In 1912, the State of Ohio adopted “Home Rule” legislation to allow local communities to self-govern. In response, local leaders created a 15 member Charter Commission to develop a City Charter that would provide the basis for “home rule” in Columbus. “The form of charter was left to the judgment of the commissioners, but they were pledged to write into the charter the non-partisan ballot, the short ballot and a more centralized form of government.”[1]

This was consistent with the Progressive Reform movement sweeping across the nation in the early 1900’s, as a reaction to the facts that new immigrant populations were clustering in ethnic neighborhoods and developing Ward-based political power, and that big industrialists and their “new money” and power were becoming increasingly influential in the affairs of local communities. Across the country, “At Large” governance – where Ward politics were replaced by City-Wide politics – became a mechanism preferred by local business and social associations to help them retain the local influence they had long considered to be their province. [2]

A campaign committee led by Columbus attorney Hugh Huntington pushed for adoption of the proposed Charter, which was adopted by the voters in 1914. This new Charter changed the way the City was traditionally governed. In the immediate past, the City Council had consisted of 19 council members: 3 elected at large and 16 elected from Wards. The new council structure created by the new Charter consisted of seven members elected citywide (“At Large”), and for the first time, no members were elected by Ward (“Wards” and “Districts” are interchangeable terms). Terms of office were lengthened from 2 years to 4 years, and the president of council was to be chosen by the members of council itself, rather than by the citizens. Many of these provisions were quite controversial at the time:

“… I feel that a great injustice will be done to the great mass of our citizens should they be so unfortunate as to have the new proposed city charter foisted upon them.   It is not a reform measure, but, on the contrary, it is strongly reactionary. It is distinctly a class charter, opposed to the welfare of the people, conserving the interest of the scholastic and the high class business man. It is, therefore, unfair, un-American and should be destroyed … evidently the whole intention of these master commissioners is to prohibit the frequency of elections; remove them as far as possible out of the hands of the ‘common herd’ of mankind; lengthen terms of office, reduce the number of elective officers, and, in a word, establish an aristocratic system.”[3]

Fortunately, the charter also provided “the machinery with which the people may amend its provisions as future necessity may arise. The people will have the power

to change it at any time to suit the requirements of a rapidly growing city, or to correct any possible defects which may develop in the new form of government.”[4]

And the Columbus City Charter has, in fact, remained a living document, having been amended 61 times over the past 98 years. However, the 7 member At Large Council provision remains in place today, despite the huge changes in the City over that period of time. When this At Large system was adopted in 1914, the city had a population of 181,500 that was concentrated in 24.5 square miles. Columbus is now over 787,000 residents in 225 square miles. Despite those changes, we retain this archaic structure of 7 members elected At Large on Council.

Over the decades, studied efforts of reform have been undertaken to better match city governance with our growing community and the evolution of good governance concepts in America, but these efforts have been defeated. In 1958, when the City had an area of 86 square miles and a population of 475,000, the Report of the Charter Revision Committee to the Council of the City of Columbus said, “the present charter is 44 years old. It is no longer in tune with the times.” The Committee thus recommended adding two members to City Council, to move from 7 to 9 members, but Council did not move it to the ballot. In 1968, the Democratic City Council and Mayor Sensenbrenner attempted to update Council, this time by sponsoring a 13 member council with 7 district and 6 at large seats, which ultimately failed at the ballot. In 1975, Councilmember John Rosemond, who was running for Mayor at the same time, sponsored an eleven member Council reform with six seats from Districts and 5 seats At Large, which was defeated by voters.   In 1993, there was another effort by a Charter Review Committee to revamp City Council, which included recommendation to study enlarging and/or moving to a District-based Council, which was rebuffed by the City Council and never placed before the voters.

These rejections of a District-based City Council leave Columbus in a small minority among American big cities. The average council of the largest 50 cities is comprised of 13 members: with 2 members elected At Large, and 11 members elected from Ward/Districts. More specifically, the cities Columbus most frequently compares itself to, have the following Council structures:

  • Indianapolis has 29 members: 4 members At Large, and 25 from Districts;
  • Charlotte has 11 members: 4 members At Large, and 7 from Districts;
  • Boston has 11 members: 4 members At Large and 7 from Districts;
  • San Francisco has 11 members, all 11 from Districts;
  • Portland has 11 members: 4 members At Large, and 7 from Districts;
  • Fort Worth has 7 members, all 7 from Districts.
  • Austin has 7 members: all 7 At Large. However, the City – led by its Mayor — is currently promoting charter change proposals to increase to either 9 or 11 members, with either 6 or 8 Districts respectively.

Clearly, the Columbus City Council, with 7 members elected at large and no member elected from Districts, is an outdated, aristocratic anomaly. After 98 years with this system, it is clearly appropriate to re-examine the rationale for maintaining a system that was designed to centralize power and designed to dilute citizen participation in the affairs of local governance.   Citizens of Columbus deserve a form of government that is responsive and accountable to its people.

[1] The Columbus Citizen. Charter Adopted by Majority of 1042; Effective in 1916, May 6, 1914, p. 1. [Emphasis added]

[2] Hofsteader, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., 1955. (Note: this book won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for History.

[3] Thomas E. Beall. The Columbus Dispatch: A Reactionary Charter: To the Editor, May 3, 1914, p. 5.

[4] The Columbus Citizen. Columbus Steps Forward, May 6, 1914, p. 4.