Tim Fulton  00:12

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. We are a weekly Columbus centric podcast focusing on the civics, lifestyle, entertainment, and people of our city. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. This week, five years after approving a restructuring of Columbus City Council, voters this fall we’ll see an expanded Council where members reside in geographic districts, but one that remains largely the same in terms of who sits in the chamber. This week, Columbus underground co founder Walker Evans discusses the change the lack of participation in the races, and a new resource for Columbus sites to explore their respective districts. You can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cass.com. The confluence cast is sponsored this week by the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission, or MORPC. featuring stories about local and regional partners that envision and embrace innovative directions and economic prosperity, transportation, sustainability, and an inclusive Central Ohio. MORPC’s transformative programming, innovative services and public policy initiatives are designed to promote and support the vitality and growth in the region. For more information, please visit more MORPC.org. Enjoy the interview. I’m sitting down here in person with the co founder of Columbus Underground. Walker Evans Walker, how are you, sir?

Walker Evans  01:44

Good. How are you Tim?

Tim Fulton  01:45

Doing well, doing well, sitting down here having a discussion about the changes that are coming to voting in Columbus, Ohio, specifically for Columbus City Council? Yeah, we are going to a model where city council members have to reside in the specific district in order to be elected, however, all voters will vote for is that the way to say it?

Walker Evans  02:10

Yeah, yeah, they’re calling it a hybrid model. Okay, so we’re moving from an at large system to like a hybrid district system, right? Because in a lot of it, like you were saying in a lot of other cities, districts are voted upon only by people who reside within those districts. And we think of those as Ward systems for the most part of the ward district borough, depending on the city and the state. And they have different names for it. But

Tim Fulton  02:31

and so as a result of this change, every member of council will be either elected or re elected this year. Additionally, there will be two new seats.

Walker Evans  02:40

Yes, yeah, we’re moving from seven to nine. And it’s, it’s pretty substantial. Because I think it’s the first time in like, 100 years, the council has undergone a big change like this, which is pretty wild. Because when you think about seven people representing everyone in the city of Columbus, 100 years ago, we were a much smaller city. We’re a little over 900,000 people now. And so when you break that down between seven people, each person represents over 100,000. What’s that? Like? 120,000 people? So even just a jump from seven to nine, like, course correct for that a little bit?

Tim Fulton  03:12

Is there in this model? Do we have the potential to go to 15? Is that right? Or do we trash that?

Walker Evans  03:19

Well, the reason it’s a little confusing is because there have been other proposals to move to a system like this over the past couple of years. And I look back and I think, actually, the very first episode of this podcast as the confluence cast was on the very topic of the ward system that was being proposed in 2016. Hmm, it was issue one. There you are looking at my history, yeah, digging deep into Tim’s browser history. And, yeah, there was a citizen led initiative. It failed at the time, but I think councils moved to kind of the city led initiative to move to this was so that they could say, Okay, this is what more and more people are wanting, how would we, you know, do this in a way that maybe makes the most sense, you know, from from their point of view,

Tim Fulton  04:02

and like many citizen initiatives, basically, they said, Hey, don’t approve that we’ve got something different or better for you. Yeah. Well, I

Walker Evans  04:10

think even in 2016, they were just saying, like, it’s not broke, let’s not fix what’s not broke sort of a thing. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when sort of our existing politicians and infrastructure said, you know, if we’re going to make a move to this kind of system, what what do we think that it should look like? Because if you go back and look at the issue, one from 2016, I think it was a 13 member system they were proposing then it was a 10 district system and every member would only be voted upon by those in those 10 districts and then three at large. That’s right. Yeah. So if you lived in district five, you’d be voting for your person in district five, and for the other three at large is so that it was also a hybrid system. And again, like every city is different. So

Tim Fulton  04:54

and in order to draw the map, the city basically appointed a commission of a panel folks to figure out different ways to do it. They submitted, in fact, three different maps and guidance systems for how it should go. Yeah. Council then voted on which map to approve one that took into account a variety of factors, including neighborhood

