Columbus Needs City Charter Reform

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image of a I support City Council Districts in Columbus Ohio button The current Columbus Ohio city charter was passed by voters in 1914. It has been amended many times since then but one part that has stayed the same is the size and make up of city council. Currently the council is made up of seven members elected to at-large seats. Also since Democrats have the majority on council, appoint new members on a regular basis, and seem to have decisions made before a vote is taken, it’s time to amend the charter again and change the number and make up of city council so it can be more responsive and more accountable to the voters of Columbus.

And the Columbus City Charter has, in fact, remained a living document, having been amended 61 times over the past 98 years. However, the 7 member At Large Council provision remains in place today, despite the huge changes in the City over that period of time. When this At Large system was adopted in 1914, the city had a population of 181,500 that was concentrated in 24.5 square miles. Columbus is now over 787,000 residents in 225 square miles. Despite those changes, we retain this archaic structure of 7 members elected At Large on Council.

A History and Perspectives on Council Governance in Columbus

The other problem with an at-large council format is it has been used in the past to marginalize minority voters. The first African-American council member wasn’t elected until 1969 and the council has had little to no Republicans for decades.

The last time a change to the council structure was considered was in 1993 but the council didn’t forward the recommendation to voters probably because the majority Democrats wanted to maintain their majority. A district or ward based structure would create competitive races and the possibility of a new candidate to upset an incumbent. That would be far more democratic than what happens now.

In contrast with these sister cities, Columbus City Council seems almost hidebound. To start with, there are only seven seats on council, meaning that each member represents more than 100,000 people theoretically. Next, the at-large format assures that candidates aren’t derailed by pesky minority voting blocks, and Democrats almost always run as incumbents! In the last 24 years, only two Democratic candidates for council have had to run as a new candidate. All the other men and women running under the Democratic banner since 1985 have been appointed to fill seats left vacant by Democrats departing council early.

Columbus City Council Through The Years, by Ernie J. Shannon

The Columbus Coalition For Responsive Government is spearheading the effort to by pass council and put a voter initiative on the 2012 ballot. Some of the details of the proposal are:

This petition seeks a REFERENDUM on the proposal to amend Sections 3-6, 9,17,18,20,22,202,204,205,210,211,215,216,219 of the Columbus City Charter with the intention of increasing city council to eleven members, with four members elected citywide and seven members elected from districts. Keep staggered four-year terms (two at-large members and four district members in one election; two at-large members and three district members in the next election). Proportionately increase the number of votes required for council action (e.g., six votes rather than four votes for regular action; eight votes rather than five votes for emergency action).

and

Districts are drawn up by a nine member apportionment board appointed by city council from among qualified applicants (Columbus electors who don’t hold public office or have a financial interest in city business). The apportionment board must reflect the city’s demographics and geography, and not more than three members may belong to the same political party. The apportionment board acts by majority vote; invites proposals from the public; holds at least three public hearings; and makes all proceedings and records public. Members serve without pay, but are reimbursed for expenses. This process minimizes partisanship and maximizes public accountability.

Summary of Petition

That’s it. Change the council to 11 members with 7 elected from districts and 4 at-large and have a non-partisan citizen powered apportionment board to draw the districts after each census.

I really love the apportionment board idea which would reduce the partisanship and special interest influence we saw in Ohio’s congressional reapportionment after the 2010 census.

For those in Columbus who want to support transparent and responsive government check out the Columbus Coalition For Responsive Government website and sign their petition when you can.

Above all, if this issue does make the ballot vote to approve it for better government.


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