As Columbus City Council members met inside City Hall this evening, a political group that wants to expand the size of the council by adding members from specific neighborhoods laid out its plan on the steps outside.
The grass-roots group — Represent Columbus — is the latest to take on establishing a ward system of government for the city of Columbus. Several groups have tried and failed to get similar measures on the ballot or enacted by council in the past decade.
The most recent time a similar plan went before voters was in the mid-1970s, when voters twice rejected it.
This latest proposal calls for expanding the City Council from seven at-large members to 13 members. Ten of those would be elected from wards, or districts, and specifically represent those neighborhoods. The other three would be elected at-large, meaning they don’t represent a specific area of Columbus.
“This group is dedicated to bringing the government back to the people,” said Will Petrik, co-director of Represent Columbus.
Petrik ran for one of four open seats on council earlier this year, but finished in the back of the pack in the May primary. Also speaking at the rally of about 30 people was mayoral candidate Zach Scott.
Scott, who supports ward council members, said the issue should be given to voters and said elected officials who already are inside City Hall want to keep it off the ballot.
Scott brushed off accusations that he was creating a political stunt by being at the gathering.
“Of course this is a political thing, but it’s political because some people inside City Hall don’t want to give voters the choice,” Scott said.
Scott, the Franklin County sheriff, is running for mayor against fellow Democrat and City Council President Andrew Ginther.
Ginther has said that City Council does not need to expand, and that each council member should represent the entire city. The cohesive nature of the body is one of the main reasons Columbus has grown, he said.
Other Democrats on City Council chalked the event and the group up to a political ploy from those who have tried to get elected but failed.
“I am not a believer we should have ward bosses that control neighborhoods,” said Councilman Zach Klein. “Just because other cities do it doesn’t mean the city of Columbus should do it. I think we have evidence here that things are going well.”
Klein also said a ward system would cause “horse trading” and pit neighborhoods against one another.
Represent Columbus could get the issue on the ballot in one of two ways.
The first would be by a two-thirds vote of council members who agree to put it on the ballot. But given the tenor of council members, that seems unlikely.
That means the group would have to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
How many signatures would be determined by the upcoming mayoral election on Nov. 3.
The city charter requires that those seeking a ballot initiative must collect enough valid signatures to equal at least 5 percent of the voter turnout in the most recent mayoral election.
Petrik said his group plans to collect 10,000 signatures in the next five to six weeks. The group would have to collect enough signatures by Dec. 16 to be on the March primary ballot.
Whitney Smith, the other co-chair of the group and an active member of the Republican Party, said her group has bipartisan support and wants to bring everyone to the table.
“We are fighting to give every community a voice, end corruption in Columbus and bring accountability back to city government by creating districts in our Columbus City Council,” she said.