The Kansas City Council needs a fundamental rethink. Here’s how to do it fairly

·3 min read

The commission looking at ways to redraw Kansas City’s City Council districts is starting to crunch the numbers, and confront reality: There are fundamental problems with the way Kansas City is governed.

That means reform will soon be on the table.

First, a refresher. Kansas City has six council districts. Two council members are elected from each district, one chosen by all of the city’s voters, the other by district voters only.

Every 10 years or so, the districts are redrawn, to reflect changes in population. That’s what the Redistricting Commission is up to — the full City Council must approve a new map before the end of the year.

The commission met Wednesday, and will take public testimony in October. It has three basic goals: 1) Recognize the population growth north of the river. 2) Keep minority Districts 3 and 5 relatively intact. 3) Draw districts with similar interests and shapes.

The first goal must be met. But goals No. 2 and 3 are incompatible: In order to protect Districts 3 and 5, you have to distort Districts 4 and 6 into weird shapes.

That’s what happened in 2011. District 4 now includes old Northeast, Briarcliff north of the river and part of Brookside. District 6 includes Ruskin Heights, Richards Gebaur and Waldo. They’re a mess.

And it can only get worse, since the minority districts are growing slowly. They have to grow bigger, which will further scramble the maps.

Unless you abandon the six-district structure.

Longtime community activist Clinton Adams said that quiet part out loud Wednesday when the commission met. To nodding heads, he suggested the group pursue a charter review committee that could eliminate all at-large council seats, leaving 12 in-district council members and a mayor.

There is much to recommend such an approach. In the current configuration, each in-district Kansas City council member represents almost 85,000 people. That’s too big: It’s more than double the constituents in the average Missouri House district, for example.

Twelve council districts would solve that problem. It would make it easier to put together a Latino-majority district. Minority districts could be protected. Eliminating at-large seats might also help the Northland, which would likely get five districts. And so on.

Sure, there is a case for some at-large seats, whose occupants are supposed to have the whole city’s interests in mind. I’ve argued for nine districts, with three at-large members. A charter review commission recommended a 9-3 split several years ago, but the City Council declined to put the option on the ballot.

That should change. More important, it can change. Here’s how.

The city charter requires new maps by the end of this year. But it says nothing about changing those maps again next year — in fact, the city drew new council maps in 2010 and then in 2011. It can repeat that approach now.

The City Council could approve 6-6 maps this year, then appoint a charter commission to examine other alternatives: 12 districts, 9-3 splits, even 8-4. Show the public what those maps would look like.

That process could end in April. The council could put a preferred option on the high-turnout August 2022 ballot; if approved, the new lines could be in place by the 2023 city elections. If rejected, the 6-6 maps are still in place.

Whew. Tough, but doable.

There would be resistance. Kansas Citians like tradition, and council members are usually reluctant to pursue any idea they didn’t think of first. But a 6-6 City Council, with six at-large seats, isn’t chiseled in stone. It can be changed.

A new structure would simplify voters’ choices, widen interest in city elections, reduce the distance between council members and constituents, protect minority interests, enable Latinos, empower the Northland and make Kansas City better. Those are all important goals.

There’s no better time to do it than now.

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