By Seann McAnally
The City Council of Kansas City on Dec. 8 voted 11-1 to approve a redistricting map that makes significant changes to city council districts, particularly in the 4th and 6th districts.
The meeting was contentious, resulting in a shouting match between Mayor Sly James and Councilman John Sharp as James lectured Sharp for his repeated attempts to introduce changes that would keep some key institutions such as Bannister Mall and the KCPD South Patrol in the 6th District.
Sharp, who voted against the ordinance, attempted to introduce a small change as an amendment that would keep those areas in the 6th District, but was roundly voted down by his colleagues.
Sharp complained that the council had not listened to anyone from the 4th or 6th districts who opposed the redistricting. That comment clearly offended several council members.
“This is silly,” said Councilwoman Cindy Circo. “It’s really silly that this conversation is happening. Just because we did not change the map doesn’t mean we didn’t listen to your concerns.”
James accused Sharp of being too concerned with a “personal victory,” and called his arguments “total and utter nonsense.”
“Nobody’s life will change because their district changed,” James said.
Councilman Scott Wagner, who one day before had offered to make an amendment that would keep Bannister Mall in the 6th District, changed his mind at the last minute. He blamed the people of the 6th District, who wrote emails to the Council, of having the wrong attitude.
“After looking at these emails from the 6th District, I see this was not about protecting neighborhoods. It’s about personalities, and who wins,” he said.
Councilwoman Jan Marcason, of the 4th District, said she did not believe the groundswell of opposition to the redistricting map in the 6th District was legitimate, and that Sharp had “encouraged” people to get upset about it.
Sharp denied that, saying he was only trying to make sure that the people of the 6th District felt they had been listened to. He said the original redistricting map had never been revised, despite hundreds of people showing up to public hearings to oppose it.
But that argument didn’t please the mayor.
“Jeez, people,” an exasperated James said. “The only thing that matters is this city. Some people care more about their districts than they do the whole city. I disagree with you, Councilman Sharp – we did listen. It’s like my kids, they always told me to listen to their side of the argument, and I did, but that didn’t mean I agreed with them.”
Councilman Michael Brooks said he believed Sharp and others in the 6th District were simply upset at accusations of racism leveled against them by Clinton Adams during a Nov. 30 public hearing.
“This isn’t about how the public hearing went, or whether I agree with what Clinton Adams said. It’s not about someone saying they had a victory,” Brooks said.
At a Dec. 7 joint meeting of the Planning & Zoning and Neighborhoods & Healthy Communities committees, members voted unanimously to recommend the council approve redistricting Map 1, which was the choice of a citizen-led advisory committee.
Essentially, the map brings districts 1 and 2 entirely north of the river and makes sweeping changes to the current boundaries of districts 4 and 6 - changes that residents of those districts say will do harm to their communities by moving key institutions into the 5th District and adding traditionally affluent Brookside neighborhoods to the 6th, changing its economic status and making it more difficult for candidates to be elected from the more working-class neighborhoods in the southeast part of the 6th District.
Wagner, who represents the 1st District, had offered a last-minute compromise that would keep the Bannister Mall redevelopment area and the new KCPD South Patrol headquarters in the 6th District while making only negligible population changes to Map 1.
A revised “Community Map” drawn up by residents of the 6th District was not passed on for recommendation by the joint committee or a citizen’s advisory committee that held five public hearings on the issue. The advisory committee had recommended Map 1 with a 6-1 vote.
James said the Community Map may solve perceived problems in one area but created them in others. James also called for civility during the discussions, hoping to avoid the rancor and out-of-turn yelling that marred a previous joint committee meeting on Nov. 30. At that meeting attorney Clinton Adams charged opponents of Map 1 with racism, while several opponents of Map 1 yelled and interrupted during his comments.
"The discourse in this room will always be civil," James said. "There will be no outbursts. We're not going to squelch free speech...but we can disagree without being disagreeable. Please respect each other, respect our city, and respect our process."
James, who formally endorsed Map 1 in a Dec. 6 press release, attempted to forestall further discussion of the matter. He said no matter what the result, someone would be upset by it.
"The concerns people have raised are legitimate, but this city has redistricted a number of times and everyone has managed to survive," James said. "No matter what happens, the redistricting process will upset someone for some reason...we could talk about this for another year, and someone will still be upset by it. What we cannot do is create a map to create a whack-a-mole type of situation where you whack down one problem and it creates another problem somewhere else. Be interested in the whole city, as opposed to your block."
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver sent a letter that was read by one of his staffers. In it, he attempted to distance himself from his protege, Clinton Adams, who accused residents of the 4th and 6th district of racism during the Nov. 30 meeting. Cleaver’s letter stated, "Councilman John Sharp is the last person who would attempt to deny the voting rights of minorities." Sharp has been a vehement opponent of Map 1, saying it would "fracture and destroy the 6th District."
Cleaver said he had "no political investment" in any map, but said Map 1 helps heal the traditional rift between the city's African-American and Latino populations. He called Map 1 "fair and politically workable."
Councilman Scott Taylor, 6th District At-Large, said he supported Map 1 even though he "wasn't crazy about" it.
"We've heard from all parts of the city, and many people like Map 1. I don't like the total outcome here, but I see no other option at this point," Taylor said.
Councilman John Sharp, suggested some last-minute "tweaks" to the map, offering two new versions that would keep the Bannister Mall area, the Cerner office complex, and the KCPD South Patrol headquarters in the 6th District, while maintaining a super-majority (more than 60 percent) of ethnic minority votes in the 3rd and 5th districts, but the consensus of the committee was that Wagner's compromise motion was more workable.
Sharp expressed concern that the Hickman Mills School District would be split by Map 1, but Taylor dismissed those concerns.
"I just want to say, there are over a dozen school districts in this city, and many are split by council districts," Taylor said. He even suggested it would strengthen the Hickman Mills district's representation on the council, saying he is a former member of the Center School District board. That district is split between two council districts, he said, and recalled that as being a strength, not a weakness.
Circo, of the 5th District, said she was "insulted" that some residents of the 6th District have stated they felt they would not be well-represented if they were in the 5th.
"I'm excited for a new challenge and I'm ready to serve whoever it is (in her district)," she said. "I was open to tweaks but I'm just not finding the answer, so I don't know what else there is to talk about."
After the redistricting map was approved, Circo told residents of the 6th District that she would work hard for them once they were moved to the 5th.