(This commentary was written to address a local issue in Columbus, Ohio.  It applies to any city that finds itself in like circumstances.)

City Council Flaw
By Thomas N. Tripp

Providence never intended to make the Management of Publick Affairs a Mystery, to be comprehended only by a few Persons of sublime Genius, of which there seldom are three born in an Age. Gulliverís Travels 1726

Pop quiz:

1. Of the following cities, which has a population greater than Columbus, Ohio?

Boston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Denver, Baltimore, Cleveland.

2. Which has an area greater than that of Columbus?

3. Which has a city council where all the members are elected at-large?

If you picked any city as the answer to any of the questions, youíd be wrong.

Politically Columbus is the biggest little town in the US. Thatís a quaint fact, but there is a downside to this distinction. Being disconnected. As the eighth largest city in terms of area, and the 15th in population it may be time to recognize who and what we are. In other words, its probably time to think about growing up. Almost all of the 25 largest cities in the US have ward or district systems of council representation. What does everyone know that we donít?

If you talk with those in positions of power or influence in town, the standard line is reversed, what do we have that all those cities covet? And the answer, from the insiders, is a city which works. And those who maintain that certainly canít be said to be wholly wrong, the hidden part is that they are not fully right either. The issue is two-fold, where do the equities lie, and when will those equities have to be addressed?

Most of those who feel our city is broken have voices which cannot be heard more than a few blocks from their homes. Most come to realize the serious flaws in an at-large council only when it is their ox which is being gored.

Black and white politics are the easiest perch from which to campaign, it makes it simple for the voters. Things are either good or evil, working or broken, a service to the body politic or an insult to every individual member. Of course, rarely is anything that uncomplicated.

There is a common refrain from the top of the political totem pole that Columbus city government isnít broken, donít try to fix it. And, seen from the top, city government does work pretty well. But, from the bottom a lot of things are broken and no one at city hall is listening or willing to work on getting them heard, much less fixed. These arenít the Ďbigí things, like new malls or expanded freeway lanes and interchanges, etc. They are the little things, like sidewalks beside thoroughfare streets leading to schools, a growing concern about adult entertainment storefronts in residential areas, city resources being spent to fix and maintain existing sectors, not just creating new development in outlying farmland.

One example, of many: when Briggs High, in southwest Columbus, was built 30 years ago roughly 10% of the students walked along the three foot wide berm between Briggs Road and the adjacent drainage ditch to get to classes. Today nearly 450 students stroll and cavort along a highway which is now much more heavily traveled, especially by student drivers. Last year when a student was killed near the school the board of education and the city moved in with half-measures; additional signs and lights, a painted cross-walk which leads nowhere.

Binns Elementary School is also located on Briggs Rd, about a mile west of the high school. That means in addition to the fourteen and 15 year olds who walk the edges of the road and who suffer from the human condition, i.e., lack of attention and a feeling of invulnerability, grammar school children are also present and probably even less prone to paying attention or understanding the real dangers. They are children, after all, and it is our job, the families, the communities and those in power in city hall, to protect them if we can.

The need for sidewalks around these schools has been apparent since the day the doors opened in the 70s. Now the children of the first students who attended Briggs are still without sidewalks. And, from the looks of it, the grandchildren of those first students will likely suffer the same danger as well. Why? Because this is not an issue that at-large part-time city council members have at the top of their list of things to do. This is a local issue.

Letís put Briggs in perspective: when was the last time a member of city council was elected from the southwest quadrant of Columbus? 1965, thirty-seven years ago.

The sad part is that city council members now think like patricians, rather than tribunes, and see their role as protectors of the city from the top down, they forget, or ignore, the details because they just donít have the time, resources or political backing to do the right thing in a city as large as Columbus. This isnít just the fault of council members, we, the voters, are the enablers, in pop psychology parlance, allowing this to happen.

Mary Webster, Assistant Director of Columbusí Public Service Department notes that 60% of the cityís roadways donít have adjacent sidewalks. It will cost millions more dollars than are expected in city coffers for decades to get any of this remedied. The initial inquiry is not where will the money come from, the real issue is why did Columbus end up with all those streets without sidewalks in the first place? Who makes these decisions on safety measures, who can excuse a developer or subdivision from compliance? City council. .

