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Ohio Supreme Court Rejects Activist Attempt To Overhaul Columbus Council

Esther Honig

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against a citizen group attempting to change the structure of Columbus City Council, blocking their proposed ballot initiative from appearing on May ballots.

Everyday People for Positive Change sued the council in February after their ballot issue was rejected for violating a “single-subject rule.”

The grassroots group proposed increasing Columbus City Council to 13 members, 10 of whom would be elected by individual districts. That’s a switch from the current system, where all seven members are elected city-wide. Their proposal also limited Council members to 12 years in office, put a cap on the number of staff, restricted campaign contributions, and drop the number of required signatures for getting a candidate on the ballot.

Everyday People submitted over 42,000 signatures to the Franklin County Board of Elections on behalf of the issue. But Columbus City Council declined the initiative.

"There is no practical or rational reason to combine these disparate topics into a single petition," said City Attorney Zack Klein in his recommendation to the council.

Ohio’s Supreme Court agreed in a 4-3 ruling.

“Relators’ petition is insufficient because it does not comply with the plain and unambiguous language of the one-proposal rule in Columbus Charter 42-2d,” the court wrote. “Therefore, the Columbus city council has no clear legal duty to place relators’ petition for charter amendment on the ballot.”

Everyday People treasurer Jonathan Beard says the group disagrees with the court's interpretation and will ask the court to reconsider - and challenge the "single-subject" law itself.

"People have a right to vote on this issue, and the question here is whether citizens control our government or the government controls our citizens," Beard says.

Columbus voters will still see a May ballot issue to change Columbus City Council – one written by the council itself. That measure expands council to nine members, who will be required to live in certain districts. However, Council members will still be elected city-wide, in a system called “at-large in place.”

Beard calls that measure "fake reform, kind of a watered version, substance-less proposal." He says it doesn't do anything to change the council's current power structure.

The council's proposal would also require at least one public hearing before appointing a new member to fill a vacancy, and would extend the time period for filling a vacancy from 30 to 45 days. The measure builds upon recommendations from a charter review commission that was formed in the wake of the 2016 election.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.