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Charter Challenge: Petitions Submitted for Council Reform

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  • #1085477

    roy
    Participant

    NDaEast wrote: “the coalition dropped off informational packets at council member’s houses (after getting no replies to letters and phone calls to City Hall) and Andy Ginther wrote a letter, copying the Chief of Police and City Attorney, warning us to not do that again].”

    NDa, just curious, why not deliver official city business to council members’ city hall offices? Driving around to seven council member’s private homes and presumably trying to leave ‘informational packets’ near their front doors or mailboxes doesn’t seem the most effective way.

    #1085911

    NDaEast
    Participant

    NDaEast wrote: “the coalition dropped off informational packets at council member’s houses (after getting no replies to letters and phone calls to City Hall) and Andy Ginther wrote a letter, copying the Chief of Police and City Attorney, warning us to not do that again].”

    NDa, just curious, why not deliver official city business to council members’ city hall offices? Driving around to seven council member’s private homes and presumably trying to leave ‘informational packets’ near their front doors or mailboxes doesn’t seem the most effective way.

    After months of getting “no response” from every council member, we figured that maybe if we took it outside City Hall walls, eyes, and ears, someone might look at it and give us a call. From time-to-time we do get calls from people who are petrified of anyone finding out they were talking to us, so this was just a more direct opening then sending it downtown where everybody knows who gets what from whom. I remember it being a beautiful day for a ride when we struck out delivering letters…

    Below, fyi, is my letter to Andy demonstrating the futility of trying to get in touch with them at City Hall:

    July 10, 2012

    Andrew J. Ginther
    President
    Columbus City Council
    90 W. Broad Street
    Columbus, OH 43215

    Dear Council President Ginther:

    I am in receipt of your July 3rd letter requesting that written communications be delivered to Council members at their offices, or transmitted via email. I am certainly willing to comply with this request, but I would ask for consideration that these correspondences be answered when sent.

    As you know, we sent a letter to your City Hall address on January 4th, giving you as President of Council a “heads up” outlining the initiative, asking for a small group meeting with you, and asking you to consider supporting the initiative. We received no response.

    On January 20, we sent letters to you and all council members, at City Hall, basically reiterating the January 4th letter, informing you of a growing group of community leaders supporting the proposal called Friends of the Coalition, and inviting you to join, saying “we would be honored if you would join this group.” We received no response.
    .

    Through February and March, Coalition volunteers called and emailed Council offices, seeking to arrange meetings so we could discuss the initiative face-to-face with Council. We received one response, from Council member Miller, and on March 1st we had a very productive meeting with him. On March 29th, after a month of phone calls from volunteers seeking to arrange a meeting with you, Diann Beasley Thomas and I ran into you at Zanibar Brews, and you told us you would sit down with us, but when we called for an appointment – several times — we never got a response or a meeting.

    On April 23rd, a letter went out signed by 25 of the “Friends of the Columbus Coalition” support group, to City Hall, offering their endorsement of the proposal and urging that the Council hold public hearings to consider the views of Columbus residents. They received no response.

    On June 4th, another letter went out to you and Council at City Hall, seeking to confirm Council’s position on the ballot initiative because I received letters from the Franklin County Democratic Party indicating the office holders were opposed, and I was getting phone calls saying you were organizing opposition. Our letter indicated we thought it was premature to be organizing opposition when you hadn’t held a public hearing or even sat for a private meeting, and again requesting a meeting. We received no response.

    On June 5th, the Friends of the Coalition sent a follow-up letter to City Hall offices saying they believed it was necessary for Council to hold hearings to consider the views of the public prior to voting on the citizen’s charter initiative, and asking for a response to their April 24th letter. They received no response.

    On June 8th, Common Cause Ohio sent you a letter at City Hall asking for Council’s position on our arguments for charter reform, which the group was considering endorsing. They received no response.

    On June 16th we sent a letter to City Hall thanking you for your June 8th letter (the single response in six months), and clarifying some of the errors in your thinking about the charter initiative. We received no response.

    On June 28th, private letters were Hand-Delivered to Council member residences. We received your response, to which I now respond.

    On July 2nd, we released an Open Letter to City Council, which also went to City Hall offices, encouraging council to vote to put the issue on the ballot regardless of the final signature count, as the charter has been amended 69 times since 1914, all initiated by council ordinance rather than citizen petition. We received no response.

    I personally called your office, as well as the office of every other council member on July 6th, and have yet to get any response from any member.

    So the record shows that we have been remarkably unsuccessful in getting a response from you, or any other council member, when we try to contact you at City Hall. The record also shows that we have been remarkably successful in getting a response from you to packages delivered to your home.

