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Second Columbus Council Member Announces Retirement After Ballot Deadline, Causing Outcry

Columbus Council member Mitchell Brown
James Miller
Columbus Division of Fire
Columbus Council member Mitchell Brown celebrates the re-opening of John Nance Fire Station 2 on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.

Columbus City Council member Mitchell Brown announced Friday that he will step down at the end of this year. It’s the second Council resignation in two weeks, and the timing is raising some eyebrows.

Brown’s announcement signals the end of a 20-year run serving the city. In a statement, Brown calls the experience “humbling, challenging and rewarding.” He speaks about being a 13-year cancer survivor and that he’s looking forward to enjoying time with his family.

Prior to joining Columbus Council in 2016, Brown spent 15 years as Columbus’ director of public safety with oversight of the city’s police, fire and support services agencies — a tenure length that remains a city record.

Before coming to Columbus, Brown led various state agencies including the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Public Safety during the Voinivich administration. His work in paramedic response prior to that, in Pittsburgh, not only laid the ground work for his future career, it helped refine what we now think of as modern EMS.

Like Council member Priscilla Tyson, Brown was planning to run in this November’s election before announcing his resignation. The deadline to qualify has passed, so the only way replacement candidates can run is if a five-member nominating commission chooses to put them on the ballot.

Liliana Rivera Baiman standing outside.
Nick Evans
Liliana Rivera Baiman is a community organizer in Columbus who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on city council in 2019. She and others have been critical of council's use of the appointment process.

That doesn’t sit well with former candidate Liliana Rivera Baiman.

“It’s really hard to see two people might end up on there who didn’t have to do any of the legwork," Baiman says. "Especially knowing the conditions in Columbus, when it’s zero degrees and you’re standing outside of Whetstone Library asking to people to come over during a pandemic to sign.”

Ordinarily, candidates have to collect signatures from 1,000 registered voters.

In an interview after announcing her resignation, Tyson explained the process of selecting replacement candidates, but insisted she would not have a hand in the decision.

“From this point, I’m not involved in that,” Tyson said. “But that group of people on the petition would be the one that would select someone to be added to the ballot—should they decide to do that. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen, but that’s the process.”

Baiman suggests if the nominating commission does decide to select replacements candidates, perhaps they should ask the candidates to collect signatures anyway as a ways of demonstrating community support.

City council spokeswoman Lee Cole issued a statement saying, "We respect the decisions of Councilmembers Mitchell J. Brown and Priscilla R. Tyson to retire at the conclusion of their respective terms. The electoral process is beyond the purview of City Council. We look forward to accepting the results of the general election in November."

Joe Motil, who ran for Columbus Council the same year as Baiman, criticizes the timing of Tyson and Brown’s departure as well. In an emailed statement, he accuses them of acting as "placeholders."

“Tyson and Brown most likely kept other potential candidates from getting on the ballot who would have been more interested in running for an open seat on City Council rather than going up against an incumbent,” Motil writes. “This is just another instance of Columbus' establishment Democrats using deception to avoid competition and to maintain their control and power on city council.”

Motil compares the move to Council’s reliance on the appointment process to fill vacancies. Since 1998, only two Columbus Council members have initially won their seat through an election, while the rest have been appointed first by the Council itself.

Council president Shannon Hardin is the only incumbent left on the ballot this November. Lourdes Barroso de Padilla, an executive with City Year who was previously shortlisted for a council vacancy, and Tom Sussi, an independent investigative reporter, are also running for the three seats up in this November’s election.

In statement, Sussi criticized the “stranglehold” Democrats have on city politics.

“The people of Columbus need to wake up,” Sussi wrote. “This is not democracy but a cunning and disgusting chess game in which career politicians use citizens as pawns to advance their careers and agendas. This needs to stop.”

WOSU has requested further comment from Barroso de Padilla's campaign.

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.