Cleaver supports changes in council districts

U.S. Rep and former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver told the Charter Review Commission on Monday that he supports historic changes to the structure of the city council.

Cleaver said the system in place for a half century weakens minority participation and discourages voter turnout.

He spoke for a change suggested by some minority groups: nine city council districts with people elected from within them and only three districts with people elected citywide.

They argue that would increase minority participation.

The current system has 13 council members, including the mayor, six members elected from geographic districts and six members who live in the districts but are elected citywide.

Cleaver also called for a stronger mayor form of government but said do it with a silk glove: “Whatever is proposed to the city council has to be done so it does not give council members the impression a charter change will damage or diminish their clout.”

He said one of his big regrets from when he was mayor was not moving against electing council members citywide – one of the main ploys used in other cities to illegally diffuse the minority vote.

Kansas City has a history of electing African American council members and mayors citywide, he said, but that does not mean the at large practice is right.

Activist Clinton Adams, appearing with Cleaver, said African Americans have repeated lost 5th District races to white candidates in citywide races although they are a majority of that district – a likely violation of the voting rights law.

Cleaver noted that only two councilmembers of Hispanic heritage have been elected, which he said shows the current system is a failure.

Herb Kohn, a Kansas City lawyer who chaired a charter review commission in 2001, told the 13-member commission, “whatever you come up with, don’t take it for granted it’s so good everyone is going to like it – you’ve got to promote it.”

His commission made recommendations for changes to the city council that got on the ballot and lost by 200 votes.

He said to at least make the mayor stronger by having him first report the budget instead of the city manager.

The mayor is more likely to be an entrepreneur type who would steer the city beyond tweaking last year’s budget, he said.

The mayor’s budget would make policy and priority choices that the manager could fill in, Kohn said.

“If anything by making the city manager report to the mayor, you are strengthening the role of the city manager,” he said.

“If I were the city manager I would welcome the opportunity of reporting to one person instead of 13 people.”

Commissioners said they would start deliberating on eight recommended changes on their next meeting on Sept. 9.

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