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The Initiative That Won’t Die: Wards are Back

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega The Initiative That Won’t Die: Wards are BackColumbus, divided into 10 districts.
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The fight for district representation on city council is far from over. Represent Columbus, who put the issue on last year’s ballot that would have increased the number of council members and established ward representation, is revived with a new initiative and a new name. Now dubbed Everyday People for Positive Change, the group is halfway through their required number of signatures to get a new issue on the May 2018 primary ballot.

This year’s proposal aims to achieve three chief outcomes: create districts, reform the council member appointment process, and cap campaign contributions. In a lot of ways it’s similar to last year’s Issue 1, in that it would also add six members to council, with 10 representing districts and three remaining at-large.

The initiative was overwhelmingly defeated in the special election in August last year, with less than 30 percent of voters in favor. Then, Represent Columbus was up against electorate apathy, with less than 7 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls, and the local Democratic Party, which released ads smearing the initiative as a product of the Trump party.

Before Issue 1 went up for the vote, Mayor Andrew Ginther announced the creation of the Charter Review Committee, a nine-member committee that would be charged with developing recommendations for how (or if) Columbus City Council should change. The committee hosted seven community meetings and gathered data over the following months.

Ultimately, they came up with a plan to add two members to council and create a district-at-large system, where candidates would only compete with those in the same district, but would be elected by the entire city.

The recommendations went to city council in July, where they were tabled. Council member Shannon Hardin, who opposed ward representation, said he supported the committee’s recommendations, but had received overwhelming pushback from the community during two public hearings on the topic.

Feeling an unnecessary rush to put the divisive issue on the ballot, Hardin pulled it back, setting it aside for discussion after November’s election.

“I probably won’t bring anything back before the election, because it muddles the conversation,” he said, “but it’s one of the most important conversations that we can have — how we govern ourselves.”

With Everyday People for Positive Change, “we’ve kind of taken the lessons learned from Represent Columbus, made it a lot cleaner, took out policies that were distorted,” said Jon Beard, committee member for the group.

“Last time we had Democrats and Republicans. Now we’re leading with only Democrats, he said, “which is a shame, because we have technically non-partisan elections, and it’s a non-partisan issue.”

They also nixed the portion that would have increased and decreased the number of council members with fluctuations in population.

While the proposal would add members and set up a ward system, it would also change the function of mid-term appointments. Currently, if a council member resigns, council appoints the succeeding member, who rides out the rest of the term.

“Of the last 32 council members, 28 of them have been appointed by city council,” Beard said, “and they run as incumbents with all the insider money and the lack of competition that comes with being an incumbent.”

To address this concern, Everyday People for Positive Change’s proposal would have “Designated Nominating Entities,” which would initially mean current neighborhood area commissions, vote to nominate replacements for vacated district seats.

It also reduces the number of signatures required to get on the primary ballot from 1,000 to 100.

“It takes 1,000 to run for governor. It takes 75 to run for state legislature,” Beard said. “[Requiring 1,000 signatures] is meant to decrease competition and to not have people apply. Ordinary people can’t go out and get 1,000 signatures in the middle of winter. It’s just one more way the system is on lockdown.”

Beard calls campaign funding another barrier for party outsiders to get elected. The proposal would cap both cash and in-kind contributions from any person or entity at $1,000 to any candidate, in any election period. Political parties would be permitted to donate up to $5,000.

When filing the proposal with the City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer, Beard was told it violated the single subject rule by attempting to add district representation and cap campaign contributions in one initiative. Beard and Everyday People for Positive Change decided to continue to collect signatures, asserting that the proposal stays within the lines of what the Ohio Supreme Court constitutes as single subject.

“The goal of single subject is not to prevent comprehensive legislation. It’s to prevent disjointed items from appearing,” he said. “The Supreme Court has consistently said as long as there’s a reasonable relationship between two subjects, it beats the single subject rule. So, we say if we’re talking about how to elect council members, then how they finance their elections is reasonably related to that first subject.”

The group needs 19,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, and they’re halfway there. Beard anticipates they’ll need to sue to actually get it on ballot either way, as Pfeiffer might reject it based on the single subject rule.

“They’re going to make us sue to get on the ballot,” Beard predicted, “and we’re going to sue and get on the ballot.

“Unfortunately, this is one more example of how, when you have a small faction of people in control of all branches of government, it becomes corrupt. There’s good people operating corruptly.”

For more information on Everyday People for Positive Change and their proposal, visit everydaypeoplecolumbus.us

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