Charter commission asks for research into changing council districts

Currently, each council district has one in district and one at large representative. The charter review commission is considering a change to that system.

Two city council members on Wednesday spoke in favor of the current system of city government, while several charter review commission members spoke of change.

The 13-member group is preparing a list of research questions for Jered Carr, professor of urban affairs at UMKC.

His early research on other city governments  caught their attention Wednesday, showing that many comparable cities elected all or most council members from districts and some, like Denver, also used strong mayors.

“We’re actually an anomaly,” said commissioner Steve Glorioso.

Commission member Rodney Knott said, “I’m amazed with the testimony of gloom and doom we have been receiving (about change), it has worked in some major places.”

Councilmembers Ed Ford and Cindy Circo, mayor pro tem, praised the current 13-member council system, which consists of the mayor, six members elected from geographic districts and six members who live in the districts but are elected citywide.

African-American leaders have argued for change to 12 councilmembers elected from within districts and Hispanics have asked for nine elected from districts and three citywide.

To go to so many district council people would be a mistake, Ford said.

“I think it’s very predictable the folks you’re getting will care about their own particular district and that’s it,” he said. “They’ll care about what they will bring to their 12th of the city.”

Circo said, “I think we’re working – I’ve never seen a more collaborative council than we have now.”

Commissioners Knott and Bobby Hernandez suggested that going to more districts might raise the city’s pitiful voter turnout rate.

Hernandez said many minorities don’t vote because they feel powerless.

“If making more districts or smaller districts gets people engaged, it’s worth our effort,” he said.

Glorioso noted that no one had appeared yet to speak in favor of a stronger mayor, although mayor Sly James and past mayors Emanuel Cleaver and Kay Barnes have advocated it.

Circo said she believed they did that because mayors get blamed when things go wrong although they are just one more council member. Also, she said, they would like to have the power to move on issues more quickly without building consensus.

Carr said strong mayor governments range from giving the mayor alone power to fire the city manager to making the mayor a separate executive branch of government with veto power, such as the federal system.

The idea of making mayors part of the city council with day-to-day government run by a city manager was meant to install professional management with more of a buffer from raw politics, he said.

Ford asked that if the mayor alone could hire and fire a city manager, why would the manager care about what the councilmembers think.

Gayle Holliday, a commission co-chair, said they would prepare questions for Carr to look at other cities to help establish standards, objectives and terms to measure.

Knott agreed with that approach, saying, “If we’re thinking of changing a document of this importance we need to have some standards you can hang your hat on.”

The group has set a tentative goal of July 31 for recommendations but members have openly doubted it is feasible.

Ford told them he knew of no push in the council to put any charter changes to voters on the November ballot.

Any effort to get council approval for a vote would stand a better chance if it is well studied and has more time put into it, he said.

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