On Tuesday Columbus voters will decide whether to change the way the city is governed. Issue 1 would change Columbus City Council from seven at-large members to 13 members, 10 of which would represent a particular ward or neighborhood. A number of U.S. cities, like Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas, have recently made the switch to a ward city council.
Three years ago Austin, Texas found itself in a situation similar to Columbus. The city’s population had boomed and some neighborhoods felt under represented.
That's when a grassroots group brought an issue to the ballot that would change Austin City Council. Just like Represent Columbus, the Austin group, Austinites for Geographic Representation, promised this new system would give every corner of the city a voice.
Like Columbus — where current council members live in just four neighborhoods. Austin’s politicians were also isolated to certain parts of the city. According to an ad by Austinites for Geographic Representation, in 2012, 50 percent of council members lived in an area home to just 10 percent of Austin's population.
Austin’s measure, known as prop 3, was successfully passed by voters. The council went from six at-large members to 10 district members and boundaries for the 10 districts were determined by an independent commission.
Today Kathie Tovo is the only council member to serve before and after the big change. She says from the beginning district representation had wide support.
“Increasingly the community had voiced concerns that they needed city council members to represent their areas that were really more familiar with them,” said Tovo.
Supporters of Issue 1 are pushing a similar message. For a city seeking more equal representation for all neighborhoods, district representation is often seen as a solution.
Research by the National League of Cities shows almost half of all U.S. cities with more than 200,000 people use some form of district representation. The system has been shown to give more neighborhoods, and especially neighborhoods of minority groups, a better chance at representation in city council.
It's been over a year since Austin made the switch to district representation and the city is starting to feel the effects. For example, the city's huge Latino population now has three Latinos on city council. Before the change there was just one.
Tovo says feedback from residents has been overwhelmingly positive. People tell her they like having a council member who is more accessible, lives in their neighborhood and is familiar with the needs of that area.
Tovo says the cost of four additional council members and their staff is worth it if it means running a more effective government, but unfortunately she says, at least in Austin's case, one promise of district representation has not proven to be true.
“That [district representation] would make running for office more accessible to ordinary men and women who wanted to step up and run may not have access to a large fundraising base," said Tovo.
In this first round of elections, Tovo says in her district the three candidates, and PAC, spent a total of half a million dollars in their campaigns. Tovo says that’s cheaper than running at-large, but still a lot of money for the average Joe.
Long-time Austin resident Ken Rigsbee says he was opposed to changing city council from the beginning.
“In this part of the county we call it political horse trading,” said Rigsbee.
A retired engineer, Rigsbee served on the committee that reviewed how best to restructure Austin City Council. He worried that 10 district representatives would fight each other for resources and for the interests of their own neighborhoods — not for the city as a whole. So far, Rigsbee says he was right.
“We had our city council oppose a design for a highway that would come in from southwest Austin to downtown because of its aesthetics,” said Rigsbee.
The highway benefited one district, but Rigsbee believes the other representatives didn’t want to upset their constituents by constructing an “ugly” highway. According to the National League of Cities, this might be one example of the infighting that can take place under district representation.
Regardless of how Columbus voters decide on Tuesday, the issue will not disappear. If voters reject Issue 1, the mayor has promised an independent review of city governance including district representation on city council.