“We, the people of the city of Columbus, in order to secure and exercise the powers of local self government under the constitution of the state of Ohio do enact and ordain this charter.”

So begins the Charter of the City of Columbus, enacted by the voters in 1914. The Charter became the city’s authorizing and governing document following the State of Ohio’s enactment of Home Rule legislation in 1912.

But it is not a static document. The charter 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.”

And it has, in fact, been amended 61 times since enactment. Democrats have had a tremendous role in keeping the Charter current and keeping Columbus governance open. Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner became Mayor for the first time in 1954 -- the first Democratic Mayor of Columbus since 1935. Mayor Sensenbrenner is credited with devising Columbus’s growth strategy of using water and sewer service as annexation leverage, allowing the city to avoid becoming landlocked by suburbs and retain growing outer areas within the municipal boundaries. By 1957, Sensenbrenner had commissioned a Charter Revision Committee, which issued its report on December 19, 1958. The Commission stated “the present charter is 44 years old. It is no longer in tune with the times. In its present form it will be an increasingly heavy milestone around the neck of a city struggling with vast new problems.” The Commission continued “most important of all, the council, enlarged from 7 to 9 members … would remain the policy-determining body of the city.” But the recommendation did not move forward to the voters.

In 1968, the Columbus Dispatch wrote “a proposal to reorganize the Columbus City Council under the old-fashioned ward political plan may be placed on the ballot by the Sensenbrenner administration next May. One of the aims of the proposal will be to provide representation to the Negro minority which now has no voice on the City Council.”

Within weeks, Council working with first assistant City Attorney Frank Reda, had prepared several District-based proposals, including three different proposals for 11 members elected to a combination of districts and at-large seats: 5 at-large, 5 wards, and one council president (at large); six wards and five at-large councilmen; and seven wards and four at-large council members.

By March, Council had prepared a plan for a 13 member Council that had seven Districts and 6 At-Large seats. A complication arose in that three of the Democratic councilmen -- Donald Woodland, MD Portman, and Baumann – were up for re-election the next year. And while there was a Democratic trio up for election, only two of the seats would be At Large seats. And since the council president was restricted to an At Large member, one of the three would have had to run from a district and thereby forego any ambition to become council president. Chief proponent, councilman Baumann, solved the problem when he announced he would run from a district if Portman and Woodland preferred to run at large. The Democratic Council passed this plan by a vote of 6-1, with Republican Roland A. Sedgwick voting “no” and declaring “any change of this magnitude should have included public hearings.”

At the Council meeting, Baumann noted that when the seven-man council was approved in 1914, Columbus encompassed 25 square miles and included 125,000 residents. Today, Baumann pointed out, the city is almost 116 square miles and has an estimated population of 580,000. While council has remained the same for 54 years, the city has increased in population fourfold, he said. Mayor Sensenbrenner added “we need representation of every segment of the City of Columbus.”

By April, the Franklin County Republican Executive Committee voted to oppose the proposed Charter amendment to give Columbus 13 council members, with William Schneider, county GOP chief saying “the Republicans can elect a Negro council member next year because Republican Negros have been elected in the past.” The GOP, he said will “seek out an outstanding Negro candidate.” [Dispatch footnote: “Previous Negro council members in Columbus have been appointed to their posts, not elected. Local Negroes who have won election to the General Assembly have not been elected on a city or countywide basis.”] And the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce reversed its earlier position, and announced its endorsement of the proposed charter amendment, saying “approval of the proposed amendments would provide area representation on a proportionate population basis, whereby citizens in every part of the city would have assured access to their elected councilmen.” The Chamber’s resolution also said the number of city councilmen has remained at seven for 54 years, while the land area and population of the city has increased approximately four and six times, respectively, during that period.

Ultimately, the 1968 proposal by Democrat Mayor Sensenbrenner and the Democrat-controlled City Council failed at the ballot, with 45,337 residents voting against it, and 33,5476 voting for it. However, “many observers were surprised the controversial proposal received even 43 per cent of the vote on its maiden voyage to the polls, in light of the formidable opposition offered by the Franklin County Republican organization.”

