A Kansas City citizens group meeting for the first time this week could set the stage for a more powerful mayor and for a major redrawing of City Council districts.
The 13-member Charter Review Commission, appointed by Mayor Sly James, has a significant set of issues to confront, said city spokesman Danny Rotert.
“This group is actually digging into some of the larger issues in the charter that have been contemplated over the years,” Rotert said. “There are some real sticky ones here.”
One catalyst for the charter review is a concern among some African-American and Latino leaders about the way City Council members are elected. The 13-member council consists of the mayor, six members elected from six geographic subdistricts and six members who live within the six districts but who are elected at-large, or citywide.
Some minority leaders are pushing for fewer at-large seats and more subdistricts, which might make it easier for minorities to get elected to the council, especially south of the Missouri River.
Although some African-Americans have been elected by the white majority citywide, including James, the city’s racial and ethnic balance isn’t reflected on the council. The current council has nine white members, four African-American members counting the mayor, and no Latino members. Yet non-whites make up 58 percent of the city’s population south of the Missouri River and 45 percent citywide.
The idea of changing to smaller subdistricts surfaced during the city’s most recent redistricting effort in 2011.
“There was a strong feeling from some of us that we ought to look at expanding the number of districts ... to try to increase racial and ethnic representation,” said Stacey Daniels-Young, who served on the 2011 redistricting commission and has been appointed to the Charter Review Commission.
She suggested that with more subdistricts, “with the greater number of Latinos and the shift in population for African-Americans, you would be able to get some of that flavor.”
Steve Glorioso, who also served on the 2011 redistricting group and has been appointed to the Charter Review Commission, said there are other compelling reasons to consider reducing the number of at-large seats and increasing in-district seats.
He pointed out that each of the six districts has nearly 80,000 residents and will have even more as the city’s population continues to grow.
“My concern is they are becoming so large that it favors people with money,” Glorioso said, adding that big districts make it hard for grassroots candidates to campaign door to door. In addition, he said, “The larger the districts, the less influence neighborhoods have. Neighborhood associations individually become a smaller and smaller proportion of a district.”
While Glorioso didn’t want to predict what the Charter Review Commission will recommend, he said it’s worth looking at creating, at a minimum, eight or nine smaller subdistricts. Some observers have suggested there could be as many as 12 council subdistricts, with the mayor being the only member elected citywide.
James said he knows council redistricting will be a big topic for the commission to discuss, but he also said there are “serious implications” to consider about recommending more, smaller districts. He said he’s concerned about carving up the city in such a way that it “further divides our city.”
If that happens, James said, he thinks that might be an argument for increasing the mayor’s powers because the mayor might be the only council member, or one of a small group of council members, representing the city’s interests as a whole.
Rotert said the charter review will certainly include discussions about ways to give the mayor more authority, especially in the hiring and firing of the city manager.
Under the 2006 charter, the mayor and council jointly search for a city manager, and the mayor recommends the person to be appointed, subject to council approval. The mayor can remove the city manager only with the approval of six other council members.
This became an issue when former Mayor Mark Funkhouser wanted to remove then-City Manager Wayne Cauthen in December 2007 but was rebuffed by his council colleagues. Cauthen wasn’t ousted until December 2009, when six other council members finally sided with Funkhouser.
This is not to suggest there’s friction between James and City Manager Troy Schulte. Indeed, the council voted unanimously on May 30 to extend Schulte’s employment contract for 30 months and gave him a raise.
And just because the mayor may want more authority, and some people may want more council districts, doesn’t mean it will happen. The commission must first make its recommendations, and the City Council would have to agree to put them on a citywide ballot. In the past, City Council members have resisted any attempt to put ballot measures to a vote that dramatically increase the mayor’s powers or that create a strong mayor form of government.
James said he doesn’t have a date in mind for the Charter Review Commission to finish its work, but some people have said they are hoping for recommendations by the end of July. The council could then consider those recommendations before the end of August, which is the deadline for certifying measures for the November ballot.
If the commission recommends a different configuration of council districts, and voters approve, that would allow time to draw new subdistrict boundaries before the next council elections in spring 2015.
James said the timeline is less important to him than that the recommendations be well thought-out.
Rotert said the charter review is intended to shape the future of the city for years to come. He said the mayor wants to ensure that the commission examines issues in such a way that, “in order to solve one problem, we don’t create four others.”