Walker Evans  05:20

adjacency. Well, basically

Tim Fulton  05:22

not wanting to split up the individual neighborhoods. Yeah, as best as possible as, as best they can. Certainly,

Walker Evans  05:29

but also trying to keep like a demographic mix in mind as best as possible. And population, each district represents the same number of people as best as possible,

Tim Fulton  05:40

right? And they will redraw the maps every 10 years. But based on that same, basically model map, yeah, just the same parameters, exactly. Just including slightly different Census Blocks, as I’ve dived into the data and found like, here’s how this thing is actually constructed. Yeah,

Walker Evans  05:59

yeah. Cuz Central Ohio is growing by 24,000 people per year. That’s not all within the city of Columbus boundaries. And that’s, that’s the region. So I mean, yeah, you fast forward 10 years, you know, and if you add another 100,000 people to the region, then the district demographics are going to change

Tim Fulton  06:15

and be almost double what they currently are. Yeah, yeah. So at this point, the maps are approved. Franklin County Board of Elections has certified the candidates that are running in each district, each residential district, I want to be explicit about what it is. Yeah. Spoiler alert, other than Mitchell Brown, who was just recently appointed to Liz brown seat, no relation. All of the incumbent city council members are running for the seats. Yes. Some folks have moved in the last couple of years. So that they are all in separate districts. So then additionally, so let’s do the math. Again. There were seven city council members, there are now nine with Mitchell brown not running, then there are three net new candidates, right. For those existing seats. I will say also, only two of the districts that is there going to be an election basically. Yes.

Walker Evans  07:14

A challenger to the incumbent. Yeah, correct. So

Tim Fulton  07:17

that’s District Four, which is currently a manual Rameez seat and then Nick Bankston. See? Why do you believe there are so few folks running for council?

Walker Evans  07:28

That’s a great question. I’ve seen some, some chatter on the social medias. Saying that, you know, it’s because these, you know, entrenched incumbent party towing Democrats have all the power, and no one feels like they can even run against them. And that’s one conclusion that you could come to, okay. The barrier to entry is very low, you need to collect 250 valid signatures 90 days in advance of the primary. Okay, that’s not that many people. You know, like, you could probably do that on a weekend, if you got like a small group of people to help you out. You know, I think you could also come to the conclusion that people don’t know that this is happening. I was just watching a piece that NBC for did with council that I think aired last November, it’s on YouTube on the city council, YouTube channel. And they did some man on the street sort of stuff like do you know that city council is changing? And of course, everyone’s like, no, no, I don’t know. There’s no, which I think kind of speaks more volumes about like, it’s just not getting out there in the news to some degree. But I think a lot of people you know, the third conclusion, I think, is that they’re just fine with the way City Council is operating. They don’t think too positively or negatively of it to take that much action to run against the current Council. And if they have issues with day to day life in Columbus, maybe they don’t blame it on council as being the source of their day to day struggle, their woes. Yeah. Yeah. And so I think a lot of people think that like they’re doing a fine enough job and kind of it is what it is. I do think it’s interesting for a city as large as Columbus where what the 14th largest city in the nation. The local Republican Party is not running anyone. Yeah, a lot of the challenges that we’ve seen to city council because we have a full Democrat, democratic city council, we haven’t had a Republican on city council and like over a quarter century, we were approaching the quarter century mark without having ever have a Republican mayor either. Haven’t had one since the year 2000. The last couple of years, city council challengers have always been other Wings of Democrat or leftist groups, saying that, you know, the status quo Democrats just aren’t doing enough. They’re not going far enough left. And so they’re getting challenged more I kind of equate it to when you see like the Biden administration versus kind of like the Bernie Yeah, you know, when when those kinds of groups are squaring off against each other. That’s kind of what we’ve seen locally over the past several election cycles. I’d say past decade, that we just haven’t had Republican challengers and I think that’s interesting.

