When news broke last month that Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther would include a provision in the 2018 city budget to create a council of area commissions, it caught some civic leaders by surprise, with a few fearing they might be overlooked.
"I'd certainly not like to see us left out," said Dave Paul, chairman of the Northland Community Council development committee.
Paul said as soon as he heard about the mayor's proposal, he contacted other leaders of the NCC, a consortium of civic associations in the Northland neighborhood of Columbus that has been in existence longer than the city's system of area commissions.
"I've already aired the suggestion with the NCC executive board that we should make an effort to not be left out," Paul said.
"In fact, we should be talking with them now to make sure that we and other large civic councils have a seat at the table."
The primary distinction between the area commissions and civic associations is funding.
Robin Davis, a spokeswoman for Ginther, said area commissions are approved by Columbus City Council and receive funding from the city to support their operations.
In contrast, civic associations register with the city but are not approved by City Council and do not receive any city funding, Davis said.
Columbus has far more civic associations than area commissions. The city website lists 299 civic associations and 19 area commissions.
Nick Cipiti, president of the Northwest Civic Association, said he was confused by Ginther's announcement.
"I'm not sure I understand the whole thing," he said. "I think the point they're making is the criticism that (Columbus) City Council doesn't listen to the residents and the neighbors. Well, isn't that what the neighborhood liaisons are for?
"Especially since we hear zoning issues and make recommendations, I think the associations should be included."
Not to worry, said Carla Williams-Scott, director of the Columbus Department of Neighborhoods.
Such organizations as the NCC and the Northwest Civic Association, which make recommendations to city officials about zoning and other matters, would be part of the council of area commissions, she said.
"Because they make recommendations, we kind of included them in the council," Williams-Scott said. "They would be part of the conversation, as well. Out of that, some people may decide they want to form an area commission and some may want to continue to operate as they do.
"We just want to make sure that they're communicating with one another."
Neither Paul nor Cipiti said they were inclined to alter the status of their community organizations from private entities to ones sponsored and funded by the city.
"We don't think it's broken," Paul said. "In fact, in some ways, we think our system is preferable because it really does give all our neighborhoods a voice and chance to vote on zoning issues."
"Each part of the city is unique and has their own unique issues," Cipiti said. "It certainly doesn't hurt to listen and communicate with other parts of the city, but I don't think it's essential to what we're doing up here."
Davis said the mayor's budget allocates $4.9 million to the neighborhoods department for all its work; any money needed to establish the council of area commissions would come from that.
The concept of a council for the city's 19 area commissions, as well as larger civic organizations, arose from training offered to new members on the advisory panels, Williams-Scott said.
During those sessions, she said, people from various parts of the city communicated with one another about common problems and issues, as well as different ways to solve them.
"We were like, 'What a concept,' " Williams-Scott said. "That's where the idea for the area-commission council was born.
"You would have folks from different areas of town ... (who) would not have an opportunity to come together discussing issues they have in common."
Clintonville Area Commission chairwoman Libby Wetherholt said she was intrigued by the council concept.
"I think it's an interesting idea," she said. "I'm all for the commissions meeting and discussing ideas. I think all of us can learn from what other parts of the city are doing."
Wetherholt said she favored having a council meet more than once a year. She also said she supports the inclusion of such organizations as the NCC and Northwest Civic Association.
"I think the city listens to the Northland council and the Northwest Civic as if they are commissions," Wetherholt said. "They don't have that recognition but I think they are listened to that way. It's always been my contention that there are huge swaths of the city that don't have area commissions ... and the city should bring these areas into the area-commission fold.
"For the private groups, like Northland and Northwest, they may feel like they have a little more strength because they don't have oversight by the city. They may want to tell the city to butt out."