Columbus City Council Will See Some Reforms, But Not For Another Six Years
Columbus voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a measure to change the structure of Columbus City Council. But the changes won't kick in until 2024.
At present, City Council is made up of seven members who live anywhere in the city and are voted on by everyone in the city - what's known as an "at-large" system.
The passage of Issue 3, the city charter amendment, will expand the council from seven members to nine members. One member will live in each to-be established district, but will still be elected "at-large" by voters across the city.
After receiving recommendations from a city charter review commission and several months of discussion, Columbus Council voted two months ago to put Issue 3 on the May 2018 ballot - an amendment of its own creation. Unofficial results from the Franklin County Board of Elections show it passed with 75 percent of voters in favor.
Council President Shannon Hardin says it’s not clear yet how the districts will be drawn up.
“In 2021, after the 2020 census, City Council will appoint four members to a districting commission and then the council president and mayor will make a joint appointment of the chair of that commission," Hardin says. "They will have nine months to work to present council with three plans that council will have to choose one of those plans.”
If the sitting council rejects all three proposals, then the commission must return to the drawing board and come up with new ones. The new law requires nine public hearings on the proposals.
Even with the new commission, council maintains full control over the process. But Hardin says they’ll ban lobbyists, city employees, elected officials and candidates from serving on the commission. He says the commission will represent both Democrats and Republicans.
But not everyone is convinced.
Is "At-Large" Voting Representative?
Everyday People for Positive Change is a grassroots organization in Columbus that has repeatedly tried to change the makeup of City Council. Treasurer Jon Beard says the new law was a half-hearted effort to effectuate council reform.
“There was no campaign for it, they raised no money for it, they did no advertising for it,” Beard says. “So again, nobody really wanted this thing. This was a defensive measure because they thought ours was going to be on the ballot as Issue 4.”
Everyday People's proposed Issue 4 would have meant even more radical changes for City Council. Instead of nine members, it would have expanded the number of council members to 13.
It also would ushered in ward-based elections, imposed term limits on members and limited campaign contributions. City Council would have 10 members elected by district, and three elected "at-large."
But both City Council and the Ohio Supreme Court rejecting the measure, saying it violated the single-subject rule for ballot issues. Beard disagrees with that appraisal.
“They didn’t want real reform on the ballot because they wanted to remain a small group of empowered people who are untouchable by voters,” Beard says.
Creating districts for council members to live in, but still electing the council by the entire city, is not representative of minority interests, Beard says.
“For myself as a black man, you look at the fact that we have a majority black City Council led by a black president, and the fact that they would put a racially discriminatory measure on the ballot for vote belies any indication that they represent the issue of black voters,” Beard says.
Both Beard and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argue city-wide elections are discriminatory because they drown out the voices of tightly-concentrated minorities.
But Hardin says "at-large" voting will limit council infighting.
“You wanna know that someone sees, hears and understands the pulse of the community, but they’re taking a global perspective on how to move forward,” Hardin says.
Drawing up districts can be done by computer or commissions. Ned Foley, election law director at the Ohio State University Moritz College Of Law, says the council will have to be wary of unfair gerrymandering as the new commission draws up districts.
“In a city where one political party is dominant, it makes sense to think about the citizen's commission to take it out of the hands of the politicians,” Foley says. “Because if you leave it in the hands of the politicians, it’s hard to get balance between the two parties.”
At the same time Issue 3 passed in Columbus, Ohio voters passed the statewide redistricting measure Issue 1 by a similarly dominating margin. That plan will follow a bipartisan professional model for a redistricting commission.
Foley says that model may not work for a municipality like a city.
“One reason that model may be less suitable at the city level is there is the hope that city governance and city elections are less partisan than state elections,” Foley explains.
In the first City Council meeting of 2024, the city clerk will draw lots to determine which of the nine members will serve four-year terms and who will serve two-year terms, meant to maintain staggered terms.
Issue 3 also extends the time it takes to appoint council members to fill vacant seats, and requires a public hearing before the appointment. That gives people a better chance to weigh in on council’s common practice of members resigning before their term ends.
Typically, the other members of Columbus City Council appoint their replacement, a system that gives unelected members the benefit of incumbency in the next election. This happened as recently as January, when council members selected realtor Emmanuel Remy to fill a seat vacated by former president Zach Klein, who was elected as City Attorney.
Yes We Can Columbus, a progressive coalition, protestedthe decision as undemocratic. Yes We Can candidate Jasmine Ayres, who unsuccessfully ran for election in November, was among the 12 other finalists considered for the vacancy.
Council president Hardin says that change could happen by the end of this year.
“We have two council members currently running for other positions, which means we might have two openings come January 2019,” Hardin says. “Under this plan, we will have to have a public meeting prior to that final appointment of a new council member.”
For other changes, Columbus residents will just have to wait another six years.