City Council Districts

At the heart of reform is eliminating our undemocratic 7 member council, where all members are elected in citywide (at-large) elections. This at-large form of government was a trend of the early 1900's (Columbus's was adopted in 1914), instituted in part to maintain control of cities by the WASP business community from newly arriving German and Italian immigrants (source: Richard Hoftsteader, The Era of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, 1956).

However, at-large elections have been legally suspect since the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for their unlawful "voter dilution effect" -- where the electoral choices of protected classes of citizens are diluted and overcome by votes from the majority.  Through litigation, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the U.S. Department of Justice have forced over 300 cities to abandon this discriminatory form of election. No other big city uses this anarchic form of governance -- with it recently being abandoned by Detroit, Austin and Seattle.  Today, Columbus is the only big city that maintains this outmoded, discriminatory and oppressive form of government.

In the wake of the defeat of Issue 1, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund issued a FAQ bulletin to Columbus (read it here) sharing its concern about the discriminatory effects of at-large systems like our electoral system for council.  The campaign against Issue 1 was financed by big business (AEP, Limited Foundation, Nationwide, Cardinal Health, etc.).

  • We propose a 13 member council, which is the average size of councils of the largest 50 cities across the country -- with 3 members elected at-large and 10 members elected from districts.  This allows:
  • Less expensive elections featuring local candidates people can get to know and who will be accountable to their local community
  • Representatives with connections to the community who know the people and the issues and can advocate for its interests.
  • An end to the control of elected officials who cannot independently raise the amount of money needed to run a citywide campaign, and are given vast sums of money by political bosses and big business to do as told.

Competition and Reform of the Appointment Process

We start with the American presumption that competition is good and that it brings out the best in people.  We regret that we have little to no competition for our council elected offices.  Over the past 30 years, only 4 councilmembers have actually been elected to start serving on council. The rest have all been appointed to fill "mid-term vacancies"-- council positions left vacant when a member resigns.

Council has been selecting its own members for more than a generation, then running them as well-funded incumbents to eliminate competition.

Further, by maintaining an excessive signature requirement of 1,000 signatures for citizens to even get on the ballot, the charter denies citizens competition and perpetuates the cycle of appointed incumbents being unchallenged.  Since 1972, only 14 of 24 elections have had primaries -- we simply aren't getting people on the ballot (in part because they can't get the signatures without party help, and the party only helps incumbents, and then because they know they can't beat the party-business funding lock on our expensive citywide elections).

We further note that the average margin of victory in our council elections has grown to where the average incumbent has two and one half times the number of votes as the average challenger.

Lastly, we note that voters are more likely to not vote for a candidate than to vote for the winners: “None of the Above” came in first place last year, with 198,052 non votes, compared to the highest candidate (Zach Klein) who had 90,716 votes. Voters were twice as likely to not vote for all candidates they could select from, then to vote for the winning candidate.  And because of the high rate of undervoting – which was 40% of the nearly 500,000 votes cast for council last year -- only 3 of 12 winning candidates dating back to 2011 actually got a vote from the majority of people who cast ballots in council races. Last year (2015), 2 members elected received votes from a majority, and 2 didn’t. In 2013, 1 got a majority and 2 didn’t. In the 2011 election, not a single one of the four elected candidates received a majority vote.

With notably few exceptions, our city council has been hand-picked by political bosses and big business -- not voted in by the people. We can change this.

  • We propose to reform this process by having "Designated Nominating Entities" (initially the current Neighborhood Area Commissions) vote to nominate replacements for vacated district seats.  Council's role would then be to simply appoint the nominee.  Any appointee not so nominated would not be eligible to run for election, to ensure that the council is not a hand-picked body, but reflects the views of the people it is designed to serve.
  • We are reducing the number of signatures required for members elected by district to get on the primary ballot from 1,000 signatures (the same number required to run for Governor of the state of Ohio), to 100 signatures (still more than the 75 required to run for state representative, but reasonably attainable).

Caps on Contributions to Council Campaigns

We do not believe people or corporations should be able to give unlimited amounts of money to Columbus city council members -- but that is exactly the situation today.

And despite a 1994 voted charter amendment that allowed council to enact caps, the council never set campaign caps and has refused to do so -- and people and corporations can (and regularly do) give more money to Columbus city council members than they are allowed to give to the president of the united states or any Ohio statewide elected official.  What kind of sense does that make? None.

Even worse, incumbent politicians threaten people who give to campaigns of challengers.  We need to do a better job at taking money out of the equation

  • We propose to cap both cash and in-kind contributions from any person or entity at $1,000 to any candidate, in any election period -- except for political parties which will be allowed to give up to $5,000 to candidate campaigns.

