Kansas Citians weary from repeated trips to the voting booth won’t get much rest next year. There will likely be a vote on renewing a sales tax for public improvements, and mid-term elections will put state and federal offices on the ballot.
We think voters city should consider two additional ballot questions, both involving changes to the current city charter. One involves the petition process, and the other deals with how the mayor and City Council are picked.
Both changes would improve city government in the 21st century.
▪ The petition process
Kansas Citians should retain the right to initiate their own laws and to force votes on laws with which they don’t agree. Petitions are the way ordinary citizens can limit the power of their elected representatives.
But virtually everyone knows the existing petition process hurts Kansas City. It is far too easy to force expensive citywide votes on issues that can be decided by the people’s representatives.
Indeed, even the threat of a petition drive has grounded too many good ideas. Kansas City has voted on light rail petition initiatives so many times that the idea now gets little serious attention. That’s regrettable.
Amending the charter would make the process better.
The simplest approach would be to raise the minimum number of signatures needed for a valid petition. Under the current charter, it takes about 1,700 signatures to place an ordinance before voters and 3,400 valid signers to force a vote on a council-passed ordinance.
A standard that doubles each threshold should be a goal.
Requiring signatures from different parts of the city also deserves consideration to prevent gatherers from standing in one spot to get people to sign.
If petitioners collect the required signatures, a public vote should be automatic, and council interference should not be permitted. The city legal staff also should consider and certify ballot language without interference from elected officials.
▪ Council districts
The six-district City Council configuration needs reform. The current system with six in-district council members and six at-large council members requires voters to study eight races every four years (one in-district seat, six at-large seats and the mayor).
Even the most conscientious citizen struggles to make that many informed decisions in one election. There’s a better way.
Kansas City could change its charter to establish nine council districts, with one member chosen from each. The nine districts would be more compact, allowing better representation of neighborhoods. Then the charter could overlay three “super-districts,” each made by combining three regular districts. Each super-district member and the mayor would be chosen city-wide.
The four at-large seats would be picked in one year — say, 2019 — with the nine in-district seats filled two years later, in 2021. After the initial election, all would serve four-year terms.
With such a system, Kansas City voters could consider city-wide issues in one election and neighborhood issues two years later. It would be easier to study the candidates; forums would be smaller; and government would improve.
Kansas City would still have a 12-member council and a mayor. But decisions would be more citizen-oriented than under the current 6-6 configuration.
Both measures could be put on the August 2018 ballot. New districts could be drawn for the 2019 city elections.
Kansas City has made enormous strides in building a more modern, more responsive community. Now, its founding document should be freshened to complement that 21st-century work.