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Your Guide To The Kansas City Charter Review

Kansas City is known as a “weak mayor” town. That’s no slight on Mayor Sly James, it’s the way the city charter sets up our government, where the mayor is a glorified city council member, and the city manager really runs the town. It's also called a council-manager system.

Since June, citizens in the Charter Review Commission have been meeting to make recommendations to revise the city charter. Two major issues are the role of the mayor and the composition of the city council. Jered Carr, a UMKC professor and director of the Cookingham Institute of Public Affairs, has provided input on these subjects to the council.

Here are some of the pieces at play for the Kansas City Charter Review Commission, with some analysis from Carr:

Two Distinct City Government Systems — The Kansas City government is set up as a council-manager system, but most large cities are mayor-council. In the council-manager system, the mayor is part of the city council. This is designed for more consensual decision-making. Here, the city manager holds the executive power and is usually held accountable for government decisions.

On the other hand, the mayor-council structure is based on the design of the federal government. In this case, the mayor heads the executive branch and the council is a separate legislative branch. The executive powers are in the hands of the mayor, who is held responsible for decisions and city operations.

Administratively, the two systems operate very differently. The mayor-council system is linked with political decision-making, whereas in the council-manager system, decisions are seen as administrative, Carr says.

Strong Mayor, Weak Mayor — A strong mayor refers to a mayor-council system. A weak mayor to a council-manager system. However, these designations are fairly polarized — there is a lot of institutional variety within the two systems. Nationwide, there is a strong movement towards the middle where each system adopts aspects of the other.

Even though Kansas City is a council-manager or "weak mayor" system, the mayor is still directly elected. The mayor also has veto power and other powers typically characteristic of mayor-council system. If Kansas City shifts to a mayor-council system, according to Jered Carr, you can predict more conflict, as well as faster, more decisive decision-making.  New programs and projects would take off faster.

In most large cities, citizens tend to prefer a single political leader (the mayor), and want to make the mayor's position stronger if a council-manager structure is in place.

Potential City Council Changes — Right now, Kansas City has six districts with two council members each: one who is elected just by that district (in-district); and another who lives in that district, but is elected city-wide (at-large). The idea of at-large council members is that they provide the city-wide perspective, while the in-district members provide a neighborhood perspective. 

According to Carr, a lot of cities have mixed systems with a combination of local and at-large council members, but most cities don't divide representation equally as Kansas City does. It's common to have 80 percent of seats devoted to district council members.

Some Latino and African-American leaders say the council should have fewer at-large council seats because at-large elections dilute the power of black or Latino neighborhoods to pick their own representatives. According to Carr, candidates who might not have the resources or connections to win city-wide can suddenly become more viable. At the very minimum, you change who can win if you create more districts.

Kansas City already changed district boundaries two years ago.  But some people suggest the council should have more, smaller districts so that more specific neighborhoods can be represented.

On the other hand, fewer councilmatic districts could mean more people with a city-wide perspective, and more people with experience. It’s harder to win city-wide without some kind of name visibility, so you typically need more money to run.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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