Our council members are all good folks, no one is complaining about them individually, but as a group they are deceived, either through intentional or accidental ignorance, by what is piled on their desk. If a member isnít in the neighborhoods they donít know where the speed limits are too high, or low, if the garbage is being picked up, if vandalism, the precursor almost always of something bigger, is growing, or myriad other indicia of city realities which need attention. How much real incentive do they have to make things happen, right there, right then?

The need is for those who are government to step back and see the larger picture. The question is not whether the system is broken, it is not wholly, but rather is the system both designed and operating as it should, and concurrently, can it be done better? Demands on city government are increasing, not diminishing. The foundational question is, for whom does city council work? It is not for the city as an abstraction, nor solely for the general commonweal, it is there for the purpose of representing each of the citizens individually as well.

Recently The Columbus Dispatch ran a story on major contributors to city council elections. The Dispatch articles, which offered evidence on the influence, not just access, of Columbusí power brokers and tycoons, showed just the tip of a badly skewed governmental iceberg. The articles were calling for campaign finance reform, but what Columbus needs as much is a full look at governmental reform.

A ward-sectioned city will bring a semblance of order and currency to the bottom level of government which is absent today. If a developer gets to talk with a council member in private about a project, if a professional gets to meet with a council person about an unbid contract, and both are heavy contributors to the memberís campaign coffers, whoís really watching the store? As important, if the council member spends much of their time with their financial backers, how much energy do they really have left for the individual who lives on Indianola and has a problem about which the bureaucracy isnít interested?

If a new neighborhood appears on the drawing board with density 3 times what youíd expected because of existing zoning, and it is going in next to your home, which council member do you approach? You have a one in seven chance of speaking with the same one the developer has corralled. And then, you are only one person, you have to build a coalition to counteract the developerís financial influence with that council member. Ordinary citizens cannot do that on each issue. Nor should they have to. Voluntary neighborhood groups canít watch every council member all the time. But if the city had district representation then everyone knows which council member to approach, the one who has the incentive to keep everyone on an even keel, the one who wonít be re-elected if they donít represent all the constituents.

If one looks at a map of the city, and superimposes the official addresses of council members over the last forty years one finds some interesting facts. In that period there have been 39 different members of council, who lived in 45 different homes. Of those 39 members, twenty, or 51%, have lived within 2 miles north or south of East Broad St., and an additional 9, or 23%, have lived within 1 mile east or west of High St. between German Village and 161. Thatís 74% of council members, over a forty year period, living in a very narrow corridor. Columbus stretches 33 miles north to south and the same east/west. The southwest quadrant of the city has not seen but one council member in that forty year period. That area today holds 16% of Columbusí registered voters. On the east side, the area from Fifth Ave. all the way north to Morse Road, from High St. to Licking County, has seen only one council member in that same 40 years. That area today holds another 18% of our registered voters. Thus one-third of the cityís voters have had a council member from their neighborhood on but two occasions since General Eisenhower left the White House. (Actually the percentage of voters from those areas is historically higher than 34% as these are the oldest neighborhoods. The percentage of the population which lives within those areas has declined proportionally as the city boundaries have grown.) If proof of neglect is needed to ice this cake, when one takes a glance at infrastructure needs, other than at Easton, these two areas are probably the least well served.

One community activist was quoted last fall, with respect to ward representation, as saying it would be "chaoticóthe ability to work together will vanish. It will pit neighborhood against neighborhood.". With that attitude going in, itís a wonder anyone thinks Columbus, much less the state or federal government, can work at all, what with groups fighting one another, and legislative districts vying for influence. The fact of the matter is, geographic representation is a reality, not an impediment. In Columbus the only chaos we really have is in the powerless, unrepresented areas of Columbusís electoral backwaters, that is, the quarters of the city which have no council member accountable to them, or even familiar with needs or opportunities.

Those who express fears that council members elected from districts will bring more factionalism than cooperation comment, "How do you keep them from getting tunnel vision?" But there is a failure to ask the opposite question, how do you get at-large members focused on anything local with so many people from so many places knocking on their doors?

