Columbus voters may see a familiar issue on the May ballot: a proposal to convert Columbus City Council from at-large representation to a district representation.
The grassroots group Everyday People for Positive Change has submitted over 42,000 petition signatures to the local board of elections. If the signatures are verified, City Council must vote to approve the issue before it gets to the ballot.
For organizer Jon Beard, it's his third attempt to reform Columbus government. This time, he says, civil rights are at the center of the campaign.
"In Columbus right now, we've got a large concentrated black community whose votes are drowned out in the larger white community and that's problematic under the Voting Rights Act of 1965," says Beard.
Columbus has a significant black community with large concentration in several neighborhoods, like Linden, the South Side and East Side. But Beard says because Council members are elected at-large, by the city as a whole, the voting power of black communities is often diminished.
Late last year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote to the city of Columbus criticizing its election system as having racially discriminatory effects. "We have substantial concerns that [its current electoral structure] violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965," the organization wrote.
Beard says they are launching an investigation in the coming weeks.
While the majority of seats on Columbus City Council are held by African-Americans, Beard says these candidates have been hand-picked by those in power. He argues these members are not behind issues central to the black community, including neighborhood revitalization and violence, such as the increase in homicides the city saw in 2017.
This new proposal has a familiar theme: 10 City Council members would be elected by individual districts. Three council members would be elected at-large.
This time around, however, Beard and his group have drawn a map that outlines the proposed 10 districts. The map was a major sticking point by opponents in 2016, when the issue failed miserably at the polls.
The proposal also includes several new items:
- Council members would be limited to serving no more than three terms, for a total 12 years in office.
- For the next 10 years the size of City Council's staff would be limited to 52 people - including six new council members and four staffers per member.
- There would be a cap on campaign contributions. Currently, Columbus has no limitations. The issue includes limiting how much an individual can hold on to outside of an election period to under $25,000.
- The number of required signatures for getting a candidate on the ballot would drop from 1,000 to 100.
- Candidates would have access to local public access TV channels where they could hold "substantive discussions" on local issues.
According to Beard, City Council has criticized his proposal, saying that this ballot item contains too many subjects for one issue.
"If they try and object to this, we'll have to sue them, unfortunately," Beard says. "We're not going to get bullied out of our rights as citizens to present the initiative of our choice."
In a statement, council president Shannon Hardin said council looks forward to the next step in the ballot initiative process.
"While this blueprint doesn’t differ much from previous proposals," said Hardin. "We should embrace important conversations such as how we govern ourselves."
Hardin added that Columbus residents have repeatedly opposed "Beard's proposal to divide up our city."