We Can Give People a Stronger Voice At City Hall

Columbus City Council will likely vote before the end of the month on whether to put a proposal on the ballot this November to change the size and structure of City Council. According to Council Member Shannon Hardin, the goal of the proposal is to make city government more transparent and more accountable.

While the proposal makes changes to the size and structure of City Council, it does not address the underlying issue of the influence of big money in our local political system. I also fail to see how it will lead to better representation and stronger accountability.

My hope with this blog post is to lay out the current challenges of the structure of City Council, share more about the proposed changes, and highlight why the current proposal misses the point. I also offer some potential solutions and a way for you to take action and advocate to give residents and neighborhoods a stronger voice at City Hall.

Who does our political system serve?

Money and power have corrupted our political system at every level. We no longer have a government that is of, by, and for the people. The decisions that most impact our lives are made behind closed doors by a handful of ultra-wealthy people who put their own interests over the needs of our communities.

For example, the city announced a deal earlier this year to give away $68 million in tax breaks for a new development in Easton. As a result, Columbus City Schools are expected to lose roughly $46 million over the next 37 years. This means the tax burden to support our schools will be passed on to working families and small businesses.

Public-private partnerships like these benefit wealthy developers, who buy a seat at the table with significant campaign donations. Meanwhile, working families, children and teachers — the people who are most impacted — are left out of the conversation. After the deal was rolled out publicly, the Dispatch reported that even the School Board was left out of the negotiations.

I think it’s important to ask why some people are included in major decisions about how to allocate our tax dollars while so many of us are not.

The current structure of Columbus City Council

Among the largest 25 cities in the US, Columbus is the only one that lacks district representation. In our “at-large” City Council system, each Council Member represents the entire city of Columbus — over 200 neighborhoods and nearly 860,000 residents.

Columbus has become too big for at-large Council Members to be familiar with every part of the city. Some neighborhoods have not had a member on Council for decades.

We need true representation at City Hall. In cities with district representation, you can pick up the phone and call your own Council Member to discuss an issue. Your representative lives in your community and it’s their job to work with you and your neighbors to improve quality of life in your area and the city. In Columbus, every Council Member represents nearly a million of us. Even with the best intentions, no individual could possibly remain accessible, responsive and accountable to so many constituents.

The role of big money

Another major challenge is the influence of money in our local elections. Columbus has no campaign contribution limits in local elections. This has created a scenario where the influence of big money and lobbyists at City Hall drowns out the voices of people in the community.

In a system that’s set up to serve the wealthy few, people increasingly feel that their votes — and voices — do not matter. Solutions to this problem are emerging at the local level, in places like Tallahassee. In 2014, Tallahassee residents passed a local referendum to end corruption and get big money out of politics. The referendum included new ethics rules to limit campaign contributions to city candidates at $250 per donor.

In comparison, during the 2015 election, Council Member Michael Stinziano raised over $110,000. He received $5,000 from Time Warner Cable Ohio PAC, $4,500 from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. PAC, $4,500 from the Central Ohio Realtors PAC, and $5,000 from the Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP) Political Education Fund. Most everyday people can’t contribute that kind of money to support people they trust to lead. We need contribution limits to level the playing field and give residents a stronger voice at City Hall.

Lack of competition and accountability

It’s also very challenging, if not impossible, to hold our current elected officials accountable, because there’s so little competition in our local elections.

It’s been more than twenty years since Columbus has seen an incumbent lose an election bid. Once a politician gets appointed in Columbus, they are essentially assured a continued seat at the table.

Research shows that incumbents tend to be more responsive and accountable to a broader base when there’s a more competitive atmosphere. Without this pressure to respond to a broad base of constituents, it’s common for politicians to become beholden to special interest groups, such as big banks and developers. In Columbus, we’ve seen this theory borne out in reality for more than two decades, and we’ve seen how much it costs our community.

Another barrier to participation

In order to run for any political office, you typically have to collect a minimum number of valid signatures within the geography you’re hoping to represent. The requirement to get your name officially on the ballot for City Council in Columbus is 1,000 valid signatures.

In Dallas, City Council candidates are required to collect 25 signatures and San Jose candidates are required to get 50 valid signatures. In order to run for the Ohio Senate or the Ohio House of Representatives, major party candidates are required to collect a minimum of 50 valid signatures.

The requirement to collect 1,000 valid signatures is another policy that limits competition, since it creates such a high bar for people to get on the ballot and run for City Council.

The current proposal doesn’t address the underlying issues

Columbus City Council is now discussing potential changes to its size and structure based on recommendations from a recently formed Charter Review Committee. The committee recommended increasing the size of Council from seven members to nine and creating nine council districts. While each Council member would have to reside in the district the proposal will create nine districts, each Council Member is still elected at-large. The proposed Columbus City Charter amendment that could allow voters to elect a new, expanded City Council in 2021.

This means that if there’s a district that covers the South Side or the Hilltop, the entire city will vote to decide who represents those districts. Taken from another perspective, it would be like the entire state of Ohio voting for your State Representative or State Senator.

The current proposal fails to offer any solutions to address the role of big-money in politics locally and the requirement to run for local office is still set at 1,000 valid signatures. The outcome is that we will basically get an all at-large council like we have now, with council members answering to big-money that put them there, rather than the voters of the district they are supposed to represent. This ensures big-moneyed interests will maintain their power and control over the direction of Columbus.

An opportunity for better representation and more accountability

I’m glad we’re thinking about how to transform our democracy to improve representation and strengthen accountability in Columbus. The creation of the Charter Review Committee and its district recommendation are important first steps. But I think it’s important that we make real changes, and that we get it right. With this restructuring, we have an opportunity to take concrete steps to put power back in the hands of everyday people.

If you want neighborhoods and residents to have a stronger voice at City Hall, I encourage you to call Council Member Shannon Hardin. He is the Chair of the committee that is reviewing the changes to City Council. City Council will likely vote at the City Council meeting on July 24 or July 31 about whether or not to put the proposal on the ballot before the voters this November.

I called yesterday with three main requests to change the proposal:

  1. I want a modern City Council with true council districts, where the people from districts vote for their representatives. At-large elections favor wealthy special interests. District elections lead to more participation, better representation, and more accountability. Will you advocate for true council districts in Columbus?
  2. We need campaign contribution limits in our local elections. With no contribution limits, the voices of everyday people continue to be drowned out by ultra-wealthy donors. Will you support a $250 limit for all political donors in Columbus?
  3. Let’s make it easier for people to run for office locally. I support changing the number of required signatures from 1,000 to 50. 50 signatures is the requirement to run for State Senate and the Ohio House of Representatives. Will you help foster more participation in our local elections?

City Council has an opportunity to move us towards a City Hall that is of, by and for the people. Now, it’s up to all of us to take advantage of this chance to push for real changes to strengthen our neighborhoods, our city, and our democracy.