Tim Fulton  09:59

Absolutely. Well, I will insert when you and I were first having this conversation about why, why is candidate participation so low? That I would point back to the city structure at large that the charter for the city, basically is written with a very, very strong mayor. Hence those on city council? Yes, they approve the budget. Yes, they set the laws as much as they’re able to in a Republican controlled state. But they don’t have a whole lot of oversight authority. The individual departments of the city public safety zoning are run by the mayor and the mayor’s office.

Walker Evans  10:43

That’s true, but I think there’s a lot of cross collaboration there that we’ve seen over the years. And because everyone is kind of the same, the same party the same Franklin County Democratic Party, you know, squabbles are minor, it’s certainly not public. Yeah, yeah. I think everyone kind of is on the same page in terms of how to get stuff done. You know, the opposition to that says, like, well, they’re all in cahoots. They’re all you know, like, we’re not having good conversations and things like that. But you don’t want to take that in such a far direction that you end up like national politics, where it’s like, everyone is just obstructionist, and nobody gets anything done. Yeah. And I like the reason Americans don’t like, you know, Congress and the House of Representatives, like our legislative branch of government, everyone thinks so love it. Nothing ever gets anything accomplished. Because they’re all just fighting with each other. Yeah. And so we have kind of the polar opposite, which is no fights ever at all.

Tim Fulton  11:34

Yeah. Well, it was interesting, I think, to both of us, when we when candidates first started doing their petition drives, even the three net new candidates that I don’t believe were formally endorsed by the Democratic Party by the Franklin County Democratic Party. They were part of that petition drive as well.

Walker Evans  11:57

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they all work. I mean, they’re all the same party. So of course, they work together. Yeah.

Tim Fulton  12:02

Well, but arguably, there were conversate. Well, all I’m pointing out there, we’re very likely conversations about like, yep, we like this woman, Melissa green for this net new seat, District Six in the southwest. Let’s help her by pulling in petitioners by helping get her on the ballot. And then there’s also been some coordinated fundraising activity seemingly through President hardens office. How does that, you know, that doesn’t feel like a democratic process.

Walker Evans  12:36

You just mean, in terms of it doesn’t feel like

Tim Fulton  12:39

a democratic process to put up a slate of candidates without a public conversation about who those candidates are going to be even a party conversation?

Walker Evans  12:49

Sure, sure. And I mean, that that, really, you know, I always like to take a step back and look at these, like, is this a Columbus problem? Or is this like an America problem? And I mean, what you’re talking about is just the way a political party functions, like a group of like minded individuals get together. And they’re all going to decide internally of how they can work best together, and try and win as a group versus everybody just kind of being out there on their own. And no one’s really collaborating or doing anything in lockstep. So, I see where you’re coming from, from that, but also, like, they’re all on the same team. Why would they play as a team? You know, what I mean? I just I, I do think it’s interesting that we, we don’t like the the amount of challenges, we’re seeing a solo like, I think that this has been a really big ongoing process for the past couple of years, to the point where I thought we did least see, you know, three or four people per district, like running, and then we’d have a primary in May, and then the general election November.

Tim Fulton  13:45

But as it stands right now, we literally don’t even have a prime Oh, no, no,

Walker Evans  13:48

no, I mean, so district 1236789 All only have one person running. So they’ve basically already won the election in November.

Tim Fulton  13:58

And with only two candidates, you don’t need a primary, right?

Walker Evans  14:01

So those candidates won’t be going in front of voters in May, only in November between between the two. So it’s it’s pretty wild that we’re in that situation. But you know, we don’t need to go too in depth with it. But it’s almost the same story with Columbus City School Board, is that there are school board seats open. There’s very few challengers, everyone’s kind of the same party. Yeah.

Tim Fulton  14:23

And then for the basically countering my point about the charter, there’s only one challenger to get there’s reelection campaign.

