Politics: The new-old City Hall

Jeff Long
(Top) Elizabeth Brown, Michael Stinziano, Jaiza Page, (Bottom) Mitchell J. Brown, Shannon Hardin, Emmanuel V. Remy; All of the above councilmembers have taken office since 2014. Eleven-year-veteran Priscilla Tyson (not pictured) is the lone exception.

This story will not quote The Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again.” There will be no talk of new bosses or old bosses or where they might meet. This story will ask a simple question.

Since 2014, nine out of the 10 elected offices at City Hall—seven council seats, mayor, city auditor and city attorney—have changed hands. That included the exits of Mayor Mike Coleman, Auditor Hugh Dorrian and City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer—with almost 100 years of City Hall experience between them. Throw in a new council president, young Shannon Hardin, named in January, and that's unprecedented change.

Here's the question: Will it make any difference?

In recent years the Democratic stranglehold on City Hall has been tested, the first real challenges in two decades. There was public questioning of the 2014 Big Ten Championship trip taken by four councilmembers alongside a City Hall lobbyist, later convicted in the Redflex scandal. There also was a ballot initiative to create a ward system instead of an at-large council. It failed badly but led to a charter-review committee tasked with looking at council's makeup. Protesters alleging police brutality have disrupted meetings. And there's the frequent cry of “foul” whenever council handpicks someone to fill a vacant seat, allowing the chosen one to run as an incumbent in the next election cycle.

But Columbus is prosperous and runs efficiently, or so goes the status quo argument. Why fix what ain't broke? Continuity is constant at City Hall. The turnover sounds more dramatic than it is, says council newbie Elizabeth Brown. Mayor Andy Ginther and new City Attorney Zach Klein were council presidents after serving for years on council.

Franklin County Republican Party Central Committee Chairman Brad Sinnott is not impressed: “New faces, the same old gang. Different cast, same play.” City Hall hegemony has sapped democratic vitality, he says, citing the ballot issue that would have created a ward system. “[There was] a vote on how to structure city government and 91 out of 100 eligible voters didn't vote.”

Strange bedfellows: Staunch Republicans like Sinnott and lefties like Will Petrik, an unsuccessful council candidate from the Democratic splinter group Yes We Can, sound very much alike when they talk about City Council: It needs to get bigger, with district representation. Campaign finance that enables the current regime needs regulated. And, most of all, the appointment process needs to be reformed. Since 1985, all but four councilmembers have been appointed first. Petrik says, “It's very difficult to know the criteria for the appointment process. … Columbus residents should be asking their representatives, ‘Who are you accountable to?'”

An early look at how the new City Hall will work came in July when council took up the recommendations of the charter-review committee appointed by Ginther and Hardin. Critics scoffed, but the group came up with a modest proposal: Retain the at-large system but add two seats. City Council tabled the proposal. Indefinitely. Says Brown, “I don't know if that will come around again.”