Matter News

Matter is a digital news source that strives to provide greater context on issues in Columbus, Ohio. Matter also prides itself on being nonprofit, investigative and local in its reporting.

During the summer of 2019, I was a DevelopUs intern at Matter. I spent the majority of my time in Columbus writing social media copy, working on an investigative explainer into Columbus’ area commissions, shooting video around the city and curating content and ideas for Matter’s monthly newsletter. Below you can find some of the highlights from my time at Matter.

Columbus’ area commissions are caught between community and city

Libby Wetherholt has been chair of the Clintonville area commission for six years. During her time, she’s seen smooth collaboration with both the city and community she serves, but there’s also been some frustration.

Take the rain-garden project in Clintonville. The project, an attempt to divert rainwater from sewage lines, has led to lengthy discussions between the Clintonville area commission and city administration. The City of Columbus poured millions into making the gardens, some of which had to be filled in and removed, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“They got an earful,” Wetherholt said with a laugh. “It’s a very complicated project, and being the pilot, things did go wrong. I think the City has been very responsive … I know some of the community members would like to see some numerical results, which we haven’t had any yet.”

The push and pull between City and community efforts are commonplace in Columbus area commissions. The commissions are supposed to be a sort of “middle man” between the City and residents, but how much they truly represent their communities is up for debate.

So, what is an area commission?

Area commissions are made up of residents who live within the boundaries of the established commission. Those commissioners are elected by neighborhood residents, but the method depends on each commission and its bylaws.

Some elect commissioners from anywhere within the neighborhood, while others elect commissioners from specific districts within the commission’s boundary. The commissions’ members serve as liaisons between neighborhood groups, property owners, residents, developers and city officials.

Area commissions came to fruition in Columbus during the 1970s; 19 exist today. Residents from the mid-East and far-East areas of Columbus are also currently petitioning for their own commission, which would stretch from Berwick to Eastland Mall, said Director of the Department of Neighborhoods Carla Williams-Scott.

Williams-Scott also said that she would love to have more area commissions in the city, but that it’s ultimately up to citizens to start them.

“It is a community-driven process,” Williams-Scott said. “And so the residents have to want it and have to go through the process to fill out the petition and get the signatures and do all that.”

Neighborhoods have elections to decide on their commissioners, but both the mayor and city council approval are necessary to confirm a commissioner’s membership. 

Wetherholt, a former intervention specialist at Dublin schools, is now retired. That gives her more time to devote to serving as chair, but not every commissioner is as fortunate.

City code specifies that all commissioners serve without compensation. Most commissioners have a day job while balancing this duty, which can lead to difficulty scheduling meetings with commissioners and getting timely responses, amongst other issues.

According to city code, area commissions serve strictly as an advisory board to the city. No action or recommendation by an area commission overrules city council, and the same goes for presentations made to the Board of Zoning and Adjustments (BZA).

Area commissions’ duties include:
– Making plans for future neighborhood development
– Communicating between residents and the city
– Preserving local structures
– Nominating commissioners to other city boards that   
  have community oversight

Commissioners are supposed to be liaisons between neighborhood groups, property owners, residents, developers and city officials. However, the way some commissioners see it, not all of those groups are equally brought to the table.

Commissions and the city

Area commissions were established by City Council, but the Department of Neighborhoods now spends a lot of time working with commissioners throughout the city.

The department is trying to spread awareness to Columbus residents about the role of commissions, Williams-Scott said. Part of the campaign involves collaboration with neighborhood liaisons — paid city staff members — who provide support to area commissions. The liaisons also work with civic associations and block watch groups to help get the word out about commissions.

The influence area commissions have on neighborhood policy decisions within the city  is up for debate. Wetherholt and Joe Motil both agree that some commissions seem to be more effective than others. 

Motil, a former city council candidate and former University Area commissioner, said that the University Area Commission was sometimes able to effectively get its opinion listened to, but other times the commission was ignored.

“They want to promote business, which is fine,” Motil said. “But when it has an adverse impact on our lives in that proximity to those facilities, then that’s an issue that needs to be discussed. But it always seems as though the neighborhoods are on the losing side.”

Williams-Scott, the Department of Neighborhoods director, thinks that standardizing area commissions will benefit not only the way the commissions interact with city officials, but with the public.

“It’s our job to work with the area commissions,” Williams-Scott said. “But it’s also our job to try to … make sure things are transparent and consistent. And so we’re trying to make it easier for the residents to be able to access.”

Area commissions are half a century old. Is it time for an update?

Area commissions are governed by city code, and it hasn’t been updated since area commissions were established in the 1970s.

In an effort to update the code with more current measures and to help standardize the commissions, multiple changes to Columbus’ city code have been proposed. 

The Department of Neighborhoods sent out surveys to area commissioners in December 2018 to gather feedback on the proposed changes. Williams-Scott said the department will take that feedback into account when determining whether to move forward. If commissioners oppose code changes, they will not be formally introduced as legislation. 

The most controversial proposals include limiting each commission to 15 commissioners, as well as adding term limits for leadership positions. The chair, vice chair and treasurer could not serve more than six consecutive years, but could serve again after a three-year gap, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“It’s a way to make sure that we continually have turnover and that there’s always opportunity for some of these new folks that are coming on board to, you know, to be able to participate in area commissions,” Williams-Scott said.

“They may, down the line, decide that this isn’t something we want, and we’re fine with that too. But we, you know, we wanted to give the community — the community folks — something to react to.”

