Government & Politics

Dave Helling: Kansas City Council races are an all-or-nothing affair

Staggering City Hall elections could benefit Kansas City voters and candidates alike.
Staggering City Hall elections could benefit Kansas City voters and candidates alike. The Associated Press

Kansas Citians braving a cold winter have been spared an indignity this January — City Hall campaigns.

Four years ago, mayoral and council candidates had to trudge across the snowy landscape for screenings and appearances in advance of the February primary. Thanks to a charter change, this year’s campaign season has been pushed back to the spring and summer.

The extra time and better weather should make it easier for candidates and constituents to connect before the election. Sadly, though, voters still won’t know as much about their choices as they should.

It remains extraordinarily hard for Kansas City voters to take the full measure of all City Council candidates. There are eight races for voters to consider — one in their home district, plus six at-large council seats and the mayor.

That’s a tall order for even the most engaged citizen. Since candidates can’t use party identification as an informational shortcut, and since some primary races feature multiple candidates, the likelihood of confusion is still high.

Many voters respond by simply picking a name they recognize. That isn’t a long-term strategy for high-quality representation.

But the harm from a crowded ballot isn’t limited to voter education. Kansas City’s government also is affected by the possible top-to-bottom turnover of its elected officials every four years.

It takes new politicians time to learn their jobs. Rookie council members often claim it takes six months to figure out where the restrooms are.

The complaint is exaggerated — City Hall has plenty of restrooms — but it reflects the fact that effective government is collaborative, based on relationships and alliances that develop over time. Yet every four years those relationships must be reconfigured, delaying progress until everyone can settle in.

Constituents are harmed as well, in two ways. They have to relearn the council roster every four years, yet if a council underperforms voters must wait two or three years before they can make any changes.

Let’s be clear: Entrenched officeholders are problematic as well. The goal is managing turnover to minimize the disruption.

City leaders once considered staggered council terms but rejected the idea. They said voters want eight choices every fourth year.

Perhaps they could take another look. Splitting council races in half — three at-large seats, three in-district, every other year — might make things easier and better for voters, and for once-shivering candidates, too.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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