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Activists Will Sue To Put Columbus Council Overhaul On May Ballot

Esther Honig
Unlike the failed ballot issue from 2016, there's a map illustrating the ten proposed districts that individual candidates would represent.

With their latest ballot proposal to change the structure of Columbus City Council tossed out, activists say their next option may be the courtroom.

Columbus Council on Monday sided with City Attorney Zack Klein in rejecting the ballot initiative from the grassroots group Everyday People for Positive Change, ruling that it's actually several initiatives wrapped into one. Klein argued the proposal violates the “single-subject” rule.

“There is no practical or rational reason to combine these disparate topics into a single petition,” Klein told the council on Monday.

Pushing back against what he calls a “tyrannical city government,” activist Jonathan Beard says his group will file a lawsuit with a state appeals court.

“We’ve got a constitutional right to put the initiative on the ballot, and we will sue to enforce our right,” Beard says.

Beard says his group hopes to file the suit within the next 10 days and get it before a court within a few weeks.

Contrary to what Columbus Council says, Beard contends their proposal does not violate the single-subject rule because everything relates to city council.

Chief among the changes Beard and other activists want to see is a move from the current system of at-large elections, and an increase in the number of council members. Currently, council consists of seven members elected city-wide. 

Everyday People's proposal would change Columbus Council to a 13-member body, with 10 members representing individual wards, or districts. Three members would still be elected at-large.

Beard says increasing the size of Columbus Council would be a shot back at a body that he says he has entrenched itself as “a self-sustaining ruling class” by routinely having outgoing members step down before their term ends and appointing a replacement.

That gives the new member the benefit of incumbency in the next election.

Other changes in the ballot initiative that backers say garnered 42,000 petition signatures include:

  • Council members would be limited to serving no more than three terms, for a total 12 years in office. 
  • For the next 10 years, the size of City Council's staff would be limited to 52 people - including six new council members and four staffers per member.
  • There would be a cap on campaign contributions. Currently, Columbus has no limitations. The issue includes limiting how much an individual can hold on to outside of an election period to under $25,000.
  • The number of required signatures for getting a candidate on the ballot would drop from 1,000 to 100.
  • Candidates would have access to local public access TV channels where they could hold "substantive discussions" on local issues. 

A similar ballot measure that appeared on a special ballot in August of 2016 was soundly defeated by voters. Beard contends the issue failed because of lies told by opponents.
However, that failed 2016 measure also did not include a defined map for council districts, a chief criticism against it. Their most-recent plan does have a map.

Council President Shannon Hardin has said moving to a ward-based council would "divide the city."

A charter commission formed by Mayor Andrew Ginther in the wake of the 2016 election suggested adding two member to council and dividing council up into districts, but still having members elected city-wide. Council has so far declined to vote on whether to put that measure before voters, after an outcry from citizen groups. 

While the majority of seats on Columbus City Council are held by African-Americans, Beard says these candidates have been hand-picked by those in power. He argues these members are not behind issues central to the black community, including neighborhood revitalization and violence, such as the increase in homicides the city saw in 2017.

When asked why his group doesn’t move in “baby steps” instead of wider-reaching proposals like the one rejected by Columbus Council, Beard says “time and money.” Ballot measures are expensive and labor-intensive.

If their lawsuit is thrown out, Beard says their next step will be to “vote a bunch of un-democratic city council members out of office."