    So I’m between a rock and a hard place, and could use some help.

    Can you assure me that letters and emails sent to City Hall will get a response? – we don’t even know that you get them. I’d rather send stuff to City Hall – as demonstrated by the list above — but it hasn’t worked very well for me.

    I am puzzled as to why the Chief of Police, City Attorney and Safety Director were copied on your letter – I hope you are not feeling some sort of insecurity; if so, please let me assure you that neither I, nor any other Coalition member, has any desire or intent to cause you discomfort or fear. We simply seek to talk, and to have Council place our charter change proposal on the ballot.

    However, you are all public officials whose residence is a matter of public record and whose residence is the primary qualification for the office you hold. Thus, I’m not sure it is required for me to pledge not to send information to your home addresses. I can certainly pledge to not personally come to your homes, but that is where history has shown you respond, and I’d like to be efficient. I’d be happy to work through your office, but you’ve got to give a little if you want for that to be successful for you and the charter change initiative. Would you respond to correspondence sent to City Hall?

    This very dialogue is, for me, so apropos to the whole movement for District-based elections. On May 3, 1914, as a part of the debate on the new Charter, the Columbus Dispatch printed a political ad that read:

    “How can the laboring men, who work in shops and factories and along other lines of employment, cease from work and call at the city hall to urge upon city officials and members of council the many improvements which the neighbor hoods in which they live demand and especially when these visits will be made to men whom they have never met and who are not familiar with the localities in which these working men live? The present members of council, elected as they are by wards, can be seen by the people whom they represent at most any hour of the day or night. Their constituents are acquainted with them, as friends and neighbors, and therefore feel free to talk of required improvements or file complaints. (The Columbus Sunday Dispatch. Vote Against the Charter Because It Will Destroy Home Rule (Political Advertisement), May 3, 1914.)

    We believe it is important for our elected representatives to hear from their constituents, and to respond to their constituents. Ignoring constituents with a legitimate issue is not a leadership attribute in a democratic government.

    We believe council still has the opportunity to lead on this issue, by doing what Council has done successfully 69 times since the Charter was passed in 1914: simply vote by 2/3rds majority to place the question on the ballot for the voters to decide.

    Most of the time, Council places Charter issues on the ballot with no signatures. In fact, we could not find any record that citizens have ever passed a ballot initiative in Columbus’s history. But the people, through Council, still have successfully amended the charter 69 times (50 times since 1980).

    This time there are 28,000 Columbus residents who have signed their names to a ballot asking for the simple right to vote on this issue – an issue that has percolated among city leaders since 1958.

    What can be more democratic than being responsive to the citizens – then not being a guardian of the ballot box, but by providing legitimate access to the ballot box for Columbus voters. This issue is not for you to decide, it is for the citizens of Columbus to decide.

    We will continue to organize in the neighborhoods and press for change – this issue will not go away.

    Last night, the Greater Hilltop Area Commission voted unanimously to support Council in putting District-based council on the November ballot for a vote by the people. I stood transfixed by the dialogue, as they asked questions, challenged assumptions, debated points, and finally voted unanimously on the principle that the people have a right to vote on how they are governed. They are now preparing a letter to you, asking for Council to, on its own initiative, put this measure on the ballot. I thought, this is the type of debate City Council should be hosting and hearing.

    Yesterday, I met with the Ohio Organizing Council, which will be providing us with staff assistance and helping us to organize neighborhoods and a network of neighborhood petitioners around this issue: the first meeting under the OOC’s aegis is Tuesday at 5:30.

    On Monday, the Council of Elders – some of Columbus’s most beloved and respected African American leaders – sent the attached letter indicating disappointment with City Council and support for Charter change.
    We are gearing up, not scaling down.

    As relayed in the packages sent to your homes, as of last Thursday we are now engaged in petition gathering for a recall initiative, due in large part to the non-responsiveness of Council as a whole, and of individual council members, to this issue. If Council will not legislate in our interests, we will let individual Council members know through the recall charter mechanism that requires just 1,000 signatures – not 19,000 signatures. Again, we now plan for efficiency.

    We are also redrafting the Charter language, which will include district representation, stronger provisions to clamp down on the abuse of the appointment process, term limits, campaign finance reform, and due to the timing of elections and terms of office would require current At Large council members’ At Large terms to be terminated, and moved into Districts that they may not live in (with a requirement that they move into the District within a year). It is by far a better package for the citizens, and curbs some of the abuses we did not address in the current initiative.

