Today, the Columbus Dispatch ran an even stronger editorial against Issue 1 on the August 2 special election ballot. Their conclusion? Issue 1 is too risky, too costly, and too vague. It’s the wrong way to make a massive change to our local government.
Thoughtful reform is better
Columbus voters on Tuesday should vote No on Issue 1, which seeks to divide city-council representation by ward. Redesigning the entire legislative branch of the city’s government should be done thoughtfully, with broader community and expert input, not in a heedless manner.
Issue 1 is an attempt to address the problems of massive city growth and discontent in the neighborhoods that need more attention from City Hall. But this reform is a pig in a poke. It promises residents more power; in truth, residents would have less leverage and be able to hold accountable fewer council members.
Columbus City Council currently has seven members, all elected at large. Each is answerable to every resident in the city. Have a problem with a city department’s service, from policing to trash collection? Residents can demand action from seven representatives.
Issue 1 proposes to change the council to a body of 13 members, with 10 elected by ward (more as the city grows) and three elected citywide. So each city resident would have four, not seven, directly elected representatives on the council.
As to how wards would actually work, one needs only to look to Congress or the Ohio Statehouse, neither of which are shining specimens of cooperation, bipartisanship, resistance to special interests or productivity.
The biggest flaw in Issue 1, however, is that most of the gears that would make the ward system work — or not — are yet to be devised. Voters on Aug. 2 won’t know what the district boundaries would look like or even who would sit on the apportionment commission to draw (or gerrymander) the lines. Further, some wording is so vague and imprecise that enacting Issue 1 is likely to require trips through the courts.
In politics, the devil is in the details.
Another problem: Columbus has more than 200 neighborhoods and roughly 850,000 residents. Each district would have to contain roughly 85,000 residents because of federal laws on equal representation. This gives each ward member — a single council member — a constituency more populous than Youngstown, Canton and Springfield. Residents won’t get a lot of individual attention. And wards might necessarily pair disparate neighbors, such as Clintonville and Linden.
How district boundaries are drawn, in fact, will determine whether neighborhoods, civic associations and commissions remain intact. Likewise, minority populations could be clumped or cleaved to affect the outcome of ward elections.
Columbus City Council has announced a Charter Review Committee and has pledged to pursue serious reform based on thorough study. This is appropriate and more likely to produce a better government than a ballot issue by irate citizens.
The biggest concern with Issue 1, however, is that it could balkanize the city, pitting provincial interests against the general good. Columbus is a city that works because its leaders work together, not against each other.
For all these reasons, every living Columbus mayor — Greg Lashutka, a Republican, and Michael B. Coleman, a Democrat, and current Democratic Mayor Andrew J. Ginther — oppose Issue 1.
The city has tried wards before. A 1914 charter change, approved amid the Progressive Reform movement that aimed to end the political corruption of ward bosses and empower citizens, produced the current at-large council. Twice since, in 1968 and 1975, voters have opted to stay the course. They should do so again to give thoughtful reform a chance. The Dispatch urges residents to vote no on Issue 1.