By Tyler Schneider
On Sept. 8, nine individuals appointed by Mayor Quinton Lucas took on the monumental quest of redrawing Kansas City’s six city council districts based on the most recent census data. These boundaries will hold a significant influence over the next decade of municipal politics.
Under normal circumstances, census information would have been available in March, giving the Redistricting Commission nine months to deliberate. The pandemic had other ideas, however, and the release was delayed through Aug. 12.
Now, the commission is in what at-large member Reid Day of the Sixth District has described as “a high speed chase,” as the ‘nonpartisan’ body will need to submit a proposal to the city council by Dec. 1. The city council would then be required to successfully vote on the new boundaries by the end of 2021.
These parameters cannot be changed, legally, due to Kansas City Charter Section 203(b), which requires the City Council to “draw new districts, based upon the last official federal census, not later than the last day of December of the year of the publication of the official federal census.”
With that understood, there are a lot of considerations to be made in a small time frame, and the process will inevitably come out rushed and imperfect—though true perfection of legislative districts in itself is an unattainable goal in any era.
First, the board will have to address the consistent hum of the ever-growing Kansas City populus. Now at roughly 580,100 residents (a 10.5 percent increase from 2010), each of the six new district boundaries must accommodate around 84,682 people—with no more than a ten percent variance between district zones.
The board—made up of chair Stephenie Smith, Pedro Zamora, Day, Mike Kellam, Martin Rucker, Clinton Adams Jr., Vicki Noteis, Dr. Cokethea Hill, and Chris Lewellan—has met publicly in city hall every Wednesday since that first meeting, also hosting a trio of region-specific meetings to hear public input on the matters important to specific districts and groups who fall within multiple.
The Southland held its meeting on Oct. 6, to be followed by an Oct. 11 South Kansas City Alliance ZOOM session. Both events provided opportunities for citizens to ask questions and comment on the process—one that Smith stressed multiple times is “not finalized, with nothing yet set in stone.”
“We’re here to demystify the process,” Smith said. “This is a very condensed timeline. You all showed up, and we are here to listen.”
One such concern for the Southland is the placement of the Hickman-Mills School District, as voiced by school board president Byron Townsend in that same Oct. 6 meeting.
“It lacks common sense to continue to divide school districts. For the last ten years, Hickman-Mills has been represented by two different council-people. This hinders our natural ability to reach our councilwoman,” Townsend said.
Of the eight possible scenario maps, Townsend would like to see Scenario 6 implemented, as it would place the vast majority of Hickman-Mills within District 5. If not 6, he added that Scenarios 4, 7, and 8 would be preferable to the rest, as they would all keep 95 percent of the school district within the same municipal district.
Other considerations for South KC citizens include the vast stretch of the future District 6 border, which spans from the upper-fringes of Cass County up through Martin City to lower Westport and the Plaza. Another concern is the division created by 71 Hwy in Districts 5 and 6.
Finally, as the Northland continues to grow at an unbalanced rate when compared to other regions of the city, Districts 1 and 2 are disproportionately gaining population.
The South Kansas City Alliance meeting revealed several more important distinctions and clarifications on the commission’s goals.
“Any time we even touch a little part of the map, it’s like a domino effect, and we don’t get that feedback immediately. As we make those requests to the staff, it may throw off historical districts, or minimize the consistency of the vote,” Dr. Hill said.
“We don’t get instant feedback, it takes about a week for the city to go back through their database and reconsider the maps. Then they come back to us,” Lellewen, owner of The Well and other Sixth District businesses said. “You have 100 different ideas, we don’t get feedback on all of them. We’ve only got a certain number of guesses as we try to get all of this done fast.”
The coming weeks will force compromise between all of these competing interests—a task which, again, will be made even more difficult by the necessity of spreading the population out rather evenly at or around 84,000 people in each.
The commission has specified six factors to consider when making their final decision: social aspects, election boundaries, tract boundaries, neighborhood boundaries, and simple shapes.
While these goals don’t explicitly state racial makeup of the districts as a focus, representation for minority groups will be of particular concern for South Kansas City.
“We need to make sure we address voting inequality, primarily in the Third and Fifth District. We also want to look at membership in language minority groups—what this could mean for some in the Latino population who don’t have somebody that looks like them to represent them,” Dr. Hill said.
The Redistricting Commission will hold its next public meeting Wednesday, October 13 live on YouTube.