Published May 11th, 2023 at 7:33 AM7 minute read
We, the people, have more to say.
We want to be more civically engaged, better informed about elections and consulted on any changes to how our city functions.
Those are key sentiments shared with the nine-member Kansas City Charter Review Commission that Mayor Quinton Lucas has charged with proposing changes to how the city runs.
The problem is the mayor also gave the commission a tight May deadline to complete its work.
Among those pressing the commission to take its time, allowing for more citizen input, was Ronald Clark. He stayed until the end of the commission’s four-hour meeting Tuesday evening at City Hall, after finishing his day job in construction.
Clark wants a chance to affect the city’s politics in some way, saying that the charter is like a contract among citizens.
“You are sitting on top of a huge opportunity to engage the public,” Clark told the commission.
Lucas continues to push the expedited timeline. Among other changes, he wants the commission to consider allowing a top vote-getter in a City Council primary to skip the general election if they receive a landslide of votes.
That idea alone sparked a wide-ranging discussion of different models including ranked-choice voting, concerns about money in politics and how wealthy candidates succeed over those with less clout.
Another proposal to shift control of the city’s Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners was quickly scrapped after pushback by a former board member, echoed by concerns raised by others.
First the City Council, then the public needs to vote on any changes that the commission recommends to the charter. To meet filing deadlines for the August ballot, the council needs to sign off in May.
This week, the charter review commission backed off from Lucas’ proposal to change when elections will be held, a shift that would have moved city votes to August for the primary and November for the general election.
And the commission heard support for a recommendation to press for an extensive, data-driven look at the current City Council structure, far before redistricting would occur using the next U.S. Census numbers.
Charters are often described as akin to a city’s constitution. They are lengthy legal documents, filled with specifics delineating a municipality’s powers, functions and procedures.
The mayor must appoint a commission at least every decade to review and make any recommended changes.
But as this go-round illustrates, it’s a bit like opening Pandora’s box. It essentially invites members of the public to offer changes they would like to recommend for the commission to study, outside of what the mayor’s office asks of it.
Lucas appointed the commission in early April, giving them about five weeks to get their work completed.
Under his predecessor, former Mayor Sly James, the commission was given five months, a point that’s been touted by critics of the process under Lucas.
“We don’t want to let stones be unturned here if there are substantive issues,” said Jack Steadman, co-chair of the commission, during Tuesday’s meeting.
But Steadman pushed back against critics arguing there was anything undemocratic about how the commission was proceeding, especially given that the City Council and then voters will be asked to vote on final changes.
All agreed that they didn’t want to rush the process. But some commissioners were more motivated to keep the aggressive timeline set by the mayor’s office than others.
Wilson Vance said that “five weeks is not enough,” pointing to the criticisms from the public.
She reminded the group, “we are public servants right now,” stressing that a tight and rushed process feels like it leaves no room for imagination.
Others said that if new issues are raised by the public within the charter’s scope, they would be open to extending their work.
And other members pointed out that their meetings have lasted longer than previous commissions, noting that the total time spent on the process might be similar. They also argued there is no use drawing meetings out just for the sake of appearances.
“These meetings seem hush, hush because people aren’t aware of them,” said Kansas City resident Denise Brown, who attended meetings on both Monday and Tuesday.
Commission Co-chair Karen Slaughter said that she’s been concerned about the group’s gatekeeper role, wanting to be mindful “to do no harm.”
Monday, May 15, is the next opportunity for the public to address the commission directly at its third and possibly final public listening session. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Gregg/Klice Community Center, 1600 E. 17th Terr.
The following day, Tuesday, May 16, the commission will meet at 5 p.m. on the 10th floor of City Hall.
And drafts of language changes being considered are posted on the commission’s page with the city. Portions typed in red show what is being considered, how the commission is currently leaning.
Public comments can also be entered online from that site.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Morgan Said, deputy chief of staff for the mayor, noted that city commissions have no budget. Extending the charter review schedule now, she said, would force those now serving to take on more work than what the mayor initially charged them with studying.
Said also assured the commissioners that the mayor’s office would do its best to try and increase outreach and communication about upcoming meetings.
Repeatedly, members of the commission return to a central theme.
Much of what the public is asking for aren’t specific functions of the charter but could possibly be influenced by it.
Increased civic engagement, a better-informed public in matters they will be asked to vote on and increasing voter turnout are all goals shared by both the commission and members of the public that have offered their views.
People have expressed disgust with the role of money in politics and a feeling that those who are well heeled have an edge over candidates more representative of average residents.
“We want to see a Kansas City that is well-engaged and well-informed,” Steadman said.
And yet, the commission can’t control which upcoming races might be most engaging for voters, nor does it control campaign financing. That is a role of the state, Steadman noted.
“It all goes back to voter education, which is not a charter issue,” commented commission member Eric Rose.
That led to a discussion about what could be done to work with local school districts, possibly educating young people on their right to vote and other civic involvement.
“We have to go after these younger voters,” said Linda Brown, a member of the commission, lamenting a shift away from civics instruction.
Increasing voter participation also aligns with the commission’s discussions around what thresholds should be in place for initiatives, referendums and recalls. Formulas for each are based on voting turnout.
For instance, the commission is considering 5% for initiatives, 10% for referendums and 25% for recalls.
Suggestions to improve the commission’s process for citizens included live interpretation for Spanish speakers and supplying drafts of the charter language being considered in Spanish. Other ideas include providing child care and scheduling public comment sessions on weekends or other alternatives to weekday evenings. Suggestions were also made to hold a comment session in each council district and make public service announcements to let people know about the process.
But repeatedly, the idea that there is not enough communication with the public kept being raised.
“It doesn’t feel like there has been adequate time for public comments,” said Michael Wolfe, who attended Monday’s listening session, which drew more than 50 residents.
Wolfe had learned about that session a few days prior, through an Instagram post of KC Tenants.
Lucas has proposed that the commission consider shifting the city’s election calendar from April and June to August and November. That is when county, state and federal elections are held in even-numbered years.
The commission is leaning away from making that recommendation, largely because commissioners are not convinced the change would increase voter turnout or save the city money.
Tammy Queen, the city’s finance director, noted that changes to when new council members are seated would shorten the time that they’d have to become acclimated to city processes before the budget would need to be approved by late March.
“Anytime a new council is seated, there is a lot of education that needs to happen,” Queen said.
In addition, the costs of an election are less in April and June, in part because some costs are shared with school districts in April, which have their board races on the ballot. Each election costs about $500,000.
August and November elections cost the city about $650,000 per election, Queen said, citing more staffing and polling stations.
“The longer the ballot, the costs go up,” she said.
Stephenie K. Smith, who chaired the last redistricting commission for the city in 2021, testified about the need for a deep dive into the future configuration of council seats, given the city’s growth.
“Kansas City is growing at a rapid rate,” she said.
As the city gains residents, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain an equal balance of residents per district while ensuring adequate representation for all.
In short, the pressure will increase to draw “simple shapes” for council district boundaries, to keep neighborhoods intact and cause minimal change, Smith said.
The last redistricting, for example, switched the way the Northland was divided from a vertical to a horizontal line.
A thorough study could take as much as a year to complete, Smith said. She urged the commission to make that recommendation to the city.
“But we know that we have a 10-year span,” she said, ahead of the next Census figures.
“It is the charter that the redistricting commission is honoring,” she said. “Who benefits and who is burdened by changes. You have to make room for that discourse.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.