The human animal operates on incentive, and the incentive, when you are responsible for one area, and if you donít perform you will be put out to pasture, is intense. There is a lack of accountability in a seven member city council. If you are one of seven, and not directly responsible, who do we blame when things fail? No one, and thus there is no incentive not to fail. Lip service becomes the way things get smoothed over. "Iíll work on that for you" becomes the common refrain, but when nothing happens, there are six others to blame, plus the whole bureaucracy. To prove what really occurred is more work than just starting all over. Stu Harris, a candidate for city council in 2001 made the case succinctly, "Even the best council member cannot be in all places at all times. If you have a problem with the city, whom do you call? Who is your city council member? Well, all of them, and none of them.".

Arguments against changing Columbusí council makeup seem to come from three human instincts: tradition, inertia and power. Those who like what we have say it has worked well for 87 years, why change? Those who just donít want to be bothered, say leave it alone. And those who control much of what happens in city government know it is not only working, it is working wellóthe trouble is, it is working well mostly for them.

Denny White, the Franklin County Democratic Chair, whose party controls city council and has for years, is in favor of the status quo. He feels, because of voter registration tallies, that any change in the format of city council elections is likely to have an impact on the number of seats his party controls. His fears are probably misplaced. Although the Republicans have a slight edge in voter registration over Democrats, 66,801 to 62,233, the real electoral power in Columbus lies with the independents, who weigh in at a quarter million voters. Mike Colley, the Republican Chair, sees potential gains for his party, but cautions that the status quo must not be tampered with carelessly. His views reflect what some others see in cities which have ward representation. Cleveland is a fractious city, with more than a score of council members, and its government doesnít work as well as it might. The trouble with painting ward-based city government one color is that wards work successfully most places, especially where there is also an over-layer of at-large members. Even in Cleveland the Cuyahoga River doesnít catch fire any more, someone has to have done something right.

The most instructive case for ward representation is, of all places, Toledo, home, as we all know, of the Mud Hens. Toledoís city government is a mix of district and at-large council members. The city works, not in the manner of Chicago, famous for its ward battles and turf fratricide, but in the modern manner. And, most interestingly, Toledoís council arrangement is not a product of the 19th century, but of the 1990s.

Mike Beasley, now clerk of council in Toledo, was the Democratic Chair of Lucas County in 1992. The city wasnít particularly broken, but it didnít work as it should, and most everyone knew it. So Toledo took a look at both the problems and the options and voted for change. Beasley, whose party controlled the at-large elected city council in Toledo as the Democrats control it in Columbus, said two things which catch any student of government off-guard. When asked why he not only went along with the change to a council with 6 wards and 6 at-large members, but actively supported it, he replied: "First, there were areas of the city which were not being represented, and had not been. It was the right thing to do. Second, it wasnít necessary for our party to win every office every time.". That level of candor isnít just refreshing, it is close to astounding.

In 1991 Beasley and his small band of revolutionaries took the issue step by step. Their organization was ad hoc, not connected with any governmental entity. They sold the newspaper on at least having an open editorial policy, they fashioned a plan of six districts and six at-large elected council members that blunted the negative effects of a log-rolling brand of fiscal management when a city has only ward representation. They fashioned the districts fairly, that is geographically concise and equal in size, and they created an apportionment board which was unlikely to get locked in political battles. The board has 6 members, appointed by the mayor, with confirmation by city council. There are two members from each party and two independents. It takes a vote of 5 members to draw the lines, thus there must be some semblance of cooperation. Redistricting has taken place once so far, and it was a non-event.

Beasley noted neighborhood involvement in Toledo has increased simply because there is a council member to whom people can go. On the flip side, that neighborhood involvement has not stopped the city from working, and the reason for that is the at-large members of council. They still take the broad view, they are there to stop back-scratching pork projects, and support solid needs when the equities are present. Beasley noted that developers donít have the free hand at city hall they once enjoyed. Neighborhood leaders now have a voice, a voice which will not just be heard while in a memberís office and then be silent during a committee or council meeting.

Beasleyís final comment echoed that of Tom Noe, Beasleyís counterpart as Republican chair in Lucas county in 1992, that the 9 year experiment has been a significant success. Maybe Columbus should look at what the Mud Hen fans did, after all, Toledo is not some hick town, it is the third largest city in Ohio.

Why has the at-large system of council elections in all those Ďlargeí cities listed in the pop quiz been abandoned? For the simple reason that people are entitled to representation, advocacy which is peculiar to both their problems and their location.

