Steve Rose

Kansas City Council needs to keep its citywide members

The worst idea to come out of Kansas City in recent memory is not the streetcar, nor the proposal to reconfigure the airport into a single terminal. Both of those ideas, while dubious, will not necessarily hurt Kansas City. At worst, they are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

No, the award winner for an idea that could do irreparable harm to the city with no virtually no hope of being helpful is the proposal to change the way City Council members are elected.

Today, of the 12 council members, half are elected by district and half at-large, meaning the entire city gets to vote on six, while the other six are elected within certain boundaries.

The Charter Review Commission has recommended a reform that would make all 12 council seats be in-district seats, so each council member would be elected from a small geographic part of the city. The commission has asked the City Council to put that change on a citywide ballot next April, seeking voter approval from the citizens of Kansas City.

That’s not the only change recommended. But the others make sense:

One would result in a stronger mayoral form of government, including the authority of the mayor to fire the city manager at will, without council approval, and gives the mayor the right to submit the city’s budget, rather than the city manager. The city needs more leadership from its mayor, and less from the city manager.

Another would change primary and general city elections from the dead of winter to the warmth of spring and summer. That should help turnout.

If only the charter commission had stopped there, all would be well. But members capitulated to outside pressures to come up with a plan that would ruin the way the city is governed. Among commission members, this was hotly debated.

The pressure came mainly from minority groups that believe they are underrepresented on the council. By eliminating all at-large positions, and having 12 council members elected by district, that, theoretically, would give ethnic groups more of a neighborhood influence.

That is not illogical.

But what is sacrificed is very dangerous to lose, and that is the need to have half the council see the “big picture,” and thus at least half the council voting for the good of the entire city, not just a segment of the city.

With all-district representation, the city runs the risk of becoming a “Tower of Babel,” without a cohesive single voice for major citywide issues.

When candidates run for at-large positions, they raise issues that are broader in scope, issues that affect the entire community The campaigns are all about “us,” as opposed to a destructive “us versus them” attitude that comes from district elections.

Some research has shown that at-large elections tend to generate more candidates and greater voter turnout. That makes sense because more money is spent on at-large positions, raising the awareness of the entire community that there is an important city election.

And, perhaps most important, economic development issues take on a citywide scope. This is because representatives view themselves as stewards of the entire city, not just of one part.

If Kansas City’s council had been stripped of its at-large voices, it is quite possible that major projects, such as the Power and Light District, which reduced blight, the highly successful Sprint Center and the Bartle Hall expansion might never have been built.

With no at-large voices, the city would become more fragmented, as each City Council member would want only those things that would reward a particular area or group.

Kansas City needs a blend. The city needs district voices, and it needs all-city voices.

It has been a balanced approach, and that is how it should remain.