Open letter to the public: Unprecedented in the history of Worthington—an influx of large amounts of developer-related money…
What follows is the content of a letter that I mailed to Worthington households earlier this week, following the release of City Council campaign finance reports:
Dear Worthington resident,
Though I currently serve on City Council, I am not up for re-election this year, and I write to you now as a fellow resident and not as someone seeking personal political advantage.
I feel compelled to write this letter in order to draw the public’s attention to a matter of great concern for our city. Campaign finance reports were published last Thursday* that reveal something unprecedented in the history of Worthington: an influx of large amounts of developer-related money, much of it from outside both our city and state, going directly into our local City Council campaigns.
It is not unusual for Worthington residents to donate money to candidates they feel are aligned with their values and interests. That is normal—even healthy—in a participatory democracy.
But what is not normal this year is 1) the sheer size of the campaign coffers, 2) the amount of money coming from outside of Worthington and even outside of Ohio, and 3) the significant donations that are being given to City Council candidates by developers (and/or individuals tied to them) that have, or will soon have, projects before the city requiring votes by City Council, creating conflicts of interest. For example:
- Eddie Pauline took in $22,450 in donations, nearly seven times the normal amount for Worthington City Council campaigns, with over 50% coming from outside of Worthington. A single Columbus resident donated $3,500, more than most Worthington City Council candidates spend on their entire campaign.**
- A full 89% of Barton Hacker’s contributions come from donors directly connected to the building industry (over 25% comes from two out-of-state PACs). Only 7% of his contributions come from Worthington residents (just four in total), and a full 60% is from outside Ohio.
- Bonnie Michael, current President of City Council, now seeking re-election, accepted a $750 donation (a substantial dollar amount for any Worthington City Council candidate) from the CEO of an organization that has an active building proposal before the city. Their proposal for a large apartment building in the Historic District will require an affirmative vote by City Council if it is to proceed.
All of this is alarming to me for several reasons. By significantly elevating the amount of money needed to run for Council, we risk putting this form of public service out of reach for most residents. Who among us can readily raise $20,000+ to run a local campaign? By raising financial demands we risk altering the nature of our Council, away from the average citizen and toward only those who are personally wealthy or connected to certain industries. This may be the reality in Washington, but I hope we can prevent it from infecting Worthington.
Most basically, however, these large sums of money threaten to eclipse the voices of Worthington’s own residents. Those large glossy mailers you find in your mailbox cost a great deal, but are considered smart money for well-funded campaigns. This is because of the mailers’ proven ability to mold public perceptions, regardless of the merits of the content. In this way, money powerfully shapes public opinion—and the vote. If the supremacy of money is allowed to prevail in the current case, the integrity of our local self-governance will be compromised through conflicts of interest and the skewing of public policy. The detrimental impacts of this on key aspects of our community could be surprisingly rapid and far-reaching.
Several questions arise:
Why is this happening now? Developers have their eye on Worthington, and are now organizing to give focus and force to their efforts. For example, developer-allied individuals started a group earlier this year called Building Worthington’s Future (BWF). The aim of this group is to promote pro-developer viewpoints and to counter community groups that favor what I and others call resident-centered policies. BWF has now created a Political Action Committee (PAC) and endorsed a slate of City Council candidates—Eddie Pauline, Barton Hacker, and Bonnie Michael— that the group believes will further its aims. The influence of BWF pervades this year’s political climate and its campaigns.
Why all this money? Development outcomes in Worthington are directly tied to decisions made by our City Council. For example, projects that require rezoning (such as any likely to be proposed at UMCH) need majority decisions by City Council if they are to proceed. The developers’ campaign contributions reveal a basic motive and strategy: in the face of past and present public opposition to their projects they are attempting to use their money to shape the composition of Council. It is that basic.
Why does this matter? This influx of large amounts of developer-related money threatens the basic integrity of our representative government. Conflicts of interest and the skewing of public policy are possible, or probable, outcomes. This letter is an expression of my faith that this will not happen—that the residents of Worthington will readily grasp the importance of this issue for the future our community, and will act with this understanding in mind.
There is a broad field of excellent candidates this year. It is my hope that you will take the opportunity to cast a positive, affirmative vote for the candidates of your choosing this coming Tuesday, November 5th. By doing so we will be acting in accord with the best of Worthington’s traditions.
* All campaign contribution information in this letter is publicly available at the Franklin County Board of Elections website: https://vote.franklincountyohio.gov/Candidates/Campaign-Finance. Search for year 2019 and for municipality of Worthington.
** During the previous four election cycles, 2011-2017, the average Worthington City Council campaign reported total contributions of ≈ $3,358; https://vote.franklincountyohio.gov/Candidates/Campaign-Finance