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Columbus City Council Begins Long-Awaited Districting Process

Columbus City Hall
David Holm

Early next year, Columbus City Council begins the process of the expanding its ranks and establishing district-based representation.

Under a charter amendment approved two years ago, City Council will grow from seven to nine members—one each from a new set of districts. Council member Emmanuel Remy says district representation will be make council more responsive to residents.

“I know the city pretty well, especially being a realtor, but when you live in a particular area, you get to know where all the potholes are,” Remy says. “So it’s going to be helpful to have nine distinct representatives from different parts of the community.”

The task of actually coming up with those districts will be in the hands of a five-member commission.

“There’s a set of parameters that are established under the charter based on what voters approved in 2018,” Remy says. “And they will follow those guidelines in order to come up with three maps that council either must approve or deny.”

Among those parameters are keeping district populations within 1% of each other, maintaining neighborhoods and communities of interest, and ensuring districts are contiguous. Importantly, Council can’t alter the maps before approving them.

Council will select four members of the drafting commission through an application process. The mayor and council president will tap the fifth member, who will chair the panel. The commission is set to start its work by March.

While the new members have to be from certain areas of the city, all voters will cast their ballots on the entire slate – rather than just on one representative from their district.

That distinction has rubbed some the wrong way. What difference will districts make, community advocates have argued, when voting continues on an at-large basis. But Remy defends the approach, which City Council members created themselves.

“What the voters approved overwhelmingly was this hybrid model,” he argues, “where yes, they get somebody living within their area, but again they get represented by nine different individuals that just live in different parts of the city.”

It is worth noting, however, that Columbus voters were not given another option for district representation. An alternative proposal led by community activists, which garnered tens of thousands of petition signatures, would have created a 13-member Council, with 10 members elected by individual districts and three elected at-large.

However, that proposal was shot down by City Council members, and then nixed by the Ohio Supreme Court for violating the state's single subject rule. Voters rejected a similar proposal in 2016, but turnout in that August special election was in the single digits.

All nine council seats will be up for election when a new map takes effect in 2023. To re-establish the staggered terms they operate now, new members will draw lots to determine who serves for four years and who gets shorter two-year terms.

Currently, Democrats control all seven seats on the Columbus City Council.

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.