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We won’t have the chance to fundamentally improve Kansas City’s government this year after all.
That’s because Mayor Quinton Lucas said he would not convene a commission to recommend changes in the City Council’s structure. “I think it is too late for us, actually,” Lucas said, claiming candidates are already running for seats on the next City Council.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘last year of council’ debate. I just don’t,” he said.
Under current law, there are 12 council members. Six are elected from specific districts, and six members, one from each district, are selected by the city as a whole.
Some community activists wanted voters to consider a nine in-district, three at-large framework, or a 12-0 configuration, before the next council election in 2023. Either approach would shrink districts and make the council (and candidates) more responsive to the people.
That’s what should happen.
Because Lucas claims it’s too late, Latino Kansas Citians, who have already gone decades without a single seat on the City Council, will have to wait until 2027 for a reasonable opportunity for change. More broadly, the 6-6 configuration will continue to distort city politics, angering some residents north of the river while spreading council responsibilities far too thin.
The 6-6 City Council is an anachronism. In Kansas City, the six at-large council members represent 508,000 people — far more constituents than a member of the state legislature. That makes real contact between a council member and a voter more difficult than it ought to be.
A different map would also make choices much easier for voters. As it now stands, voters must consider eight different races every four years. That makes informed choices harder.
Lucas does not share that view. “Having the at-large system has still allowed people to be represented,” he said. Theoretically, sure, but Kansas Citians deserve the right to decide if the current system is working.
That’s something Lucas should understand. He was a member of the 2013 Charter Review Commission, which recommended a 9-3 map. The City Council that year refused to put it on the ballot.
Upending the status quo in Kansas City is never easy.
There is still a wafer-thin chance that opportunity could come this year. The City Council could propose a charter change vote, but members seem reluctant to oppose the mayor and do so. Regular city residents could amend the charter through petition and a vote, but would likely need 30,000 signatures to proceed, and that’s a very high threshold.
There will be a charter review commission in late 2023, because it’s required under the law, but its recommendations won’t go to voters until 2024, and wouldn’t take effect until 2027.
This delay is so unfortunate and unnecessary. There was a chance to make local government better, and that chance has now been lost for no good reason.