Walker Evans  14:31

Right, which is one more than last time he ran true. He ran unopposed. True. Yeah. Which again, just goes back to you know, and

Tim Fulton  14:38

I reached out it’s a participation issue.

Walker Evans  14:40

Right. It is, it is but again, you know, people complain about Ginther they think he’s not doing enough for their neighborhood or their issues or whatever. But no one is so angry that they’re going to like Mount actual opposition to it. Yeah, I think it’s it’s, it’s almost like just a lack of momentum. You know, everyone is just too lethargic to to get that fired up, or they’re focused on like national political issues or international. You know, everyone has so many things going on in their lives that like when the grocery store is expensive. Do you really care to run for city council? Like that’s going to change anything at Kroger?

Tim Fulton  15:15

Yeah. And this is a net new thought i. So reflecting back to the episode we did on the north graveyard in the North Market parking lot. Towards the end of that episode, the discussion sort of became around ownership of a problem that, you know, certainly it’s terrible that these folks were buried and then abandoned. And then there remains live for 150 years under, excuse me a fucking parking lot. Yeah.

Walker Evans  15:45

Well, and and 12 other buildings that were built on top of it over 100 years ago,

Tim Fulton  15:50

yes, that we will likely never rectify that issue. Yeah. But the fact that we now with the construction of the merchant building have the opportunity to rectify or wrong and frankly, own it, you know, with in a respectful way. It feels as though the lack of political participation in the form of candidates is part of Columbus this problem sure of what Columbus isn’t doing very well.

Walker Evans  16:20

Yeah. Well, and just to circle back to the Republican thing, every time we’ve done a story on this, so we’ve reached out to the GOP, they don’t respond to emails. If you go to their website and look at their candidate slate, it’s from November 2022. Okay, they don’t even have any updated information on this year’s elections, because they still they still promote, like, judges. Yeah. Okay. A couple of county things. All that’s really gone down. And almost everything for 2022 is about statewide races. So it’s just Franklin County Republican support for statewide candidates. They’re just trying to get the word out on like, voting for dewine or whatever. Interesting. Yeah, but they don’t even run city council candidates anymore, which I think is I think that speaks a lot more volumes about, you know, they don’t think that they can win, so why bother wasting people’s time and money? Yeah, versus being upset and thinking we have a better plan, we can do something better.

Tim Fulton  17:22

Or, again, I just I think that it’s almost as though Columbus, Columbus eights don’t take much ownership or enough ownership over the city that they purport to love.

Walker Evans  17:38

Well, an interesting stat about Columbus and again, this is this is an America problem. This isn’t just Columbus, we just a couple of years ago hit the halfway point the 50% mark for renter ship. Okay, so over half of all residents are renters, and that number is climbing. And the and it’s climbing in most cities, not that renters don’t care, right. But there’s a bit of a detachment issue. Sometimes that can come from having a majority, renter population versus homeowners who I’m generalizing, but are more likely to say, oh, there’s a pothole there. I’m going to call 311 and get it fixed. Or oh, I’m going to go to my neighborhood, you know, commission meeting, because I want to have a voice in these kinds of issues. Renters always feel like well, I might move next year. So what what do I care what happens here? Again, that’s that’s very general, you know, because yeah, there are a lot of renters that that care. And there’s a lot of homeowners that don’t, but that could be contributing to maybe a more general trend,

Tim Fulton  18:37

literally, the lack of ownership is due to the lack of ownership. Sure.

Walker Evans  18:41

And a lot of our population is young. I think the the median age in Columbus is like 32, which is below the national average. A lot of people have moved here recently. So they just haven’t maybe even taking the time to get involved. So that’s, you know, that’s I think that could be some of the issue.

