COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Whether it’s preventing “scam” companies from draining the city’s reserves or de-emphasizing testing in its hiring practices, Columbus voters have a chance to change the city’s charter on Nov. 8.
The Columbus Charter Review Commission, whose membership is reconfigured by the mayor every 10 years, convenes annually to deliberate on how the city’s charter might be modernized or improved. On the ballot this year are measures relating to the ways in which police are hired, safeguards to prevent self-dealing in citizen-led ballot initiatives, and housekeeping items to give the city auditor more flexibility.
Issue 19: Boost transparency, citizen-led power in introducing ballot initiatives
In a direct rebuke of a 2021 ballot measure that city leaders deemed a self-dealing scam, the commission recommended stymying the power of special interest groups to line their pockets by way of ballot initiatives.
On last year’s ballot was Issue 7, which sought to divert $87 million from the city’s general fund to so-called clean energy programs. But Ginther and other city officials warned voters that the murkily-written proposal, whose authors could not answer basic questions, was merely a hoax with no oversight.
“Simply put, Issue 7 is a scam,” City Council President Shannon Hardin said in October 2021. “They use flowery language, talking about renewable energy and minority business. They’re playing us, ya’ll. They’re playing us. In reality, all that money goes to their privately held, unaccountable company called ProEnergy.”
Issue 19 would prevent those unaccountable companies from carving out taxpayer dollars for their own gain, the commission argued, by prohibiting a Columbus ballot initiative from creating a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel. If passed, the issue would also bar the city from holding stock in a company.
As Issue 19 takes aim at corruption, it also provides Columbus residents with more time – two years as opposed to one – to collect the signatures required to place a measure on the ballot. A 10-day “curing period” is also allotted in case a group fails to get enough signatures.
“This is essentially a give-back of something the city took back from us years ago,” said long-time Columbus resident Jon Beard, who spearheaded an initiative this year to get rent control on the ballot.
A two-year time frame had been in place until 2014, when the City Council adopted an ordinance to reduce the signature-collecting time to one year, a council spokesperson said.
With firsthand experience, Beard said introducing citizen-led ballot initiatives can feel like an uphill battle. Issue 19 and “anything that helps that process is a good thing,” he said.
Issue 20: Less emphasis on testing, more flexibility in city’s hiring process
The commission also recommended changing the way that prospective employees are categorized, or “banded,” after applying for a city job.
Currently, applicants are filtered into at least three bands depending on how they score on a series of civil service exams – for instance, 90% and above, 80% to 89%, and 70% to 79%, according to Civil Service Commission Executive Director Amy DeLong.
City departments may be required to hire a certain number of applicants from the first band before they’re permitted to hire their way down the list, DeLong said during a Charter Review Commission meeting in May.
“Departments often remark that their current employees that they want to promote or interns that they have been working for them who would be great in the positions in their departments are not reachable on those bands,” DeLong said.
In hopes of giving more hiring flexibility to city departments – and a more diverse pool of applicants to pull from – Issue 20 would cap the number of bands at three, no longer allowing departments to categorize applicants based on four, five, or even more bands, DeLong said.
“I’ve had someone on the third band of the test because I like those people who have that spunk and attitude and hard work ethic,” DeLong said, “and they’re equally compatible in terms of the work that they do for my department.”
The impact that Issue 20 may have on workforce diversity, however, is unknown. Black applicants outperformed their white counterparts on the oral test, the only competitive part of the civil service test, according to a November 2021 consultant’s report.
Issue 21: More flexibility for virtual hearings, modernizing auditor’s office
During the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio permitted public governments to hold virtual meetings to prevent the virus’ spread. But as of July 1, public bodies were ordered to meet back in person, according to the attorney general’s office.
Issue 21 would restore the right to meet via video conference, allowing City Council and other departments to hold remote meetings when it’s deemed necessary.
The charter amendment also performs some housekeeping measures for the city auditor’s office, primarily to update antiquated language and enhance technology, Auditor Megan Kilgore said in an email.
“We are requesting language updates to bring the Charter into the present day – for example, adding “electronic” to forms of allowable payments and removing language pertinent to former paper-based processes,” Kilgore said.