By Dedra Cordle
The Greater Hilltop Area Commission will welcome three new community advocates to the local advisory board next year.
At its meeting on Nov. 14, the commission announced the results of the election that took place last month. It saw a record number of candidates submit petitions to vie for one of the four open seats on the board, and it also saw a record number of citizens participate in the election process.
According to Leah Brudno, chair of the government and legislation committee, these are the results of the Oct. 7 election.
- Candidate Nick Bates received 133 votes.
- Candidate Dean Smith received 120 votes.
- Candidate Jennie Keplar received 111 votes.
- Candidate Keith Neal received 91 votes.
- Candidate Jason Cornell received 61 votes.
- Candidate Ricky Kitchen received 56 votes.
- Candidate Terry Roofe received 41 votes.
With the exception of the incumbent Keplar, all of the candidates who ran for a seat in the 2023 election were vying to become first time area commissioners.
Commissioner-elect Nick Bates has been a resident of the westside since 2007. He said in that time, he has seen “so many great assets here in the Hilltop – most notably the people.” He added that he will combine his love of volunteerism and his professional expertise on policy to try to make positive changes on the lives of the people who live in the community.
“I have spent my career advocating for more affordable housing, more food security, and more equity and adequacy in our public schools,” he wrote in an email. “I believe we can achieve long-term, meaningful progress on these issues by lifting up the stories that often go unheard in our communities. As a commissioner, I hope to connect the stories to meaningful policy solutions.”
Commissioner-elect Dean Smith said he wanted to run for a seat on the commission to make a difference in the community.
“My campaign slogan was “Every Street. Every Resident.,” meaning that I want to ensure that I empower every street and every resident to reach their full potential,” he wrote in an email. “Now that the campaign season is over, I want to imbed this slogan as a guiding principle in how I operate as a commissioner.”
He said in his first term, he will “aim to work with his fellow commissioners to build upon the work they’ve done to increase voter turnout in our elections, improve our system for advocating for capital improvements, and improve the Hilltop’s overall image.”
“I am extremely optimistic about our community’s future and am excited to help others be a part of it.”
Incumbent commissioner Jennie Keplar has served on the commission a total of four years – including a previous time in the early 2000s – and said she wanted to continue being a part of the advisory board because she sees a new level of engagement that was not present two decades ago.
“I feel so much more invigorated, not only by the current and soon-to-be members of the commission, but by how much more engaged Hilltoppers seem to be this time around,” she wrote. “The GHAC is 42 years old, and in that time, we’ve had peaks and valleys in terms of community participation. I’m seeing more people attending the meetings voluntarily and asking really good questions. The more residents we can get to join us, participate in our committees, and really take part in our civil discourse, the more I want to be a part of that.”
Keplar said she wants to help younger generations of Hilltoppers find the courage to speak up for their community during her second term on the commission, “even when the forces they’re speaking to seem daunting.”
In the biography he submitted to the public for consideration as a candidate, Commissioner-elect Keith Neal said he wanted to use his passion for community activism and youth advocacy to enrich the neighborhoods in Columbus.
Neal had spent more than three decades at the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center, beginning as a janitor and retiring as its executive director. While employed at the center, Neal instituted the Great Expectation Program as a “model of excellence in character, building, emotional growth, sports activities, healthy nutrition, and creative outlets.”
The Columbus Messenger reached out to Neal to ask about his decision to run for a seat on the commission and what he hoped to accomplish during his three-year term but did not receive a response as of press time.
Commissioner Brudno – who did not run for re-election this year – said she was “excited” for the future of the commission.
“We have some really great people who will be seated next year and we had some really great candidates for the voters to consider,” she said. “I am excited to see what comes next.”
More than 200 voters participated in the 2023 election. The process, however, was not without issue.
As the chair of the committee that oversees the election, Brudno said her auto-correct program incorrectly removed the ‘e’ on the last name of candidate Terry Roofe when she was writing the ballots. Typically, a co-chair of the committee would look over the names on the ballot to check for mistakes but there was no co-chair this year.
“It was a total oversight and that error should have been caught before it went out before voters,” she said.
To correct the error at some polling locations, either a commissioner or a voter tried to add the missing ‘e’ on some of the ballots. Candidate Roofe filed a complaint to the city’s department of neighborhoods as he believed the integrity of the area commission’s election process was in question.
During the Nov. 14 meeting, he said the commission should have reprinted the ballot prior to the election rather than “deface” the official ballot that was before voters.
“You have to have election integrity,” he said.
After he contested the election, the commission sent an inquiry to the department of neighborhoods and had the city attorney that oversees area commissions review the matter. According to neighborhoods program coordinator David Hooie, the city attorney did not feel it was necessary for the commission to hold another election despite the “irregularities” that occurred.
The city officials ultimately left the decision to the commission, which decided to certify the results as is due to the fact that voters at the polls were given candidate bios with the correctly spelled last names prior to casting their votes.
Vice-chair Victoria Bates-Frye said the commission will use this incident as an opportunity to improve upon future elections and ensure there are no questions related to the integrity of the process.
“There’s an opportunity here and I think we should grab a hold of it,” she said.
Roofe said that is ultimately all he wanted – for the election to be fair to all candidates.
In related news, the commission has an appointed seat available next year. In order to be considered, one must be over the age of 18, and live, work, or own property within the GHAC boundaries.
Those interested in the three-year appointed seat can reach out to the commissioners via Facebook or via their website, cbusareacommissions.org/greater-hilltop to request consideration. The commission will discuss the nominees at their December meeting and likely vote for the individuals at their first meeting of 2024.
The next full commission meeting will be held on Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Columbus Metropolitan Library: Hilltop Branch, 511 S. Hague Ave.