Group pushes council ward proposal toward ballot
A group pushing ward representation on Columbus City Council took one step closer to the ballot Monday.
The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government was expected file petitions at City Hall at 3 p.m. June 25 calling for a charter amendment that would create a combination of wards and at-large representation on council.
Jonathan Beard, spokesman for the coalition, said it planned to turn in 24,000 signatures -- about 5,000 more than the number of signatures from registered voters required to make the ballot.
"We think our validation rate is sufficient," he said. "Ultimately, the Franklin County Board of Elections will be the arbiter of that. We think we're in good shape."
The group has maintained that council has become an exclusive club for the city's elite and doesn't represent the diversity of the neighborhoods. All seven members of council currently serve "at-large," meaning they represent the whole city. The charter amendment, which must be approved by voters, would change the council structure to seven district representatives elected from smaller sections of the city, together with four at-large members, increasing the overall size of council to 11 members.
Columbus is one of two of the 50 largest American cities that don't have ward representation.
Beard said the current model, which has been in place for almost 100 years, is simply outmoded for a city the size of Columbus.
He said the group has invited the local Democratic and Republican parties to get involved. The GOP has declined, he said, while the Franklin County Democratic Party has begun mobilizing against the proposed change.
Greg Schultz, chairman of the local Democratic party, sent a letter to its Central Committee members in May saying that he was, "worried about the makeup of some of the members of the (pro-ward) group and their overtly partisan interests" and "about the negative effects to our city if the proposed changes were to go into effect."
He went on to express concern that, "This effort will have the opposite effect that some of its proponents want."
"In conclusion, I oppose this effort because I believe it is partly being driven with very partisan efforts to dilute the political strength of Democrats, in a city that votes overwhelmingly and consistently for Democrats," Schultz wrote, adding that ward proposals have been defeated at the ballot box twice in 40 years. All current council members are Democrats, as is Mayor Michael B. Coleman.
Schultz did not return repeated phone messages from ThisWeek seeking comment for this story.
Beard, who said he's a lifelong Democrat, said the claim of partisanship is unfounded, as the coalition is represented by large swath of people, from conservatives to liberals.
He said he's perplexed by the effort to preempt the coalition's plan.
"I think it's premature," he said. "I think it's exactly what we're complaining about, saying they're not responsive. They haven't even heard public debate."