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What's The Deal With Columbus' Dueling City Council Structure Proposals?

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Esther Honig
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Last week a new proposal to amend Columbus' charter was submitted to city hall. It's a new version of an old idea - changing the structure of City Council.

Columbus has a council far smaller than most cities its size, just seven seats for 800,000 people. And many voters have signaled that they want some sort of change.

Ill-Fated Issue 1

To fully understand this story, though, we have to travel back in time to August 2, 2016 - before the Cubs won the World Series or Donald Trump won the presidency. Columbus residents were voting in a special election, on something called Issue 1. 

A grassroots group, Represent Columbus, gathered some 38,000 signatures to get Issue 1 on the ballot. They wanted a big change.

Issue 1 proposed growing City Council to 13 members, but more importantly, it proposed something called "ward representation." Ten of the council members would be elected by individual districts, and they would be tasked to represent the people of that district.

That's a drastic change from the city's current system, where all members are voted on at-large and represent the city as a whole.

"From a policy perspective, we're not seeing a City Council that's sensitive to the ordinary citizens of Columbus," says Jonathan Beard, the guy behind Represent Columbus.

Beard says city-wide campaigns require gobs of money, party backing or corporate ties. He thinks ward representation would allow everyday citizens to run for City Council.

That would improve neighborhoods, he argues, because there would be an elected official dedicated to solving the issues of that neighborhood.

But last August, the voters did not agree.

Issue 1 was defeated by a landslide at the polls. Many critics pointed to what they saw as an obvious flaw in the plan: There was no map illustrating what these districts would look like. 

"We got our clock cleaned in the campaign," Beard admits.

A Second Swing

Eight months later, Beard is back with a new plan. 

"We did something to take away some of the, um, campaign attacks that we got last time," he says.

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This time, Beard made a map that shows all 10 districts. He's also made some additional changes.

"We put caps on contributions to campaigns," Beard says.

Right now, there is no limit for campaign contributions to City Council candidates. Under this new proposal, any individual, organization or corporation is limited to give $1,000 to a candidate. A political party is limited to $5,000.

Beard's old plan also contained an unpopular provision to have the number of council members grow as the city's population expands.

"And so this time, we said, you know, forget that," Beard says. "We'll just go with a 13-member council."

But now, the most radical component of Beard's measure would introduce public campaign financing. Candidates could use public funds from the city's casino taxes to quintuple their small-dollar contributions - basically, for every donation of $50 or less that a candidate receives, the city would give them five times that amount. 

Beard says that would maximize the power of small donations.

"We're trying to find one way to emphasis the importance of ordinary people in the elections, and not just folks who can give $10,000 or $20,000 a pop," he says.

Beard submitted this proposal to City Hall last week, but he still has to collect some 17,000 signatures. Still, he's confident his new and improved Issue 1 will be on the ballot this November.

Something In Between

An opposing measure will likely be there, too.

Last summer, Mayor Andrew Ginther assembled a charter review committee with the goal of researching how to best restructure City Council. Committee chair Stephanie Coe says they came up with a compromise between an at-large system and ward representation.

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Credit Esther Honig
The charter review committee meets to finalize a proposal to amend the city's charter.

"Everyone in the city would be able to vote for all nine members, but the members would have to come from a specific district where they reside," Coe says.

Under this plan, Coe says City Council would grow from seven to nine members, each one would represent a certain district and they would have to live in that district. Because every candidate is voted on by the entire city, she says, every member is invested in what's best for the city and not just their district.

"It is ultimately one city, one budget, one set of resources," Coe says.

Coes stresses that other plans like area commissions would improve neighborhood representation, but critics are quick to point out one major oversight: This plan doesn't address the issue of campaign finance reform.

Coe says it wasn't even on the agenda.  

"The charter review committee was given a specific scope, and that was not included," she says.

Coe says the public will have a chance to weigh in on this proposal at a series of public hearings.

While it's not official, come November there's a good chance Columbus voters will have at least two options to choose from, deciding the future of the city's government.