Panel votes to possibly elevate mayor's powers

During about two hours of often spirited discussion Monday afternoon, Columbus’ Charter Review Commission voted to move forward with the possibility of elevating the powers of the mayor’s office and to kill an effort to increase the number of at-large Columbus councilors.

Commissioners also voted to move forward with a proposal to give Council the authority to institute a $500 public safety service fee on households that pay little or no property taxes.

“We got a lot done today,” said commission Chairman John Shinkle. “I think everybody had their say.”

Discussion of decreasing the number of council districts from eight to six and increasing the number of at-large councilors from two to four bounced back and forth over whether it would decrease individual citizen’s representation or increase it.

Attorney Jorge Vega raised what he called “the elephant in the room.”

“I’ve looked at this and read about a number of other communities who have considered these changes, and every one of these elections have always been very divisive, and it’s regrettable, but it’s divisive on a racial basis,” Vega said. “It’s an issue that tends to divide our community on a racial basis.”

Judge John Allen also spoke against the proposal.

“I think you would get quite a bit of dissension,” Allen said. “It is a sore that I see no need to open, and I assure you that people of my generation will not look very favorably on it and will work very hard to defeat it.”

The commission voted overwhelmingly not to take the issue to public hearings, which is the next step in amending the charter. Proposals have to survive a committee vote after the public hearings, be placed on a ballot and be voted on by the public to become amendments to the charter.

The proposal to increase the authority of the mayor in firing top city executives was similarly spirited. Currently the mayor must go to council and get at least six votes to fire a city manager, city attorney, police or fire chief.

The proposal that came out of a subcommittee Monday would allow the mayor to fire an executive without council approval, but a vote of six councilors could override the move.

After being proposed by subcommittee chairman Madden Hatcher, the concept was challenged by Mary Sue Polleys, who claimed it would “create an arbitrary spoils system” that would allow a new mayor to simply clean house and start over.

“How is the current system broken?” she asked.

“Sometimes the situation may be so serious that the mayor might not have time to build consensus,” said commissioner Gloria Strode.

Commissioners voted overwhelmingly to bring the proposal to the public hearing level.

Commissioners also voted to authorize Council to institute a $500 public safety service fee for property owners paying less than that amount under the property tax assessment freeze. The proposal would not require council to move, but would give the public a chance to vote on the concept.

There were suggestions that the proposal was more about providing councilors political cover than actual authority.