Fighting City Hall, the Prequel

Columbus Monthly Staff
Represent Columbus co-chair Jonathan Beard delivers signatures to City Hall in May.

Columbus voters are about to decide on a proposal that could transform city council. Jeff Long looks back at the last time the city considered creating a ward system more than 40 years ago.

Can this really be the end of the Magnificent Seven? After 102 years, will the stout Columbus City Council walls finally tumble down, leaving City Hall defenseless against Republicans and other barbarians who would cast the current occupants straight into the Scioto River?

On Aug. 2, Columbus voters will have their third chance, their first in 41 years, to revamp city council, a monumental decision to move from the seven-member at-large system that has been in place since 1914 to a hybrid with 10 members elected from wards and three at-large.

For almost 20 years (the last Republican was elected in 1999), Democrats have made council the most exclusive club in town: invitation-only, outsiders need not apply. It's a neat trick: fellow Dem leaves council mid-term, colleagues appoint new Dem member who runs as a well-funded incumbent in next election. And this strikes the folks from Represent Columbus, the citizens' group behind the ballot issue, as unfair, even undemocratic.

In July, Mayor Andy Ginther and Councilman Shannon Hardin-beneficiaries of council appointments themselves- announced the formation of a committee to review how council is structured. The proposal is an alternative of sorts to the ballot initiative, which no one in City Hall supports. It goes to show the difference 41 years can make. The last time a ward proposal was on the ballot, the idea was backed by an influential member of council. That would be John Rosemond, who made moving to a neighborhood representative system part of his platform in the 1975 mayoral race against incumbent Republican Tom Moody. Rosemond, Columbus' first black city councilman of the 20th century, wanted 11 members, five at-large and six from wards.

"It was about minority representation, Negro representation," says Jon Beard, co-chair of Represent Columbus. Race had certainly been a factor in 1968, when Mayor M.E. "Jack" Sensenbrenner pushed a ward issue on the ballot. "One of the aims of the proposal will be to provide representation to the Negro minority which now has no voice on the city council," a Dispatch story said. The '68 issue was defeated, with council member Jerry O'Shaughnessey blaming the loss in part on "a certain amount of white backlash, a fear of some whites that Negroes would be on council."

Rosemond may have feared that backlash. Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David Cain, then a City Hall reporter for the Dispatch, says Rosemond "kept saying we'd have 'neighborhood representation.' There was a lot of talk about 'save our neighborhoods.'" Rosemond lost, and the ballot issue went down by a three-to-two margin.

Then, as now, skeptics wondered how such a far-flung city could have a fair, cost-effective and workable number of wards of equal size. For instance, Columbus now has 850,000 people; so, 10 wards of 85,000 people each-there are no "neighborhoods" in Columbus of 85,000 people. Are you going to put Clintonville in a ward with South Linden? Rosemond "was a conscientious, well-meaning person," Cain says. "He really believed [wards] would help give neighborhoods more of a voice. As a reporter I'm thinking, 'not really.'"

Longtime Republican politico Terry Casey worked for Moody in '75. He doesn't recall much dissatisfaction with the status quo. "You had diversity-there was a Republican mayor, two Republicans on council. There was a real feeling of democracy." He thinks Columbus might be more ready for a change now, pointing to the devastating recent defeats of the school levy and the Downtown zoo expansion, issues strongly backed by city leaders. "Voters didn't just say 'no,' they said 'hell no.' We're seeing this discontent with elites everywhere. Maybe it's not as bad here, but at least there's going to be some debate on this issue."

Debate is something in short supply in recent years at Columbus City Hall, home of the unanimous council vote. Imagine council members who actually disagree with each other. Says Cain, ever the reporter, "It made Monday nights a lot more interesting."

The Long Flirtation with Wards

1914: Columbus voters approve a city charter that establishes a city council of seven at-large members.

1958: A charter revision committee recommends enlarging the size of council from seven to nine to accommodate the city's growth. Council declined to put the proposal on the ballot.

1968: Voters soundly reject a ballot issue that proposes a 13-member city council with seven elected from wards.

1975: Columbus again defeats a ward proposal, backed this time by Columbus mayoral candidate John Rosemond.

1991: Councilman M.D. Portman calls for an expansion of city council to nine members.

1993: A five-member charter review commission recommends studying the size and composition of city council.

2012: The Coalition for Responsive Government fails to collect enough valid petition signatures to put a ward proposal on the ballot.

2016: Voters will decide this month whether to approve or deny a ballot initiative that would create a 13-member city council with 10 elected from districts.

Source: Dispatch archives, Represent Columbus