Charter review panel to decide stand on major changes

By Joe Lambe

A divided Kansas City charter review commission on Monday started debate on whether to change the structure of the city council.

Discussion began after Clinton Adams, speaking for Freedom Inc., presented data he said supported his contention that the present system violates voter rights.

White candidates have repeatedly won city-wide votes for the 5th district council seat despite people in the predominately African American district voting for African American candidates, he said.

That is because voters in other parts of the city, especially the northland, went for the white candidates.

That dilutes the vote in a distinct minority community, Adams said. “I don’t know how you can overcome that until you can change the system.”

City Attorney Bill Geary has said that there has been no formal allegation of violations of the voter rights act and he does not believe the city does so.

Some minority groups are advocating electing all council members, or at least nine of them, completely within districts.

Many others, including citizen groups and current or former politicians, have argued for keeping in place the system used for half a century.

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.

Commissioner Steve Glorioso said he favored increasing the number of districts.

“I think we should listen to the people of this city who think they are being disenfranchised,” he said. “I think they are being disenfranchised.”

He noted that Denver, Baltimore and other cities function well with council members elected from within districts.

The Kansas City districts are becoming too big and restrict the ability of a candidate to campaign door-to-door or compete without big money, he said.

Bobby Hernandez, commissioner and former city council member, agreed and called for going to the 12 in-district model.

Commissioner Rodney Knott said he has seen no “smoking gun” that proves such a system is needed or better.

As for the current system, he told Hernandez, “you yourself are proof it can work.”

Voters citywide have elected African-American mayors and other candidates, he said. “When we’re talking about the minority vote, who are they voting for?”

Commissioner Jim Rice said, “Rodney has hit the nail on the head.”

Voters citywide now can vote for six council candidates and the mayor and under the 12-district plan would vote for only one council member and the mayor, they noted.

Rice said splitting the city into so many districts causes more separation.

Commissioner Stacy Daniels-Young said that support for the status quo came from people who were part of a system that worked for them.

The fact that she gets to vote for people who are from other districts “doesn’t turn me on,” she said.

The other major issue the commission must consider is whether to recommend a change to a stronger mayor form of government.

Mayor Sly James is to speak to them next week about that and probably about the council district issue, said Matt Dameron, commission co-chair.

Gayle Holliday, commission co-chair, urged members to think of the district issue in terms of equal opportunity, equality and fairness.

Those words keep coming to her as she considers the issue, she said.

Commissioners said they plan on voting on the two major issues on Oct. 21.

Their recommendations for charter changes go to the city council, which must decide whether to put them to voters.

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