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Capping A Busy Year, Columbus Council Tackles Packed Agenda At Final Meeting

Columbus Council members Emmanuel Remy and Shayla Favor, Mayor Andrew Ginther, and members Elizabeth Brown and Rob Dorans at an October press conference.
Columbus City Council
Columbus Council members Emmanuel Remy and Shayla Favor, Mayor Andrew Ginther, and members Elizabeth Brown and Rob Dorans at an October press conference.

Columbus City Council will bring an end to a busy year Monday night at its final meeting of 2019.

This year saw local leaders make a number of significant policy and spending moves, while holding off challenges from progressive candidates. 

The Homestretch

At its final meeting of the year, members will take up a number of important pieces of legislation. The most high-profile move is likely the repeal of Columbus’s bump stock ban. That change was precipitated by a federal rule change, which makes possessing one of the firearm accessories a felony.

Council also takes up a measure that would require background checks before receiving a short term rental permit, for listing properties on platforms like Airbnb. Late this summer, members rolled out permit requirements for short term rentals.

The members will also consider a number of major economic development proposals. There are two New Community Authorities in the Franklinton area, one for the Gravity II development and one for Scioto Peninsula.

This model, which has been used previously in Dublin’s Bridge Park and the Village of New Albany, allows the district to charge development fees on business or property within its bounds. This means, unlike other tools like abatements or tax increment financing, tax dollars that would otherwise be collected aren’t diverted. The Scioto Peninsula would also get $1.5 million in funding for a parking garage under a separate piece of legislation.

In terms of abatements, Council is taking up one proposal which would give the parent company of Condado Tacos a 10 year, 75% abatement on a new facility. Revolucion Holding is planning a $1.6 million renovation of a building that will serve as a production and distribution facility. The company expects the nearly $2.9 million project will create 20 new full-time jobs.

Monday's packed agenda caps off a busy year for the city government.

Columbus Crew Stadium

By the end of last year, it was clear Columbus wouldn’t be losing its soccer team. But if 2018 was marked by the euphoric push to “save” the Crew, 2019 has been consumed with the fine print work of what to do with the team Columbus just saved.

The city has ponied up more than $100 million to pay for redeveloping the Crew’s current home at MAPFRE Stadium and to make investments in infrastructure and the neighborhood surrounding a planned new stadium.

Critics seized on the fact that the city’s original pitch was half that cost, but Mayor Andrew Ginther defends the spending. Respondingto reporting from The Columbus Dispatch, Ginther insisted the city is still not spending a dime on the stadium itself.

“The additional infrastructure dollars that were cited in the story are in the greater village, in the rest of that arena district development, Confluence Village," he said.

Ginther contends developing Confluence Village will create more than 3,000 jobs and generate $6.5 million in income taxes annually.

Despite the city’s bottom line investment in the project growing, Ginther pitched the effort in "Columbus Way" terms, emphasizing the buy-in from other sources.

“We’ll invest $113 million, the private sector is going to invest $1.04 billion," he said. "That’s a 10-to-1 return for taxpayers in this city, while creating thousands of new jobs, building affordable housing, and having record levels of minority and female participation.”

Vacancy Appointments

Council for the first time held public hearing to fill two vacancies, after former members Jaiza Page and Michael Stinziano left their seats for new roles as a court of common pleas judge and the county auditor, respectively. That new process brought Shayla Favor and Rob Dorans onto the body.

But the process also revived concerns about the pattern of Council members gaining their seats through vacancy appointment. In the past 21 years, only Elizabeth Brown and Michael Stinziano have initially taken their seats through an election. In that same time, 17 others have joined Council first through a vacancy appointment, then winning re-election as an incumbent.

“The truth is you have to pick,” Council president Shannon Hardin said of the appointment process at the time.  “You have to replace an opening. The ‘just run’ scenario is extremely, extremely, extremely expensive.”

Still, opponents in the progressive political organization Yes We Can spoke out against the appointment process and highlighted it in their bid for seats on City Council. Their campaigns proved unsuccessful, though, and all three incumbent Council members on the November ballot - Emmanuel Remy, Dorans and Favor - won reelection.

Campaign Finance

Early this year, Council instituted its first campaign finance restrictions. The slate of changes first proposed by Ginther in 2018 earned plaudits for transparency and provisions including a tax credit aimed at encouraging small donations. But the limit itself—now roughly $13,300—struck many as too high.

“In other words,” said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, “they established a limit because right now the sky’s the limit, but it doesn’t actually limit their contributions in any meaningful way.”

Only handful of contributions during Ginther’s entire tenure would be prohibited under the legislation. In all of 2018, he collected just one donation that would’ve exceeded the limit.

But then-Council president Stinziano defended the policy.

“There’s some members on Council that don’t think we need any number, that again, disclosure’s all that’s important, continue, the system isn’t broken, what are we trying to fix?” Stinziano said. “There’s some members that think it could be lower, and so landing at this spot was something that we could tie it to, attribute and understand. It’s something that’s been in place that’s worked in other campaigns across the state.”

Stinziano explained they arrived at the number by tying to state campaign finance limits, which were originally set at $10,000 and have been indexed to rise with inflation.

But Turcer and others noted that argument is a bit disingenuous. That’s because although state limits are tied to the campaign cycle, Columbus applies its limit on an annual basis—allowing office seekers to raise greater amounts of money.

Marijuana Decriminalization

Columbus City Council joined a number of other municipalities around the state advancing legislation that would reduce penalties for low level marijuana possession. Ohio is already a relatively lenient state, but Hardin made the changes a priority because of persistent racial disparities in enforcement.

“Folks talk about the slippery slope, the real slippery slope is into the judicial system, and it’s been much more slippery for young men of color in our community,” he said.

Under the changes, possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana would result in a $10 ticket and possession of 100-250 grams would lead to a $25 ticket.

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.