Summary of Proposal

SUMMARY OF MAJOR POLICY PROVISIONS OF CITY COUNCIL ELECTORAL REFORM AMENDMENT
Council size and composition Move from 7 at large, to 3 at-large and 10 from districts, starting the January after the election following adoption of amendment (i.e., January 2020). Clarifies that council is a part-time job. Sec. 3
Initial designation of district members and staggering of terms The 3 at-large seats elected in the November 2017 election continue, the 4 at-large seats that end December 2019 terminate at that time.  In the 2019 election, elections are held for 10 districts.  The 7 members elected by district receiving highest percentage of the vote serve for 4 years, those other 3 serve for 2 years.

[Impact: 2019 Ballot: Mayor, 10 Districts; Election Cycle 1 Ballot (2021, 2025 …): City Attorney, City Auditor, 3 At-Large, 3 Districts; Election Cycle 2 Ballot (2023, 2027 …): Mayor, 7 Districts.

Sec. 6-1-3
Terms of office Terms are 4 years, except for initial district terms as per 6-1-3 Sec. 4
Creates Term limits Members can serve up to 12 consecutive years. After a one year break, the clock resets for another 12 consecutive years. Sec. 6.3
Filling Mid-Term Appointments: People fill vacancies – not council At-large members appointed by council to fill unexpired term may not stand for election for any seat in the ensuing election Sec. 5-1
Filling Mid-Term Appointments: Create and define district nominating entities and voting on council district mid-term appointments District Nominating Entities (initially the designated Neighborhood Area Commissions) vote to fill vacated seats. They are identified and develop processes. Vote on nominees in their district, Weighting Factor determines the weight of each DNE’s vote. Nominating Plan and Weighting Factors can be amended by council. Sec. 5-1-a
Qualifications for office Members from districts must live there a year, and must also promote the welfare of the entire city and be responsive to all citizens and all areas of Columbus. Sec . 6(A)
People fill vacancies not council Any member not nominated by a DNE is not qualified for ballot subsequent to appointment Sec. 6(B)
10 Districts Creates 10-single member districts. Attached map is initial apportionment plan  unless city attorney believes unlawful or council for good cause publicly reported adopts new plan within 6 months. Sec. 6-1
Independent Apportionment Boards established 9 members, 6 of whom meet qualifications for being elected at large. No more than 3 of any political party. Council selects from among those submitting applications. Council appropriates funds sufficient for process. Sec. 6-1-1
Apportionment Plans created Board may contract for expert to generate plan, shall accept plans submitted by public for consideration.  150 days after appointment, board submits 3 draft plans for public comment. 60 days thereafter board selects one and submits to council which must adopt within 10 days. If apportionment board does not do, council has 60 days to adopt a plan consistent with requirements of this section. When boundaries are changed through apportionment with > 2 years in terms, council designates which member represents each district. Sec. 6-1-2

How Did We Listen to Voters on Issue 1?

Thanks primarily to a blatently false and misleading $1.1 million television and radio campaign financed by the local elite, last year's Issue 1 (August 2016) to reform city council was handily defeated at the polls.  Beyond the bold faced lies told by the powerful opponents, we listened to the political arguments and made several changes to make this a better proposal

Complaint 1: There was no map. While we are not convinced an electoral map, which changes every 10 years through required redistricting, belongs in the city charter (in fact, there are no maps in most charters, nor the Ohio or U.S. constitutions), we recognize that people being presented with an unfamiliar idea find some comfort in seeing a visual representation of what is proposed. Our current proposal includes an apportionment map, showing the 10 council district boundaries and the demographics of each district that drive the creation of 2 majority-minority (Black) districts, as required by federal law.

In addition, if it is found there are defects in this map, Council will have the right to go through the charter-defined apportionment process to change the map after enactment and prior to the 2019 election nominations.

Complaint #2: The Apportionment Board make-up is unclear. This complaint was driven by elected officials who always want to have control of the map drawing process, so they can create safe seats and districts for themselves.  However, the best practice has been to form independent apportionment boards that are not controlled by elected officials, which we again do here.  We are uncompromising on separating district line-drawing from politicians.

We propose a 9 member apportionment board selected by council for each 10 year re-districting from applicants, 6 of whom must be city electors.  To discourage partisan gerrymandering and influence peddling, no more than 3 members of the apportionment board can be members of the same political party.

