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Columbus Council Prepares To Fill First Of Two Vacancies

Christopher Columbus statue in front of Columbus City Hall.
Gabe Rosenberg

Columbus Council chambers buzzed last Thursday as finalists jockeying for two vacancies got ready to make their pitches to sitting members. It’s the first time Council members are conducting public hearings ahead of a vacancy appointment.

“Tonight is to let the public hear what we’ve heard in executive session, to ensure that the public has a voice,” Council President Shannon Hardin told the crowd. "This hearing is an opportunity for Council to listen and get feedback.”

What Council members heard from candidates was a mostly rosy appraisal of the city, emphasizing potential while acknowledging challenges like housing and poverty.

“It is no secret that Columbus is a city bursting with opportunities," Chanelle Jones told members. "It is a bustling and vibrant municipality that continues to grow, but with that growth comes challenges, and with every challenge comes another opportunity."

Jones serves as Franklin University’s public safety programs chair and she’s one of 15 finalists in the running for two different seats, left open after Jaiza Page and Michael Stinziano won their elections in November to other positions. The shortlist includes people with a wide array of backgrounds, including attorneys, local activists, entrepreneurs and academics.

After the finalists themselves spoke, supporters got a chance to lobby for their preferred candidate.

Steve Dunbar from the City Attorney’s office praised Shayla Favor as the driving force behind an initiative addressing vacant and blighted homes. He talked about Favor finding solutions and worked backward.

“All the way back to training every stinking code enforcement officer, giving them checklists, so the first time they laid eyes on one of those they would start building exactly what needed to be done. So we would know exactly which way to send it and get it done most quickly,” Dunbar said.

Meanwhile, Sarai Exil lobbied for Lourdes Barosso de Padilla, head of the Latina Mentoring Academy.

“I believe in Lourdes,” she said. “I believe that she can lift the voices of the unheard regardless of race, sexual orientation, zip code, gender, socio-economic class, first- or second- or third-generation American and every other beautiful way that has built this beautiful and bustling city.”

One thing city leaders didn’t hear was significant pushback to the process. One speaker raised concerns about transparency in the whittling of the applicant pool from 56 to 15, but deeper questions about appointments versus elections were absent.

That's a change from previous appointments, like last year's selection of Emmanuel Remy, which was protestedby the activist group Yes We Can. Activists call the process undemocratic and discriminatory, saying it gives the appointee the advantage of incumbency in the next election.

Since 1998, only two Columbus City Council members—Elizabeth Brown and Michael Stinziano—joined initially by winning an election. In that time, 17 members took their seats first through appointment. 

Local activists pushing for reform helped prompt Council’s charter amendment last year, which requires public hearings ahead of vacancy appointments and will change the council structure in about five years.  Hardin says he hasn’t always been comfortable with the prevalence of appointments, but running elections for each vacancy would be too costly.

“The truth is you have to pick, and you have to replace an opening," Hardin explained after Thursday's hearing. "The 'just run' scenario is extremely, extremely, extremely expensive."

Council will hold an executive session to discuss the finalists before Monday’s regular meeting, during which they expect to vote to fill Page's seat. They’re planning more hearings in February for the seat Stinziano is leaving.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.