Later this month, Mayor Andrew Ginther will hold his annual "State of the City" speech, looking back at the past year's accomplishments and charting a course for the coming year. But the event’s price tag and long list of private sponsors are raising eyebrows.
Columbus is unique among major Ohio cities in its approach: relying on donors, many of whom do business with the city, to fund the annual event.
Last year, Ginther held his "State of the City" address at East High School before a crowd of about 600. He laid out a vision for the city in a professionally staged event in the school auditorium. Then, as now, the event was funded by private sponsors.
“Well, as you know, we’ve been doing it this way for nearly 20 years,” Ginther explained following a ribon cutting ceremony for White Castle's new headquarters. “And, you know, former Mayor Coleman and I believe it’s important to get the event out of city hall and to take it to neighborhoods throughout the city, and we don’t think necessarily that city resources should go towards it.”
According to the Mayor’s Office, the city began holding the address as a sponsored event in 2004 under Ginther’s predecessor Michael Coleman.
Catherine Turcer from government watchdog group Common Cause Ohio says the mayor’s idea to get out into the community is a good one, but she questions the scope of the event.
“We’re not talking about $100 from the local grocery store," Turcer says. "We’re talking about large contributions from people who are vendors of the city or have contracts with the city to do work.”
This year’s event will have 15 sponsors, who will each contribute anywhere from $1,000-25,000
The biggest contributor is Stantec, an engineering firm headquartered in Canada. This year and last, the company put $25,000 toward the event.
The city has a long standing relationship with firm, going back to 2008 when it acquired R.D. Zande & Associates. During 2019 alone, Columbus City Council signed off on roughly $4.3 million in contracts with the company.
In an emailed statement, vice president Elie Sabbagh defended the company's sponsorship: “At Stantec, we support the communities we live and work in as part of our community engagement program, including providing support for public/community events.”
“You know we ask a lot of different people to support it. Some say yes, some say no,” Ginther says. “We think it’s the best way to include more people and not necessarily have taxpayers pay for it.”
The city raises more than it needs from Stantec and others, and the excess dollars go into a special events fund. That pays for other gatherings throughout the year, like the Women’s Commission and 9/11 remembrance.
WOSU surveyed other major cities around Ohio to see how they handled their own "State Of The City" addresses. None of the governments contacted accept private sponsorships.
This year, Toledo will spend about $1,400 to host the event at the local zoo. In Dayton, last year the city’s only expense beyond staffers was nominal printing costs.
Cincinnati spent just over $2,000 in 2019. For the last few years, Cleveland has hosted a public address like Columbus, but it uses public dollars to pay for it. In 2019, the event cost about $38,450—about $10,000 less than Columbus spent.
Turcer says there’s nothing wrong with using taxpayer dollars for a modest event.
“It’s easy to think [of] ways to make this cheaper,” Turcer says. “But we also should think if this is about looking back and looking forward and doing this in a really deliberative fashion, there’s really no reason that taxpayers shouldn’t pick up the charge for something less elaborate than what they do right now.”
The event’s biggest expense in 2019 was more than $20,000 for a company called Bartha, which handled production like lights, projectors and teleprompters. But coming in right behind that was $15,000 for an invite-only reception at the Franklin Park Conservatory. The mayor’s office describes the guests as sponsors, officeholders and staffers, as well as neighborhood leaders.
Turcer says that looks like a campaign function, even though the mayor wasn't raising money at the reception.
“Well, it clearly is a campaign event,” Turcer says with a laugh. “I think you can split hairs and say that’s not a campaign event, but it really is when it becomes more of a private event.”
State law doesn’t have a bright line definition of what does or doesn’t constitute a campaign event. Instead it’s left to common sense.
Ginther rejects the idea that hosting the reception should be paid for with campaign dollars.
“So it in no way shape or form is political or campaign-related,” Ginther argues. “It is neighborhood and community-based and it revolves around the 'State Of The City,' and since there are no city resources that are dedicated to the state of the city, we think it is appropriate.”
Ginther's "State Of The City" address will be held at West High School on February 13.