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Scott Woods: City Council Cherry-Picks in an Orchard of Anti-Democracy

The appointment of ex-City Council member Mitchell Brown to replace the recently resigned Elizabeth Brown is the latest in a long line of moves that belittle democracy to preserve power.

Scott Woods
Columbus City Hall

About 50 percent of us had a lot of fun over the past week watching Republicans trying to elect a new Speaker of the House of Representatives. After 15 rounds of votes, near fisticuffs and other assorted shenanigans, Kevin McCarthy was finally installed (in every sense of the word).

If you weren’t a Republican, watching these representatives make the sloppiest sausage in the world was entertaining, so long as you didn’t dwell too much on the backroom deals that eventually got the job done. Deals, mind you, that will absolutely come back to bite most Americans—regardless of party affiliation—on our collective backsides. Yep, it was hilarious, in a maddening, end-of-the-world sense.

I imagine the politically blue oasis that is Columbus will be far less entertained once they realize that City Council has been working in as un-democratic a fashion.

You might be forgiven for not knowing what City Council has been up to in recent weeks, what with a National Championship game and a freshly unrepentant Golden Globes on TV. (But also, go Abbott Elementary! Go Michelle Yeoh! Go Angela Bassett!) If you missed it, here is the short version: During Monday’s session, council installed a new member—Mitchell Brown—after the resignation of President Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown.

To be clear, installing City Council members is legal in the case of vacancies. The issue is that this is almost exclusively how City Council gets new members. Sure, they’ll say that new members are put through elections, but that’s window dressing. The elections that too few of us end up voting in are stacked with ringers who have already been given the job, gaining name recognition and becoming part of the political machine. Random citizens struck with the bug for civil service who try to run for City Council seats don’t stand a chance. It’s a shell game.

When the opening was announced, 27 people from various walks of life applied to be considered for the slot. That list got whittled down to eight. On Monday, the members voted to give the seat to Mitchell Brown, a former safety director who literally retired from City Council just over a year ago after serving six years. Current president Shannon Hardin said during the process that he would favor a “civic leader who can act as a caretaker.” So much for new blood. City Council isn’t even hiding its machinations anymore.

Upon Mitch Brown’s retirement way back in (checks notes) December of 2021, he stated, “I am a 13-year cancer survivor and have devoted my life to being a public servant. Now, I want to take the time to enjoy my family." Well, that was quick. Brown’s reenlistment means that five of the seven members now sitting on City Council are people who were first handpicked before they ever had to run in an election. If you’re someone who has been critical of City Council for longer than two years, that sound you’re hearing is the record being spun back because someone yelled “Rewind!” from the back of the club.

This isn’t democracy, friends. The fact that the city is run primarily by Democrats means little when they operate in the same manner and interests as the other side of the aisle. They aren’t doing this to preserve the inclinations and ideas of citizens. They do this to preserve power. If you’re wondering why they would install such an obvious ringer, consider that these will be the members until we all pretend to have a fair and open election in November. And what’s going to be different for City Council in the future? They’ll be adding two members and changing from an at-large body to a hybrid model that says candidates must live in the districts they’re seeking to represent (though voters remain citywide, so good luck with that).  

While many of us were laughing at Republicans last week, we’re experiencing a genuine depletion of democracy in this city at the highest levels, again. We have street-level issues that need more than an appearance by a City Council member at a neighborhood event where we treat them like celebrities. These aren’t the kind of developments we can afford to keep letting slide off of our radars. This is one of those perennial things in Columbus that you think doesn’t affect you until it does, and by then it’s too late.