Tim Fulton  18:56

Absolutely. Yeah. I do want to pivot slightly and make sure that we include here in this episode, when we were talking about the districts, this was maybe like two months ago at this point. We’re joking that the districts need names. Yes. And I volunteered to spin up a website to submit names for the districts. Yeah. As a result of this. I went kind of hard down a mapping demographic, Census Blocks, census tracts, Census Block Groups, rabbit hole, yeah. And built a website, Columbus districts.com, where not only can you submit a name for the individual districts. These are suggestions I do not believe we plan on having folks vote on the names. We don’t want to end up with district MC district D face, but that we will take those submissions and distribute them and make folks aware of them. And maybe a panel will decide on the best names. Those districts can adopt them or not. In addition to that, the website has a breakdown of demographic information on each district, specifically looking at the neighborhoods that are within the district, the candidate or candidates that are running the points of interest in the district, the median, the income of the district, the poverty rate within the district, and then the racial makeup of the district. Yeah, it’s a lot of data. It’s, it’s really great. It’s interesting. And shout out to the folks at the City of Columbus that handed off the census block group information that I was able to then pull that information from. So not only can you submit name suggestions, but then also there’s a spot on, I think every page that says, Do you have a suggestion, something that we should fix, maybe there’s a point of interest that’s not there. Maybe you have an image that better represents the district. That’s all there. In my head, I went down this rabbit hole, because I am personally proud of Columbus. And I think that there’s some opportunities to have discussions about what each district may need. And the person who represents each district, hopefully has an opportunity to see what they should be working towards.

Walker Evans  21:24

Yeah, I think one thing that’s really interesting when you start looking at the map and really start to zoom in on different areas, one of the talking points I’ve heard some of the current council people talk about with the positivity behind this transition is that you have representation on your based on your area or your neighborhood or whatever. Yeah, and they keep saying neighborhood. But when you look at these districts, they’re gigantic. You know, Columbus, Columbus is a community of probably over 100 neighborhoods, right? 200 neighborhoods. So when you divide that into nine, you end up with very large groups of neighborhoods. So I live in district seven, on the near east side, but that district also includes fifth by Northwest Milo Grogan, Marion village Franklinton, you know, which are all very different neighborhoods with, you know, potentially different issues and concerns. I had also stretches all the way down and touches Grove City, so everything like on the inside of 270, like on the other side of 270 from Grove City, is also district seven. Like that’s a place I never go, i don’t live there. I don’t shop there. I don’t work there. So I don’t go up and down those streets. So yeah, I think I think it’s a little bit ambitious to say like, you’re going to have true neighborhood representation on council when these districts just represent such large geographic areas.

Tim Fulton  22:41

So I’m gonna counter you slightly Okay. In that I think folks who live in districts that are outside of district seven, view where you live, you live in King Lincoln, Brownsville folks that live outside of downtown do kind of consider that the same as Franklinton. You know, I will point out though, there’s districts like District Two, where it is just totally geographically bisected. Yeah, by Arlington and Hilliard. And then basically the other half of that population live south of it. And it’s just this nice little strip along 33. That allows that to be one district. Yeah. So all that being said, I think folks should look at the maps, the maps are done. Yeah, let’s, you know, let’s not go crazy about it. Right. But look at it, see where your district is, there’s a link on the site for folks to go back to the city’s map, so that they can literally just type in their address to see what district is get familiar with the candidate that will be representing you unless you live in District Four or five, that will be determined in the fall. And yeah, I hope that there’s some engagement here. And that comes in the form of, hey, we really like to see median age, or, Hey, you forgot about this, or literally just coming up with a name that represents the place in which you live. Yeah, I think the only candidate shout out to Chris YH for his website refers to district one as the crown district, because it’s at the top because it is at the top. I will say that it is also one of the richest districts in terms of median income and folks experiencing poverty in that they don’t Yeah, two of them. Yeah. So yeah, I’m

Walker Evans  24:29

curious to see what the names are because the the districts are not like nice, clean shapes. So they don’t look like anything. Yeah, you know, they just look like blobs. But what’s the

Tim Fulton  24:39

one is a District Four, District Four is an L. Okay, so that could be the L? I don’t know. Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. Yeah. So cool. Again, that’s Columbus. sistrix.com. Please do submit it. Walker. I want to give you the opportunity you’ve been on before and talked about the things that Columbus does well, and Columbus doesn’t do so. Well, anything for us this week.

