Charter commissions considers major council district changes

Current Kansas City council districts.

Minorities on Wednesday argued for profound changes in the city charter, while a conservative group spoke for an opposite approach.

The 13-member Charter Review Committee has set a tentative deadline – which members say is unlikely to be met – of July 31 to make recommendations on major changes.

Among those are whether to alter the makeup of the 13-member city council, which consists of the mayor, six members elected just from six geographic districts and six members who live in the districts but are elected citywide.

Minority representatives argued for changing that to 12 council members elected just from within districts or at least nine from within districts and three citywide.

The goal is greater minority representation, they said, in a city that is 30 percent African-American and 10 percent Hispanic.

None of the current council districts has a Hispanic majority and only the 3rd and 5th districts have African-American majorities.

White candidates have won 5th district citywide contests over African-American candidates in races that dilute African American votes and could violate the Voting Rights Act, said Gwen Grant, urban league president.

Former councilman Ken Bacchus, speaking for Freedom Inc., also spoke for 12 district seats and noted that voter turnout has dropped from 50 percent in 1981 to 22 percent in the last election.

“I don’t know if district representation will draw out more voters but it’s an interesting idea,” he said.

Chris Medina, CEO of Guadalupe Centers, advocated a change to nine districts and three people elected at large.

Patrick Touhey, speaking for the conservative Show-Me Institute, argued for a less-is-more approach. He spoke in favor of a report from it that advocates having six councilmembers elected citywide – who would not have to live in any particular district – represent the entire city.

Their report cites a study of 2000 cities that found that officials elected from wards “act in a more pork barrel framework which results in more spending.”

Another study cited found that larger city councils “spend more per capita than cities with fewer councilpersons.”

Bobby Hernandez, committee member and former councilman, questioned the report, saying money gets spent because of citizen demand for real needs.

Tuohey countered that he was just saying that more money gets spent, “that’s not to say it’s against the will of the people.”

John Sharp, a councilman elected from the 6th district, said district council members are not just focused on bringing home stuff for their areas.

“I don’t see that degree of parochialism,” he said. “None of our districts will be successful if the city itself is going downhill.”

He also said more districts with fewer citizens in them would make it easier for people of moderate means to get elected.

The smaller districts would also be more compact geographically, he said, which would make it easier for citizens to work together.

Asked about the option of 12 districts or of 9 with three others at large, Sharp said of the 9-3 option, “I think that might be accepted by people here as a less drastic change.”

Next week, the committee will hear testimony on stronger mayor forms of government.

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