    I continue to believe, and advise, the best thing is for Council to simply to put the issue on the ballot and let the voters decide. Then I could go about my business and get back to my normal life, and you could go about yours. By simply putting the issue on the ballot, we can have a public debate – just like what happened on the Hilltop last night – and make a decision as a community on how we are governed: that’s democracy.

    If the voters say “yes,” then that should happen – in a democracy. If the voters say “no,” then the status quo is maintained and I’m comfortable with that. But to deny the voters a chance to say anything … that’s simply not acceptable. We don’t want a fight, but if you bring it by blocking the most efficient way to the ballot, then we are engaged –this government belongs to the people, not the politicians.

    Andrew, as always we are always open to a meeting. You have continually rejected meeting, rejecting input, rejecting consideration other viewpoints outside your own – that is not democracy, where the people rule, and that is a point we will drill home over the coming year as needed.

    Sincerely,

    Jonathan C. Beard

    cc: Richard Pfeiffer, Mitchell J. Brown, Kimberly Jacobs

    Attachment: Council of Elders Letter of Support

    #1085941

    jackoh
    Participant

    It might be interesting to note that while there is this effort to establish a ward based system of government in Columbus, Dayton has a proposal to go in precisely the opposite direction. There is an effort there to merge the city of Dayton with Montgomery County and create a regional government. Of course, many in Dayton understand this effort for exactly what it is, in spite of the fact that it is being touted as a method to increase efficient administration in the area. And the irony, both here and in Dayton, is that many of those who argue in favor of a regional form of government or who are opposed to a ward system in favor of city wide representation are the same people who stand in opposition to federal control over states and localities on the grounds that the local people know best how to deal with their problems. Puts you in mind of the quote from Apocalypse Now: “The bullshit piled up so fast that you needed wings to stay above it”.

    #1085951

    Jonathan Beard for mayor!

    #1086287

    NDaEast
    Participant

    It might be interesting to note that while there is this effort to establish a ward based system of government in Columbus, Dayton has a proposal to go in precisely the opposite direction. There is an effort there to merge the city of Dayton with Montgomery County and create a regional government.

    Ifthat happens, then Columbus (the largest city in Ohio) will likely have the smallest city council among the state’s metros. Right now, Dayton has the smallest council at 5 members (which is the state’s statutory minimum size) and Columbus the next smallest.

    Mayor Sensenbrenner, back in 1958, was advocating for a larger council and district representation. Maury Portman, our longest serving councilmember, was saying the city is too big for 7 members to represent and they are just “going through the motions” of representing all the citizens — and that was in the 1980’s with a couple hundred thousand fewer citizens and before the large influx of Hispanic and Somalis into the community.

    When Mayor Coleman was running for Governor in 2005, he described the Republican Coingate scandal in sate government as “an example of the arrogance of power that comes with one party rule.” Now we have Democrats in office keeping people from voting on their form of government while they themselves propose a charter amendment to link their salaries to inflation. Hmmm…

    #1086289

    NDaEast
    Participant

    I’ll start by saying with regret that I acknowledge the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government did not secure enough valid petition signatures to require a vote on the Columbus City Council Reform Amendment. While the Board of Elections confirmed that 14,873 registered voters signed the petition, over half of those had changed addresses without updating their voter registrations, and those signatures do not count for the petitioning process and we fell short of the required 8,958 valid signatures needed.

    While we knew this would be an issue 3 years into a presidential cycle and 3 years following massive voter registration efforts, we underestimated the extent of the issue. Following the slow signature gathering start due to rainy weather, the petition drive took off so fast that our volunteer effort could not keep pace to manage the signature validation issue as we all struggled to balance our homes and lives with the requirements of running a tighter signature campaign.

    At the same time we did not meet the legal threshold for pushing the citizens’ initiative, I have reminded the council that nearly 15,000 Columbus voters, plus another 7,000 residents who are not registered voters but whose opinions as Columbus citizens should still matter, did indicate their desire to have a vote on the form of our government. While citizens must organize a petition drive, it takes just 5 council members can vote to put an issue on the ballot (without the need for petition signatures).

    I have urged council to listen to what people are saying through signing these petitions: many of us want a public discussion and vote on how we represent ourselves. I have urged council to act on its own initiative to put a district representation proposal on the ballot.

    I noted that although we did not meet the signature threshold to force council to put our issue on the ballot, a good portion of the electorate has asked for a vote (and it is the peoples’ decision as to what our government looks like, not the politicians’), and council can easily accommodate that desire for a vote by simply voting “no” on the initiative’s petition effort, but “yes” on a council initiative for districts. Council has did that in 1968 and 1975, and the status quo was maintained — but at least the people were given a chance to vote on this major issue.

