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Kansas City Council rejects controversial charter reforms

Updated: 2014-01-24T13:47:11Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Eight months after debate began over major charter changes to expand the Kansas City mayor’s power and dramatically redraw council districts, those ideas have been torpedoed.

The Kansas City Council decided Thursday not to seek voter approval for the most controversial recommendations from a Charter Review Commission.

Mayor Sly James said he thought the public deserved a say on these charter reforms, but the council majority disagreed.

“I believe this would be devastating,” Councilman Ed Ford said of the proposal to dissolve the six existing council districts and create 12 smaller districts. He argued it would lead to much more horse-trading and more parochial fights over funding among council members.

While jettisoning the most controversial ideas, the City Council unanimously agreed to place several other charter reform measures before voters on the April 8 ballot.

The ballot question with the most consensus would be to move council primary and general election dates from the dead of winter to April and June. Other provisions would update financial procedures and modify the number of required city departments.

The council’s decisions Thursday stemmed from recommendations by a Charter Review Commission that James appointed last June. The commission spent months debating a host of changes to the city’s charter and sent recommendations to the City Council in November.

The most significant charter reform would have changed the council configuration from six in-district and six at-large council seats to 12 in-district seats. It would have been one of the most profound changes to the council system in 50 years.

A coalition of African-American and Latino leaders, including U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, had urged the commission to recommend the change.

They said the current system is unfair, and possibly illegal, under the Voting Rights Act. That’s because half the council members must run citywide, which can make it harder for minorities in a majority-white city to get elected. And that means voters in a predominantly minority council district can see their preference thwarted by the majority white electorate elsewhere in the city.

Supporters of the change also said Kansas City’s six council districts are so large, each with close to 80,000 residents and growing, that it favors candidates with a lot of money and makes it hard for grass-roots and neighborhood-oriented candidates to get elected.

But opponents worried that dividing the city into 12 smaller districts would make the city even more polarized than it already is and would exacerbate divisions among different geographic parts of the city. They said the current balance of six in-district and six at-large seats has worked well since the 1960s.

A divided council voted 8-5 against putting the plan on the April ballot. Even some of those who wanted to put it on the ballot said they thought it was a bad idea but thought voters should make the final decision.

“Allow people to vote on this,” James urged, arguing that the council’s refusal to do so just feeds into minority group concerns that they are disenfranchised.

But Ford and others said it made no sense for the council to put something on the ballot that they couldn’t support themselves.

Rodney Knott, who served on the charter commission, said Thursday he was disappointed that the council refused to put the council configuration change to voters. Knott agreed there’s been no groundswell of public support for a major change, but he thought it was time for such a conversation.

“It’s too big of an issue to allow 12 people to decide,” Knott said.

The council, by a vote of 10-3, also nixed a commission recommendation to give the mayor the power to fire the city manager on his own, without needing the approval of at least six council members, as is now required.

James urged his colleagues to support the idea, but emphasized that he gets along well with City Manager Troy Schulte and has “zero desire” to fire him. He argued that mayors in the future should have that power.

James has frequently pointed out that, in Kansas City, the mayor gets blamed for everything wrong in city government but has little power over the city manager, who runs day-to-day operations.

On Thursday, he likened the current situation to a married couple who can’t get divorced unless a half dozen of their friends say it’s OK.

But a council majority said the current system has worked well for decades, and giving the mayor such power would in a way “neuter” the council.

One proposed charter change that will be on the ballot, and that has received virtually universal support, is to alter the city council election calendar. Currently, the primary is in February and the general election is in March, and campaigning frequently occurs in icy, wintry conditions.

Nearly everyone agreed that moving the primary to April and the general election to June would improve campaign conditions, might increase voter turnout and would save money because the city could share the April election costs with school boards and other governments that have their elections at the same time.

If voters agree, the next council primary would be in April 2015 instead of February 2015. The new council would take office in August instead of May 1, so this current council would serve a slightly longer term.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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