Wetherholt supports having a term limit for the chair position, adding that being chair takes a lot of time and commitment, something she has experienced first-hand.

The Clintonville commission only has nine commissioners, so they wouldn’t be affected by the cap, but Wetherholt said that she knows other commissions have more than theirs. Current city code says that each commission can have anywhere between seven and 21 commissioners, but it recommends an odd number for voting purposes. 

University District has 17 commissioners, which can be counter-productive, Motil said.

“They got everybody represented in the world: the churches … undergraduates, graduates, OSU. I mean, I know a lot of those people, and they’re good people, but they’re way overcrowded, and I don’t personally think it’s needed,” he said.

How often are commissions listened to?

Area commissions bring neighborhood concerns to the City, but some commissioners believe that input isn’t always taken into account. The results of compromise with the City are often still unfair to neighborhoods, they say.

“Some things were listened to, and sometimes I was like, ‘Why are we kissing these people’s butts and getting nothing in return?’” Motil said.

Motil cites the Pavey Project as an example of unfair compromises. Developers Celmark Development Group and Solove Real Estate were looking to build a large apartment complex on High Street that did not fit in with the style of the rest of the street. 

By having developers start with what Motil calls “ridiculous” proposals, the building size was negotiated down from 12 stories to five in a way that made it seem like a compromise.

“Well, it’s a game that’s been played forever,” Motil said. “And everybody knows the game unless you’ve never been involved.”

From there, the personal interests of commissioners can also take away from neighborhood concerns. Zoning chairs on commissions can be “pro-developer” or “pro-city” and not always take their constituents’ thoughts on development into account, Motil said.

“In my experience, you have certain people that serve on area commissions and/or are chairs of zoning committees, who are also very supportive of what City Hall would like to see done in the neighborhoods, which may contradict what the neighborhoods want,” he said.

When citizens have concerns, even finding someone to listen can be difficult. People are often redirected multiple times from various sources, where their concerns can fall on deaf ears. Motil said he has seen city council members redirect citizens away from the council and to instead discuss issues with their area commissioners.

Area commissions do not make binding, legal decisions. They only make suggestions to Council.

Commissions and the community

Wetherholt is known as the “old one” on her area commission. Overall, she said the Clintonville commission is fairly representative of the neighborhood. 

“As far as age and everything, we still don’t have a lot of real young people, and certainly racially we are very homogenous,” Wetherholt said. “But our demographics in Clintonville are sometimes that way, too.” 

Mike Premo, external engagement director at Community Development for All People, said that his organization works closely with the South Side area commission. Community Development for All People, or CD4AP, aims to improve the lives of Southside residents by providing free community services and aid. The two groups collaborate for volunteer programs and events, and Premo believes that the Commission mirrors the community his organization sets out to help.

“The South Side is an extremely diverse community,” Premo said. “We love it that way and we want to do everything we can to keep it that way, and we think the South Side Area Commission is a reflection of that as well.”

Motil said that there are many factors at play that affect a commission’s demographics. 

“A lot of it boils down to who’s going to run for a seat, what kind of people are getting out to vote and maybe trying to recruit people to run for these seats who have a common interest,” Motil said.

Overall, Motil said that commissions are representative of neighborhoods, but the deeper concern should be to what degree they are representative.

“Are they representing what’s in the people’s best interests?” Motil asked. “How they want to see their areas develop or how the city wants the area to develop?”

It can be difficult to represent all of the commission’s constituents based on its size. The map below shows all of the current area commissions in Columbus. 

One of the stipulations in city code is that areas must “consist of a compact, homogeneous area that is manageable in size, being large enough for recognition and small enough for effective representation.”

They must also maintain neighborhood identity and be compatible with the boundaries of other area commissions. Whenever possible, the boundaries must also coincide with city planning area. 

It is hard to say, however, what is meant by “compact” and “manageable in size” when comparing area commission boundaries such as Fifth by Northwest and Far South.

They must also maintain neighborhood identity and be compatible with the boundaries of other area commissions. Whenever possible, the boundaries must also coincide with city planning area. 

It is hard to say, however, what is meant by “compact” and “manageable in size” when comparing area commission boundaries such as Fifth by Northwest and Far South.

Wetherholt feels like outreach is something area commissions have been lacking. She said not many news outlets cover small groups such as commissions and that less people in Clintonville have been reading the news. That lack of outreach affects the community input for area commissions. Involvement in the community is usually highest when residents are unhappy with something, she said.

“But, a lot of the times, they just haven’t been paying attention, you know, or just haven’t been aware of what’s going on,” Wetherholt explained. “We’re all busy and have lives. So, even though the commission might have been talking about an issue for a long time, if people haven’t been reading up on it or attending meetings, I totally understand all of that, they are going to feel ambushed.”

Despite inconsistencies and frustrations, commissioners recognize area commissions as an essential part of democracy. Their collaboration with residents can help create the neighborhoods Columbus residents envision.

“They very much are part of the work that we do here,” Premo said. “And they see the value in what we’re doing — transforming the community.”

But, like many political processes, trying to effectively work within the commissions can be a frustrating and disappointing process, Motil said.

“It’s part of the political process that we’re all involved with, you know, the greasy wheel factory, being outspoken and trying to make change,” he said. “Sometimes it’s very frustrating. Occasionally you get a win here and there, but it just seems like they’re far and few between.”