Friends of Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government Call for Council Hearings on Citizen-Led Reform Initiative
April 24, 3012
(Columbus, Ohio) Friends of the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government today released an Open Letter to Columbus City Council President Andrew Ginther and the members of the City Council. The letter calls for Council to begin hearings on a citizens’ ballot initiative to amend the City Charter to create a City Council that is more responsive to the needs of the city’s residents. (The letter is available at: http://www.columbuscoalition.info/Friends%204-23-12%20Final%20Letter%20to%20Council%20with%20attachments.pdf )
The letter to City Council was signed by 25 varied constituents in this ad hoc ballot initiative support group, including a Neighborhood Area Commissioner, former Chair of the City Recreation and Parks Commission, former State Senator representing Columbus, former candidate for Mayor of Columbus, multiple civic association and block watch participants, small and large business owners, lawyers, clergy, human services and workforce development professionals, and residents spread geographically across the city. “While this letter shows a representative portion of our Friends committee and its diversity, the one thing all the signers have in common is a love for Columbus and a desire to see a form of government that will help our city grow and thrive in the next century,” said Jonathan Beard, a spokesperson for the Coalition.
The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government is a citizen-led ballot initiative to reform Columbus City Council and create a more contemporary form of governance.
Right now, Columbus City Council retains an outmoded form of governance from the early 1900s, where all 7 members are elected At Large in city-wide elections. This all At Large form of council has been abandoned by almost every other large city in America, in favor of District-based councils where a majority of council members are elected by District, and a minority (if any at all) are elected At Large. The Columbus Coalition proposal calls for an 11 member council, of which 4 members are elected At Large, and 7 members are elected by the residents of the Districts in which they reside.
According to Beard, “our current form of government is an extreme and awkward form of government for as big a city as Columbus has grown to be. It has been controversial since its inception in 1914, and it is even more dysfunctional today with the city’s current size. History tells us that our all At Large form of government was opposed by labor and the Franklin County Democratic Party back in 1914 when it was instituted, because it was widely viewed as aristocratic reaction that removed government from the people it was intended to serve and concentrated power among the community’s elite. As we become ever-larger and more diverse, it is important that our government remains accountable to its many and diverse constituents.”
Beard continues, “While this reform is a nonpartisan issue, we have to note that Columbus City Council is comprised of all Democratic Party office holders, and with our support they can ultimately resolve this issue in favor of the people, and not the powerful special interests. We ultimately expect support on this issue from Council, because the Democratic Party has traditionally supported fair elections and District based representation – both nationally and here in Columbus over the years -- and we would expect that the long-standing principles of the Democratic Party are understood and carried out by the current office holders.”
In reference notes included with the letter, the Columbus Coalition notes that as far back as 1968, Democrats were fighting for District-based governance, led by the popular Democratic Mayor M.E. “Jack” Sensenbrenner. At that time, the office holders were ahead of the people and the issue failed at the ballot. By 1994, even the Dispatch editorial board voiced concerns about the make-up of council and the impact of campaign contributions on the voters’ perceptions of our democracy; however, campaign finance reform was never embraced by the Council itself.
Beard says, “while past Democratic efforts were not supported by the people, this is a new era and the Columbus Coalition pledges its support to our current office holders as they work to adopt our proposed changes to make our government more open, inclusive, responsive, and accountable. We look forward to working with Council President Ginther and the rest of Council to making that happen by early summer when our signed petitions are filed.”
In past years, critics of reform have raised baseless fears about “logrolling,” legislative gridlock, and extreme parochialism. Attorney Bob Fitrakis, one of the original petitioners, says, “We did not choose to move from the current extreme position of “all At Large,” to the other extreme position of “all from Districts.” In other words, we chose not to set up a system like cities Cleveland or Chicago where all council members are elected from Districts. Instead, we designed our system so that if the four At Large council members have a joint priority, it only takes 2 of the remaining 7 votes to secure a council majority to move that priority forward. By mixing At Large seats with District seats, our governance model reaps the purported benefits of both forms of government, without catapulting into the excesses of either form of government in its extreme. Ours is a model that former city council president and our city’s longest-serving council member, M.D. Portman, advocated for years, and it fits well with our moderate Columbus sensibilities.”
Diann Thomas-Beasley, Director of the Coalition’s Speaker’s Bureau, continues, “We are out several times a week talking to residents at their community meetings. From the feedback we receive, I believe Columbus voters today are wise enough to understand that the fear tactics used by past opponents of reform have been proven wrong. While in the past, opponents successfully stoked the fear of the unknown, as city after city has successfully adopted District-based forms of governance over the past 45 years, there has been a growing realization that it is by far the normal and better form of governance. The fact is that all our comparison cities other than Austin have District-based forms of government, and they all operate quite smoothly. And as we speak, Austin’s Mayor and Council are leading that city’s charge as they seek to move their current all At Large Council to a District-led Council. People see what has been going on across the nation, and the feedback we get at community meetings on our ballot initiative is overwhelmingly positive, and people are excited about helping Columbus move forward and become more progressive and more contemporary.”
Beard adds, “our research showed that in the past opponents of reform have engaged in emotional fear tactics to stop progress in reforming our government. But those tired anecdotes, hysterical theatrics, and Chicken Little doomsday scenarios just don’t cut it when you look at all the evidence of good District-based governance that is out there today. And to say that District-based representatives don’t look at the good of the entire city as some have said in the past … well, that was just a silly argument that was put out by people who must have thought citizens didn’t think for themselves. I don’t think citizens would buy it today, and I don’t think anybody that is being honest could make that argument with a straight face today.”
More information about the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government is available at http://www.columbuscoalition.info, or on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/columbus.coalition. For more information, contact Jonathan Beard, spokesperson, at 614-395-1946, Diann Thomas-Beasley, Director of the Speakers’ Bureau, at 614-477-8549, or Bob Fitrakis, member, Committee of Petitioners, at 614-374-2380.