Complaint #3: Issue 1 Would Cost $20 Million over the next 10 years. This lie told by Issue 1 opponents was based on a formula in the last proposal that allowed the council size to grow as the population increased, or decrease if the population decreased. It capped the size of council at 25 if the city's population more than doubled (though population projections and the formula indicated the council would be no more than 15 members through the year 2062 at least) and it set a lower threshold of 7 members if the city's population dropped to 450,000.  In addition to calculating the cost of Issue 1 based on 25 members, the opponents The opponents of Issue 1 added the costs of two additional staff members for each new member, and multiplied that number by 10 years to come up with a ridiculous number that did not reflect our proposal in the least.  They also claimed our proposal created $80,000 for a part-time job (member of council) -- though Issue 1 made no changes to council salaries.  Council salaries are now roughly $52,000 per year -- their $80,000 figure they ascribed to our proposal apparently added in payroll taxes and benefits.

Our new proposal is for 6 new council members, to get to a slightly smaller size council than is average across the United States for a city our size (the average top 25 city has a 15 member council -- Columbus is ranked the 15th largest city).  We also allow total council staffing to grow from its current authorized strength of 44, to 54 people total -- a growth of 10 (6 new council members, plus 4 new staff to add to the 4 new staff members authorized in the 2017 budget). We believe council should live within its means, and not use an increase in representation as an excuse to go on a hiring spree to create even more political patronage jobs.

New Items

In addition to addressing the complaints, we found opportunities to add things voters were looking for in council reform:

  1. Stop the shameful practice of council appointing itself. over the last 32 years, only 4 of 32 council members has been put in office by election, the vast majority were appointed by the council itself.  Of our current members, only Elizabeth Brown first stood for election.  Ben Espy was the last Black Democrat who was elected to office without prior appointment -- in 1981 (36 years ago).  Most recently, 3 former city staff people were appointed to council by the council (Mitch Brown, Jaiza Paige, and Shannon Hardin).  This process has become shamefully incestuous and leads to a council of cronies, sycophants, and lackies -- people who put preservation of this dysfunctional system before the interests of everyday people.  In our proposal, we put Neighborhood Area Commissions (people elected to community boards by their neighbors) in charge of screening and nominating candidates who apply to fill mid-term vacancies in the 10 council district positions.  The council appoints the nominee who receives the highest ranking of the cognizant Neighborhood Area Commissions.  Only candidates who are appointed in this manner -- after being nominated by the people they would serve -- are then eligible to run in the next election. Members appointed by the council itself are disqualified from running in the next election, to eliminate the advantage of an unearned incumbency, and to avoid having downtown inflict its preferences on neighborhoods.
  2. Money Should Not Buy Elections.  We put caps on contributions to council campaigns. Right now developers and other business interests contribute unlimited amounts of money to incumbent city council members and do not contribute to challengers who find it difficult to finance their campaigns.  This has created a "pay to play" environment around city hall that is at odds with good governance.  Watch closely at how the Democrats who howl at the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on federal campaigns hypocritically support unlimited local funding when it benefits them.
  3. Reduce the current unreasonable barrier to get on the ballot. Right now, it takes 1,000 voters to sign nomination petitions for a citizen to gain a spot on the ballot to run for office -- the same number it takes to run for Governor of the state of Ohio and more than 13 times more than the number (75) required to run for the state legislature. Signatures are due in February, requiring interested citizens to gather that excessive number of petition signatures in the dead of winter -- which also means that both political parties endorse candidates even before they qualify for the ballot, so that party resources can be used to help gather signatures.  The Democratic party that now holds all the seats on council, will always endorse its incumbents and help them gather signatures, but they will not do this for non-elected officials --thus, the primaries are meaningless as the party's decision has been made and resources committed to keep internal party opposition from even appearing on the ballot.  We reduce the number of petition signatures for the 10 district seats, to 100 -- meaning everyday people can realistically gather signatures to get on the ballot without needing prior party endorsement.  There is no reason for the 1,000 signature requirement other than to deter competition to keep the hand-picked council ... but competition is good for everyday people, because it keeps politicians (more) honest.

Download the Petition to Review, and/or Help us by collecting signatures

You may download and view or print the linked PDF, which is the legal form of the initiative petition.  We encourage you to help us get signatures, by printing it and taking it to your friends who are registered to vote in Columbus and getting their signatures.  Consider taking it to a neighborhood meeting, or to a couple friends on your block or job, and asking them to sign.

Doing this is easy, but there are election laws that must be followed. You will be required under penalty of law to certify that you personally witnessed every signature ... that is a MUST!  You cannot leave it on a table unattended for signatures or have someone else circulate it for signatures.  (You do not have to validate identity or anything like that.)

  1. Signers must be registered to vote in Columbus
  2. They must sign using the address they are registered to vote at (otherwise their signature will not be counted)
  3. They must sign their legal name, and we ask that they also print for ease in reading.

Download our petition here