    In contrast, council just put Issue 8 on the ballot, which included a provision requiring their salaries to be linked to the Consumer Price Index (i.e., automatically adjusted for inflation) — there was no citizen outcry for that provision — our council just did it on their own initiative, logrolling that provision into a bunch of unrelated ministerial provisions dealing with public records and so forth.

    So while we unfortunately did not get the signatures to force a vote, we continue to push council to simply let us vote on the issue. All it takes is 5 council members to vote “yes” on a ballot issue … I’m doubting that even one would do so — please, prove me wrong.

    #1086425

    gramarye
    Participant

    Aren’t the ward system and the number of seats two separate issues?

    I could be quite amenable to expanding the size of a city council the size of Columbus’ to larger than 7. That would make it harder for a single person to be a good enough fundraiser to basically bankroll every race.

    In contrast, the more I learn about ward systems, the less I like them, to the point where if I were ever going to make this a political hobbyhorse, I’d work to dismantle ward systems where they currently exist and encourage more municipalities to consider the benefits of citywide voting rather than Balkanizing communities into arbitrary districts that encourage intra-city provincialism. “East Side-West Side” rivalries and the like should not be enshrined in law.

    #1086468

    jackoh
    Participant

    Aren’t the ward system and the number of seats two separate issues?

    I could be quite amenable to expanding the size of a city council the size of Columbus’ to larger than 7. That would make it harder for a single person to be a good enough fundraiser to basically bankroll every race.

    In contrast, the more I learn about ward systems, the less I like them, to the point where if I were ever going to make this a political hobbyhorse, I’d work to dismantle ward systems where they currently exist and encourage more municipalities to consider the benefits of citywide voting rather than Balkanizing communities into arbitrary districts that encourage intra-city provincialism. “East Side-West Side” rivalries and the like should not be enshrined in law.

    Presumably then, you would be in favor of supporting(or even increasing) the role of the federal government in deciding upon, issuing, and enforcing public policy in the United States. Such a (even expanded) role for the federal government would help to avoid the “balkanized” character of the individual states(let alone the localities) that allows the flourishing of “provincialism” which you seem to find distasteful.

    #1086487

    NEOBuckeye
    Participant

    <div class=”d4p-bbt-quote-title”>gramarye wrote:</div>
    Aren’t the ward system and the number of seats two separate issues?

    I could be quite amenable to expanding the size of a city council the size of Columbus’ to larger than 7. That would make it harder for a single person to be a good enough fundraiser to basically bankroll every race.

    In contrast, the more I learn about ward systems, the less I like them, to the point where if I were ever going to make this a political hobbyhorse, I’d work to dismantle ward systems where they currently exist and encourage more municipalities to consider the benefits of citywide voting rather than Balkanizing communities into arbitrary districts that encourage intra-city provincialism. “East Side-West Side” rivalries and the like should not be enshrined in law.

    Presumably then, you would be in favor of supporting(or even increasing) the role of the federal government in deciding upon, issuing, and enforcing public policy in the United States. Such a (even expanded) role for the federal government would help to avoid the “balkanized” character of the individual states(let alone the localities) that allows the flourishing of “provincialism” which you seem to find distasteful.

    I certainly can’t speak for gramarye–though I think his time spent living in Akron has cooled him to the novelty and apparent benefit of municipal council wards. As a native myself, I came to that conclusion not long before I moved here.

    I think the real solution for representation concerns is a metropolitan/regional governance structure with a fairly large and open number of representative “at-large” seats. It wouldn’t be unlike the “tax sharing” system that Minneapolis-St. Paul has, or the “urban growth boundary” management system that Portland, Oregon has, but would essentially combine the powers of both and be about two steps further beyond it–a “flat” consolidation of local government instead of an extra layer laid on top of it, and one with extensive home rule powers/autonomy over its affairs from state government. Essentially, the city/metro council would function as something of a “regional assembly” with a traditional mayor serving as the executive head.

    #1086728

    NDaEast
    Participant

    Aren’t the ward system and the number of seats two separate issues?

    I could be quite amenable to expanding the size of a city council the size of Columbus’ to larger than 7. That would make it harder for a single person to be a good enough fundraiser to basically bankroll every race.

    In contrast, the more I learn about ward systems, the less I like them, to the point where if I were ever going to make this a political hobbyhorse, I’d work to dismantle ward systems where they currently exist and encourage more municipalities to consider the benefits of citywide voting rather than Balkanizing communities into arbitrary districts that encourage intra-city provincialism. “East Side-West Side” rivalries and the like should not be enshrined in law.