Walker Evans  25:03

Um, I mean, my opinions on these things change all the time. I can’t remember what I said before. So I doubt anyone listening, even remembers if I don’t remember, I think the thing that Columbus does well is that it is a city that is very easy to get involved with. Meaning if you have an interest in a topic, you raise your hand and you’re, you have a seat at the table, you know, whether that’s a nonprofit you want to be involved in, if you want to be involved in your neighborhood, you know, especially with young people, I don’t think there’s a lot of barriers to entry for a lot of those kinds of things. Of course, your mileage may vary on this topic. Yeah, depending. But I think a lot of people just want to see young, interested people engaged in the process, whatever that may be, which I think is great. Something that we don’t do well, and maybe this is just because I pay attention to this too much for my own good on social media, is that we don’t do a good enough job of recognizing what problems are uniquely our own. And what problems are state problems or America problems. I see people all the time complaining about like, Columbus City Schools are terrible. And it’s like, yeah, so are major city school districts in every major city in America. And that’s because America does not fund public education to the level that it should. So not that that’s an excuse why we shouldn’t be focused on that problem. But our solutions, you know, our problems are not our own uniquely. And so maybe sometimes looking outward, you can find better solutions and looking inward, people complain about our transit system. And it’s like, unless you live in, you know, one of like, five major US cities, the transit system sucks all across America.

Tim Fulton  26:45

Well, but we are the largest metropolitan area without a fixed transit system. Sure.

Walker Evans  26:52

Okay, that is true. But you know, people complain about our existing bus infrastructure. And it’s like, we’re kind of par for the course in America, you know, unless you look outside of America for, you know, real transit systems. Most major cities just do not have the transit. People complain about how, you know, we have an affordable housing problem. And again, that’s every major city in America has an affordable housing problem right now, these are these are not unique Columbus problems, we do need to address them. But I think this sort of like self shaming of like, we should be ashamed of ourselves, because we have this problem is maybe not the whole story.

Tim Fulton  27:26

As always, I don’t know if I completely agree with you. But that’s fair. See, where I thought you were gonna go is, Columbus is great, because everyone has the opportunity to participate. What I thought you were gonna go for was, well, Columbus is not doing so well. Is having people participate.

Walker Evans  27:44

Oh, sure. I mean, well, that would be the opposite of it.

Tim Fulton  27:46

Yeah, that’s where I wanted you to go. But again, I

Walker Evans  27:48

think that’s, I keep this in. I think that’s an American problem. I think when you look in like your average person who just wants to sit at home and watch Netflix and order Chipotle, like that’s every city all across the United States, that’s, you know, I think people are having the same conversations you and I are having right now in Nashville, and Chicago, and Atlanta and Denver, and Charlotte and everywhere else in between, you know, it’s easy to not be involved, especially coming out of the pandemic when we all develop some bad habits about just staying at home and doing nothing.

Tim Fulton  28:22

Walker. Yes, thank you for your time.

Walker Evans  28:24

You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Fulton  28:37

Thank you for listening to the confluence cast presented by Columbus underground. Again, you can get more information on what we discussed today in the show notes for this episode at the confluence cast.com. Please rate subscribe, share this episode of The confluence cast with your friends, family, contacts, enemies, your favorite elected official. If you’re interested in sponsoring the confluence cast get in touch with us. We can be reached by email at info at the confluence cast.com Our theme music was composed by Benji Robinson. Our producers Phil Cogley. Special thanks this week to Caroline Thompson. I’m your host, Tim Fulton. Have a great week.