this from the supporters of Issue One, you'll find that this was a campaign tactic: they chose this election because in their words they wanted fewer voters at the polls.  That was a campaign decision, it was not a decision for a more informed electorate.  ...If we're going to make a massive change to our local government, I'd much rather have more citizens weigh in than fewer. "
 But Represent Columbus' Beard says the process was not so calculated.   
"We started this in 2011, and submitted signatures in the summer of 2012. Submitted over 30-thousand petition signatures; did not have enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.  In 2014 we went throught the Charter Review process and presented testimony and asked for the Charter Review commision to consider this; they did not do that.  In 2015 we tried again; submitted in August - in July 2015 to try and get on the November ballot.  Again, we came up short with the petition signatures.  We were running as a grassroots effort at that time - this time we professionalized the effort and put a lot more into the upfront validation of signatures.  Qualified for the ballot, and under the Ohio constitution and the city charter, it's required that once the petitions are validated, it's 120 days the the ballot."
In the meantime, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther has announced that he will form a charter review committee after the election to study reforming the appointment process to fill vacancies for city council, and get feedback from redsients on changes they would like to see.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.
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