At Final Meeting, Committee Settles On Recommendations For City Council Changes

Feb 21, 2017

A committee appointed to research options for revamping Columbus City Council had its final meeting on Friday, the result of a push from residents to better support district representation.

Last year, a ballot measure known as Issue 1 proposed growing Columbus City Council from seven to 13 members, with 10 of those members elected to represent a particular Columbus neighborhood, or district. 

The measure was defeated in a special election held last year, but because it demonstrated interest for a change in City Council, Mayor Andrew Ginther appointed a committee to research and make recommendations.

Columbus currently operates with what’s called an at-large city council. There are seven members, who are elected at large and they represent the city as a whole.

Now, Issue 1 offered what is called Ward-style representation, where the city is divided into districts. Each district elects their own representative who speaks for them at City Council. The advantage here is that each representatives lives in their district and therefore understands the particular concerns of their own community.

The committee, meanwhile, has developed something of a hybrid solution. They’re saying that they looked at best practices in other cities and decided that, due to its size, Columbus should have nine city council members, and each member must live in and represent their own district. 

Committee chair Stefanie Coe she says this will give residents a voice, in that they’ll know who to turn to when they have a concern about their neighborhood.

"I think geography became a big piece of having a council member that they could relate to as being from their neighborhood, or their section of the city," Coe said.

Unlike Issue 1, the committee recommends that these nine council members are elected by the city at-large. They say that this way, each council member is still accountable to all of the city’s residents.

Coe says it’s the best of both worlds.  

"So ultimately, they are representing the city as a whole, and what’s best for the city, while still allowing the citizens and local communities to feel like they have a greater voice on city council," Coe says.

Coe says this would eliminate any concerns that there would be fighting between council members if they were only beholden to the interests of their individual district.

One big question: Does this recommendation satisfy those residents who supported Issue 1?

Not exactly. A big argument made by supporters of Issue 1 is that the cost of running a city-wide election is often out-of-reach for the average citizen. If you only have to run a campaign in a single district, in theory, it would level the playing field and be much more affordable.  

Whitney Smith—a co-founder of Represent Columbus, the organization that petitioned to get Issue 1 on the ballot—says that keeping city-wide elections really defeats the purpose of district representation.

"So you'll see the same players donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to win these campaigns and run these campaigns, and it really stops normal people, that aren't part of the establishment, that aren't part of the statuesque from running for office," Smith says.  

Now, Smith says, if there were a reform to campaign financing that would, say, put a cap on the amount of money donated to a single campaign, that would be a step in the right direction. However, Coe said that was not an issue the committee had been asked to review and that would ultimately be up to City Council to decide.  

Now that the committee has reached its end, any changes the committee suggests would have to be approved by Columbus voters in order to take effect.