In his post-election call for an immediate meeting of the civic and political leadership in the city to continue to pursue District-based representation, Councilman Baumann said “every citizen deserves representation on council and Columbus will find a way to achieve this goal.” Council members M.D. Portman and Jerry O’Shaughnessy immediately agreed with Baumann as did Deputy Service Director John E. Jones. Jones, however, cautioned that the November election was going to include a tax increase, and thought the timing for going back to the voters for the council reorganization proposal would not be wise.

When asked why the issue was defeated, Democrat Utilities Director William Brooks said “the Republicans have a well disciplined organization. They follow their party chairman – like sheep.” O’Shaughnessey believed a portion of the negative vote may have been due to “a certain amount of white backlash … a fear of some whites that Negroes would be on council.”

The Franklin County Democratic party had stayed out of the charter amendment debate at the request of city hall politicians who wanted to keep the issue nonpartisan. However, Democratic party chairman George Twyford asserted the party will be involved the next time around. “I will participate in the formation of the proposal the next time,” Twyford said. “The party should take an active part in this type of issue. The election of men to these offices (council) will be the responsibility of this party for the next 30 years. We should be in on the formulation of such a plan.” However, it would be 1975 before the issue of creating Council Districts again was tried, this time sponsored by Democrat John Rosemond, Columbus’s first African American councilmember elected under the At Large Charter scheme (in 1969).

Rosemond’s 1975 reform proposal was for an 11 member City Council, with 5 members elected at-large and 6 members elected from Districts. It named a committee of office holders and council members to draw the District boundaries. The four additional council members were estimated to cost the City $120,000 more annually, and the Franklin County Board of Elections said the additional election costs would be very small.

At the Council meeting the night of the vote, “ten speakers urged the council to vote favorably; they accused the council of failing to provide adequately for citizen participation, and said it should ask the will of the people.” The Columbus City Council voted 5-2 in favor of placing the proposed charter amendment on the ballot, as Republicans Charles Petree and Daniel Schoedinger voted against it, while all Democrats voted in favor.

The proposal was defeated soundly at the polls by 65,259 in opposition and 43,004 in favor. Opponents had campaigned saying the mix of 5 members at large and 6 from districts would lead to logrolling and gerrymandering by the council, which would redraw the district boundary lines. It was also believed to have failed because its sponsor, Councilman John Rosemond, was running for, and soundly defeated by, Republican incumbent Mayor Tom Moody on the same ballot.

It would be five more years before another Democrat attempted to push charter changes. Councilman M.D. Portman spearheaded the effort in 1980, noting that “the Charter was adopted in 1914 and was amended 17 times since then, sometimes twice in the same year, with the most recent change approved in the election on November 7, 1972.” Later, in forming a 12-member City Charter Commission as a successor to a smaller committee, Portman said the charter “adopted by voters in 1913, needs to be updated and made more modern,” because some of the provisions were “archaic.”

Ten years later, in 1991, the Columbus City Council appointed another Charter Review Commission. In March 1993, that Commission reported out a series of 16 recommendations. Primary among those was a recommendation to “set up a special committee to study expanding the council, either by election at-large or by district,” and “require anyone who is appointed to fill a council vacancy to run in the next scheduled election.”

However, the Council abandoned the recommendation to study changing the council without further consideration, and put the long-discussed council vacancy issue on the November ballot as Issue 1, where it was approved by a 2-1 margin. The 1993 decision by Council not to pursue the recommendation to further study expanding the council by at-large or District-based representation fell a long way from the Democratic traditional support for more representation, and more local representation. It marks a clear break with the long Democratic tradition of support for open elections and full empowerment of citizens.

When Mayor Michael B. Coleman was running for Governor in 2005, he described the Republican Coingate scandal in state government as "an example of the arrogance of power that comes with one-party rule." Columbus is now a one-party rule city, with a Council that has become increasingly closed off and distant from the people it represents.

We, the people of the City of Columbus, as empowered by the Preamble to the Charter of the City of Columbus and the Charter’s provisions for ballot initiatives, are requesting that Council return to its Democrat roots, values, and ideals, and support an enlarged council body with District-based representation.