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Without Campaign Finance Reform, City Council Proposal Seen As Ineffective

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Esther Honig
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Committee members discuse the final changes to their recommendation.

If Columbus City Council wants a change, both liberal and conservative advocates say a committee proposal will just lead to more of the same.

Last summer, Columbus voters considered revamping City Council from an at-large system to a ward-based system that would have ushered in district representation. Issue 1 received thousands of petition signatures, but lost by a landslide at the polls.

People liked the idea of more representation for neighborhoods, but critics say Issue 1 had too many unknowns. For one, the districts themselves wouldn’t be drawn until months later.

Now, after looking at other cities and research, the charter review committee says they've found what might work best for Columbus: a hybrid of both at-large and ward representation. 

Catherine Turcer, from the left-leaning think tank Common Cause Ohio, thinks the idea is a little backwards.

"The question is, will it work?" Turcer says. "And I'm not entirely convinced that it does."

In short, there would be nine members on City Council. Each member would represent their own district and they would have to live in that district.

But unlike true ward representation, these council members would be elected by voters city-wide instead of just the voters in their district.  

"So imagine a system at the state level, where everyone got to vote on the state senator from Columbus," Turcer says.

Turcer says the change wouldn’t shake up City Hall because neighborhoods with little voting power would still lack true representation. The cost of running a city-wide election is still prohibitive for outsider politicians.

Not to mention, the city's heavily Democratic constituents could prevent Republicans from ever winning a seat.

"It's useful to have, let's say chocolate and vanilla having an argument, it's a good idea to actually have different points of view and different ideas expressed," Turcer says.

For most of its history, the city of Tucson has been using a model similar to what's been proposed for Columbus.

Andrea Kelly, a reporter with Arizona Public Media, says not everyone's a fan. 

"Well, in Tuscon, Republicans are the opponents to this system," Kelly says.

If each districted elected their own representative to City Council, Kelly says that two Tucson districts, with more residents that are conservative, would likely elect Republican candidates.

"But given that it's a citywide general election, Republicans have a hard time winning in two of the districts, and as it sits today, the city council is seven Democrats," she says.

Brad Sinnott, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, is all too familiar with this issue. There hasn't been a republican on Columbus City Council for, well, years.

This new proposal is nothing more than a facade for neighborhood representation, Sinnott says, "without doing anything that threatens the complete Democratic monopoly on City Hall."

But the big elephant in the room, he argues, is campaign finance limits for City Council candidates. In the most recent mayoral campaign, individual donations were as large as $50,000.

"It's the Wild West in Columbus," Sinnott says. "It's as if Watergate never happened in this city."

Both Sinnott and Turcer agree: Campaign finance reform is key to bringing Council members closer to their voters. They says it should have been discussed by the charter review committee.

The committee's chair, though, says the topic wasn't even included in their agenda.