Denny White is concerned about increasing the size of council, "More layers of government, more expense, more aides". With due respect to Mr. White, that sounds more like an excuse from the inertial field. As cities grow, government necessarily does as well. When one looks at the seven members of council who are now expected to run the city as part-time representatives, itís obvious we are asking them to do too much already. And if your elected representatives are overwhelmed with the size of their obligations that means only one of two things, either the bureaucrats take over, or nothing gets done. Your choice.

If the duties of council members are more focused, if there are a few more of them to spread the work load around, and the member to go to when one has a problem is more clearly defined, city government cannot but help to become more efficient and more effective. Along with re-designing how council is configured it might be time to also look at making those responsible for a half billion dollar budget full-time public servants.

What is broken in Columbus isnít the overall running of city government. Any corruption of representative democracy which is extant is philosophical, not necessarily actionable. With a new paradigm what would happen is something added, not something lost. A mix of district representatives and at-large council members would maintain what works well and add a measure of accessibility, accountability and personal acquaintance to both the council memberís and the voterís quiver. Those who are afraid of pork barrel fiscal management are protected by the at-large portion of the proposed configuration, and maybe a measure of self-interest more directly expressed at city hall wouldnít be a bad thing. Ask the parents whose children go to Briggs High School.

Everyone who was interviewed for this story was at first either skeptical or lethargic about the topic. The Toledo story caught their attention, to a person they were impressed with the possibilities. To a person they were ignorant of what had happened there. Columbus city council parameters, as laid out in the city charter, were established in 1914. The population and area of the city at that point were less than 10% of what they are now.

In the Dispatch story on campaign finances, in spite of the paperís gentle massaging of the subject matter, it was clear that political contributions are expected to get results from, not just access to council members. If political contributors get access for their cash, what does the non-contributing voter get when they make a call to a council person? If the access is different, doesnít it just follow that the influence has to be as well? Matt Habash, when asked about the low voter turnout (7.5%) in last yearís May primary said that people were satisfied with what was happening on Columbus City Council. He was quoted in Alive, "There was no reason to come out and see it changed.". No reason to vote? Perhaps Mr. Habash has lost sight of the responsibility of electors. Their apathy is not to be capitalized on as approval but more likely disapproval of the system, and frustration with the apparent correlation between money and what gets done at city hall.

With a ward system some of the money which flows around city hall campaign coffers would be less needed. To win elections in districts a candidate would have to both be from the area and campaign there. A candidate who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV would be suspect in the neighborhood, maybe as someone who was too good to walk the streets. The people can be led, and misled, only so long, about a candidateís character, intentions and understanding.

Mike Curtain, editor of the Dispatch, said initially that the paper thinks the city works well and that a change in city council make-up seemed unnecessary. He too was unaware of the Toledo example and after considering the upside said that the paper would be editorially open to any change which bode well for the city. Curtain cited all the negative things that a city council has to do, where to site sanitation, water and electrical plants and lines, which roads to fix first, where to require sidewalks. He suggested that making difficult decisions was easier with an at-large council, but that begs the question, are we looking for easier ways to make decisions or better ways (remember the several hundred million dollar trash burning power plant fisaco, for which we are all still paying)? Ultimately Curtain, as the chief representative of the newspaper in a one-daily town, said it was their obligation to look at all sides. It will be worth watching to see if his candor is reflected in the paperís approach to something theyíve been editorially against for some time.

The facts are necessary for a move to ward representation to go forward. There are no substantive philosophical or practical objections to district representation, a one-size-fits-all council is simply an anachronism. Arguments against change that are factually unsupported leave the power brokers only one real tool: moral indignation that there would be any question regarding how well this city works. The real question is: can we do what we do better, with less influence from above and more participation from the public?

If change is to occur an act of will is required. If council is reluctant to lead the parade, then the constituent neighborhood associations will have to organize. Elected officials other than council members will need to weigh in. The effort will spawn a covey of lawyers to write the legislation, and then it will require public honesty on the part of all the media outlets. It will require a fair assessment by the members of city council, who should be in favor of reducing the burden their jobs currently demand. Facts must rule. None of this will be effortless, but look at the big picture and think how easy the small stuff is. The democracies of the world defeated fascism and communism in a mere 73 years, with only one World War, two regular sized wars and myriad skirmishes. Changing city council shouldnít take much longer, or be much more difficult.

This article first appeared in Columbus Alive.

© 1 March 2002

 
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