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Locals begin work on Charter amendment for March ballot

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Fair Cincy PAC committee members working on a Cincinnnati Charter amendment that would change the way Cincinnatians elect council members are, from left, the Rev. Leslie Jones, Matt Jones, Tamie Sullivan and Henry Frondorf. Photo provided

By Dan Yount

The Cincinnati Herald

A charter amendment that would change the way Cincinnatians would elect city council members from the citywide election of nine at-large council members to a district election of five council members elected by geographic area and four at-large council members elected by all Cincinnati voters is being proposed by a local committee.

Signatures to place this local ballot initiative, known as Fair Cincy PAC, are being collected to place it as an amendment to the Charter of the City of Cincinnati in the March 2020 election.

If this initiative passes, Cincinnatians would have council members living in, elected by, and responsible for representing each area of Cincinnati. Currently, no single council member on the nine-member city council represents a specific area and each council member has to represent all 300,000 constituents.

“It would be great to have a specific councilmember you or your neighborhood council could reach out to when an issue arises,’’ said the Rev. Lesley Jones, a Fair Cincy PAC member. “It would also be great to know that a member of city council is always looking out for your area. This initiative will increase voter representation in council without hamstringing council’s ability to govern.’’

District populations equal

Committee members provided the attached map to show how the proposed districts would be drawn. The 2010 census data, found on the City of Cincinnati’s website, was used to create the map. Individual census tracts within the City limits were kept within the same district. Splitting neighborhoods between districts was avoided as much as possible. From this data and the 2010 Cincinnati Statistical Neighborhood Approximations only two of the 52 neighborhoods were divided, Westwood and Evanston. These two neighborhoods were split as the population variance between districts was needed to be kept as small as possible. There is less than a three percent population difference between the district with the most residents and the district with the least. This map will hold true for only the 2021 election. With the 2020 census data forthcoming, a five-person panel will be formed, (two appointed by city council, and one selected by each of the local Republican, Democrat, and Charter parties) to determine the layout of the 2023 district map.

This initiative proposes that a non-partisan primary will be held for the five districts and at-large, while the four at-large seats will be elected via a field race,” said Tamie Sullivan, committee member. “Our team went back and forth on whether to have the four at-large seats elected via head-to-head or a field race. After going public with our plan, it has become clear more residents prefer the at-large seats be a field race, and we have altered the petition language accordingly,” said Sullivan.

To run for a district council seat, a candidate must have residency in that district for at least 120 days prior to filing. After the primary narrows the field to two candidates per seat for the general election, productive race debates could follow.

Proposed Cincinnati City Council Districts. Photo provided

Would change campaigns

“The current system does not allow for head-to-head debate among candidates. The current system has many forums held in multiple communities where candidates have only a minute or two to give their top three issues that matter to them. Candidates are typically not questioned on their knowledge or abilities to face our city’s issues if elected,’’ Jones said.

City Council candidates running for a district seat could run a grassroots campaign and win against an incumbent through hard work and volunteer efforts under this new system, committee members said. The current system requires a candidate’s campaign to work uphill and have 300,000 people know their name. The new system will allow candidates to get to know the 60,000 constituents who make up their district by campaigning in their neighborhoods. District candidates would then need only 13,000 to15,000 votes, instead of 30,000 votes to win a council seat.This proposed amendment opens the possibility for lesser known, yet still qualified candidates to win a seat.

Raising the nearly required $100,000 to win a city-wide election will be a thing of the past if the candidate is running for a district seat. A district candidate could win while raising less funds. This has the possibility to take some of the money out of politics in our city, said Sullivan.

Could increase voter turnout

Recent city council elections have only seen 29 percent of the city’s registered voters casting a vote. A city council district type of election has the potential to improve citizen participation, Jones said. Council members representing a specific district will be able to be more responsive to their constituency and therefore residents will hold them more accountable, she added.

“Electing council members by district will give voice to many unrepresented parts of the city and by keeping four at-large council members, this Charter amendment will ensure regional and citywide issues still have a voice,’’ Jones said.

“District residents would have more of a voice in who represents them, Sullivan said. “Under the present situation, residents are voting for nine people they, in most cases, do not know. Under this blended district proposal, they would only vote for one candidate from their district and four at-large candidates, instead of a list of 20-25 candidates. So you are actually voting for five candidates, your council majority, which includes your neighborhood district candidate, and four at-large candidates.

Jones said a blended district city election would provide for better diversity and geographic representation.”

Only three of what would be the five election districts are represented on council at this time, with two in one district, three in another, and four in another. The Westside is not represented by any of the current council members.

Jones said the proposal takes money out of the city election process, as well as bringing back a pure democracy to city government.

Council would represent neighbors

“City council members would represent people, their neighbors, rather than representing dollars,’’ Jones said. “The district candidates would have to be present in the district, visiting community council meetings and other events to be current on issues affecting their district, as well as to be re-elected. You would see people who want to serve, rather than career politicians. You would see elected officials, who would be more accountable to the small, poor neighborhoods they represent. You would also see more community benefits agreements coming out council,’’ said Jones.

“The timing is right. People are looking for a change in how we elect our city council members,’’ said Sullivan. “This blended district model is common in other cities in the country, with Seattle being the latest to adopt it. It offers a lot more engagement. People feel more engaged with it.’’

Henry Frondorf, of Westwood and organizer of Neighborhood Games, has taken the lead in organizing Fair Cincy PAC. Fair Cincy has started collecting signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. The committee needs 6,000 valid petition signatures between now and January to get the initiate on the ballot.

Individuals interested in participating in this campaign are asked to attend the Fair Cincy Kick-Off Party on Friday, September 20 at 6 pm, at Red Rose Pizza, 5915 Hamilton Avenue in College Hill. Contact committee members at FairCincy@gmail.com or visit www.FairCincy.org.

Fair Cincy Logo. Provided

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