Local Politics: Voters to settle City Council debate

Michael Curtin

Columbus finally may get the debate it deserves over the best form of City Council for the future. For the first time in 42 years, this question will be put to voters in a November general election.

That's good. Such a substantive issue deserves to be decided in a general election, which produces higher voter turnout and is preceded by months of candidate forums and debates.

Unfortunately, the last time the city voted on a similar issue was in August 2016, a special election necessitated by a citizens' initiative. With nothing else on the ballot to spur voter interest, that election produced voter turnout of 9 percent.

This fall voters could see two competing issues on the City Council matter – one placed by council members, and an alternative placed by the same coalition that produced the 2016 issue.

Council President Zach Klein said public hearings soon will be scheduled on a proposal recommended by the city's charter-review committee. The committee proposed that council be expanded from seven to nine members, each from a separate district. Candidates would run head-to-head for seats in their respective districts, but all voters citywide would cast ballots in all races. In effect, this would establish district residency requirements for candidates.

Committee Chairwoman Stefanie Coe said the proposal preserves the century-old tradition of keeping council members accountable to all voters, while meeting community desires for district representation.

The competing proposal, using the initiative process, would create a 13-member council, with three members elected at-large and 10 from districts. Those 10 would be elected by voters exclusively within their districts.

The first proposal, which could be modified based on citizen input gathered at the public hearings, is likely to have support from the Franklin County Democratic Party and many current Democratic officeholders.

The second proposal, if it makes the ballot, likely would be supported by a coalition of Democrats dissatisfied with the party establishment. It also likely would be supported by the Franklin County Republican Party, which hopes to regain a foothold in City Hall. The GOP has not held an elective office there since 2002.

To qualify for the ballot, the coalition needs to gather at least 17,780 valid signatures of Columbus voters in time for the Aug. 9 filing deadline – 90 days before the Nov. 7 election.

Klein said he hopes public hearings on the charter-review committee's plan will answer questions over how district lines would be drawn, and other mechanics of a new elections process.

The opposing coalition is not impressed. Spokesman Jonathan C. Beard contends continuing the practice of electing all council members at-large perpetuates the overwhelming influence of big money in campaigns and dilutes true neighborhood representation.

In the unlikely event that both proposals appear on the ballot and both win voter approval, the city charter mandates that the proposal receiving the most votes will take effect.

The Nov. 7 ballot in Columbus offers new candidates for city attorney and city auditor, and six candidates competing for three council seats – a good environment for settling this long-running debate.