    Yes districts/wards and size of council are two different (but related) issues. Our specific proposal increased the number of seats to 11,and provided for a mixed system with a majority of district representatives (7 districts/4 At Large). Adding more seats and adding districts both increase representation of citizens in City Hall. We believe a mixed system offers the benefits of each type of system and minimizes the downsides of each.

    Over the past century, most people view districts in the opposite manner than you do: 1) Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, communities across the deep south changed from districts to at large systems to reduce Black voting blocks that come about through our racially segregated housing patterns and reduce or eliminate the numbers of African American elected officials. In 1982, Congress in amendments to the VRA decided that at large systems in areas with historically racially polarized voting should be overseen by the federal government, due to the “voter dilution” effect of At Large forms of government.

    In the 1970s, the local political parties made a point out of saying each would appoint their own fine Negro to council (the “my Negro is finer than your Negro” arguments between the parties were, in retrospect, hilarious), but it is incredibly insulting for those of us who believe the people should select their representatives. Until the past 10 years, there was always a seat dedicated for Black man and Black woman, through the appointment process. One wonders when, under our current system with a +/- 70% white electorate, the parties will make similar claims about “my Latino/Somali is better than yours.”)

    With the exception of Portland (#29) and Columbus (#15), every other top 50 city in America has turned its back on the late 1800’s/early 1900’s fad of At Large city governance promoted by the industrialists’ private foundations across the country to mimic the centralized, efficient, and “top-down” decision-making style of big business in that era: Detroit, Austin and Seattle were the most recent to convert back to district representation. (Note: we use the word “district” rather than ward to avoid confusion, because a ward is an already defined political/geography/voting unit, whereas a council district, like a congressional district, would comprise many wards. For instance, “Ward 1” is the neighborhood of Hanford Village on the Near South side, but a hypothetical “Council District 1” would probably include about 10 of the city’s 88 wards.)

    The average top 50 city council across the country has 13 members: 2 at large and 11 from districts, so it is by far the norm among big cities. Locally, Reynoldsburg and Gahanna both have district-led mixed systems with 3 members at large and 4 members from wards, and Grove City has a 5 member council, 1 At Large and 4 from wards. Many communities recognize the benefits of more local representation by people within each community, and it is exactly these types of points which could and would be discussed and debated during a campaign when this does make the ballot.

    #1086858

    NDaEast
    Participant

    I assume it is no surprise to anyone that council rejected the anti-fracking and city council reform citizen initiative petitions at last night’s meeting. Neither had enough valid signatures (although we had petition signatures of 17% of the Columbus electorate, about half of those were from voters who hadn’t updated their addresses with the Board of Election so those signatures don’t count).

    I understand that council should declare the petitions legally insufficient due to both petitions’ failure to get 10% of the electorate’s valid signatures, but I reminded council that 17% of the electorate had signed it and another 7,000 residents who are not voters, then asked council to amend the ordinance to reject the citizen initiative but make it a council initiative which could go on the ballot with a 2/3rd vote of council. No takers to offer such an amendment … surprise.

    The city reversed its earlier position that petitions in progress before Issue 7 passed would not have to start over, using the new Issue 7 form, but last night Rick Pfeiffer declared that the Bill of Rights petition which was first circulated in June 2014, did not comply with the new Issue 7 petition format first made available by the city in late January 2015. Rick Pfeiffer has my vote for most dramatic fall in stature of any Columbus public servant for the year — he is now transition to a political hack … (Andy Ginther was never high enough in my view to drop further in my vote for worst elected official).

    More importantly, the city attorney and council have adopted a policy by which they can go far beyond “legal sufficiency” to determine what goes on the ballot — they are looking at content,even though their own website (and Issue 7 campaign) insisted that under state law no city employee can consider the content in assessing sufficiency. This is a huge (“Gintheresque”) expansion of council’s rights and catapults council over the people …so here we are in Cuba, err — North Korea — oops, I mean Columbus. And not surprisingly based no our council president’s history, the city lied to the people to get this objectionable right that they said they couldn’t use passed in last year’s Issue 7 election. An Andy Ginther-led organization lying to the people … no surprise there — boy, I can’t wait for him to be Mayor.

    #1086859

    NDaEast
    Participant

    “East Side-West Side” rivalries and the like should not be enshrined in law.

    But good representation should be enshrined in law, and At Large systems clearly dilute minority viewpoints and lead to de Toquevilles’ “tyranny of the majority.” Speaking of competition and rivalries, I’m still trying to understand how the City’s flagship neighborhood improvement program, “Neighborhood Pride,” has neighborhoods competing against each other to receive basic city services as if that’s a good thing. I’ve worked in Columbus neighborhoods for 20 years, and I still don’t get it — someone please enlighten me. Help. Anyone?

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