Citizen commission sets last public hearing on proposed changes to Columbus city charter

·4 min read
Columbus City Hall
Columbus City Hall

A citizen panel working on proposed changes to the Columbus city charter — a document akin to the city's constitution — is now on final approach with its second public hearing scheduled next Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

The city Charter Review Commission is expected to conduct its final vote on recommended changes the following week.

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On Wednesday evening, the Charter Review Commission adjourned without taking a vote on recommendations from Civil Service Commission Executive Director Amy DeLong to end the charter requirement in place for more than 100 years requiring non-policy "classified" employees be hired based on competitive test scores.

The charter currently requires the hiring of classified employees, including police officers, firefighters, trash collectors, and hundreds of other job classifications, be based on "the merit and fitness of applicants by competitive examinations." It also requires that job seekers be broken into three bands based on those scores, and preference in hiring given to the highest band until it becomes depleted of names, when city departments can hire off of lower bands.

DeLong told the charter commission Wednesday that dropping banding isn't the same as getting rid of competition in hiring because everyone would still need at least a passing score on their test. A third of those taking tests don't achieve a passing score, she said.

Amy DeLong, executive director of the Columbus Civil Service Commission
Amy DeLong, executive director of the Columbus Civil Service Commission

DeLong said that means that "the fear that someone with ties to those making hiring decisions and being selected over those who don't have such ties are essentially eliminated."

Furthermore, DeLong said the Civil Service Commission — appointed by the mayor and City Council — would likely make rules that would require banding be used with very large groups of hires, such as firefighters and police officers, "where it could be managed ... more efficiently and effectively based on the cyclical job market and other factors."

DeLong's proposal opens up the possibility that a future mayoral administration could, for example, have a list of 3,000 firefighter candidates who have all passed the test, but hire the lowest-scoring person — number 3,000 — for the first job opening.

The merit-based Civil Service system swept across Ohio in the early 1900s, part of a national movement aimed at ending corruption and cleaning up the patronage machines of political bosses who previously could award civil service positions as a reward for supporters.

DeLong concluded by saying she hopes the panel will move forward with her proposed changes. Her comment was met with silence before the charter commission moved on to other business.

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Earlier this month, a proposal by City Attorney Zach Klein's office to scuttle a charter mandate that the city follow state law on open-meetings requirements — instead allowing the City Council to craft its own ordinances governing what constitutes an open meeting — was severely pared back by the Charter Review Commission.

Under the latest proposed language, the city must follow the state Open Meetings Act requirements, but the charter would carve out an option to hold meetings virtually, at the discretion of City Council. The new language says that "council may, by ordinance, provide for the ability of public bodies to hold, attend, conduct, and keep minutes for virtual meetings and hearings by means of teleconference, video conference, or any other similar technology" and council may provide for the circumstances that virtual meetings may be held.

"I think the clarity is much greater than the first round," Charter commissioner Keary McCarthy said at a meeting earlier this month. "At least I understood the intent early on, but it just sort of left a lot to the imagination."

The previously open-ended language would have left it up to any simple majority of the City Council to determine the circumstances for closing any category of public business from being discussed in a public meeting, potentially expanding on limited state exemptions.

At the urging of Charter commissioner Dez Bryant, the panel previously removed another proposal by Klein's office that would have required future citizen ballot initiatives to collect percentages of petition signatures from within new council residential districts.

Speakers at a previous public hearing said the requirement would almost ensure no successful citizen-led ballot initiatives in the future.

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Any changes to the city charter, including those proposed by the Charter Review Commission, require voter approval, unlike ordinances, which require approval of only a majority of the City Council.

The Charter Review Commission must deliver its proposed charter changes to the City Council by July 10. The council has until July 25, unless it holds a special meeting, to pass ordinances to place the potential changes on the Nov. 8 general election ballot for voter consideration.

wbush@gannett.com

@ReporterBush

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: City Charter Review Commission holding final hearing next week