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How to slice the Northland? Kansas City considers a ‘radical change’ for redrawn council maps

Traffic moves along Barry Road near I-29 recently in the Northland.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Proposed redistricting in the Northland is causing friction over whether to use a vertical split, as in the past, or go to a horizontal split, which would be a major change.

Some working-class residents say a horizontal boundary between Northland Council districts — a radical change — would give them greater voice and political clout. Northland civic leaders argue it would be divisive and negative, and would actually reduce funding for low-income neighborhoods.

Kansas City is currently undergoing a significant redrawing of its six city council districts, based on the 2020 Census. Major boundary changes are guaranteed by the end of this year, affecting everything from political power dynamics to how infrastructure tax dollars get spent throughout the city.

Some of the fiercest arguments have been about proposed Northland changes. Some residents want to split the area of Kansas City north of the Missouri river horizontally — a huge change from the vertical split between Districts 1 and 2 in place since 1991.

Redistricting is required because Kansas City has grown by nearly 50,000 people since 2011. Current council districts have widely differing populations, violating the one-person-one-vote rule which ensures each district has equal representation on the city council.

A changing Northland

Civic leaders want minimal changes to the vertical Northland split, but some working-class residents say they would have more political access to council representatives with a horizontal boundary. A horizontal line would create one district representing older, lower socio-economic Northland neighborhoods like those near the old Antioch Mall and another district for the fast-growing northern sector, generally north of Zona Rosa and Barry Road.

Beth Breitenstein
City of Kansas City, Missouri
These draft maps, presented by the redistricting commission in November, illustrate two different ways to divide the Northland. Commissioners are still finalizing the maps they'll send to the city council for final approval.

Those differing views were on stark display at recent listening sessions, as the Kansas City Redistricting Commission, a citizens’ advisory group, weighs the boundary map it will recommend to the City Council in December.

“When I look at the Northland council members I don’t see people that represent or care about those of us who struggle with living and raising kids in the Northland,” longtime resident Leslie Vaughn told the Commission on Nov. 8. She said her daughters attended Park Hill schools, but she lost her job due to COVID and has struggled to find affordable housing. “Horizontal districts would create a district that would represent poor people in the Northland,” she said.

Maya Neal, a leader with the KC Tenants advocacy group, told the commission she’s lived in the 1st District since 2004. She has watched southern Clay County neighborhoods decline while growth flourishes farther north. She said the four Northland Council members (two each in Districts 1 and 2) all live in more prosperous areas near or north of Barry Road.

“You need to make sure poor and working class voices are heard and represented,” Neal said. “I demand you redistrict the Northland horizontally to account for economic status. The way that the maps are drawn now do not serve the poor, multi-racial and working class.”

But at a Nov. 6 hearing, Aaron Schmidt, president of the Platte Brooke North Homeowners Association in District 2, said separating Districts 1 and 2 based on socio-economic status would hurt Northland solidarity, collaboration and progress.

“To divide the Northland like this is a very big problem,” he argued. “It almost seems like it’s on purpose. I think we as a Northland work together very well. But you put us into two different groups, it’s very divisive.”

At the Nov. 8 hearing, former Councilman Ed Ford said a horizontal division encompassing Platte and Clay counties near Barry Road would put all the growth in the northern district, violating the redistricting goal of creating districts with equal population.

“If you do the horizontal, you’re going to so violate the one-person-one-vote because this is the largest growth area of the city,” he said, predicting that in future council elections, District 1 would have thousands more people than any other district. “To me, it’s just shocking that you would try and pull this radical change that was rejected over the last 30 years.”

Under one redistricting proposal, fast-growing parts of the Northland, like Staley Farms, could be in one district while older, less affluent neighborhoods would be in a different district. Some people support that change while others say it would be negative for the Northland.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Under one redistricting proposal, fast-growing parts of the Northland, like Staley Farms, could be in one district while older, less affluent neighborhoods would be in a different district. Some people support that change while others say it would be negative for the Northland.

Political implications for the Northland

For years, the four Northland council members have tended to collaborate on infrastructure and development projects, giving the Northland a solid voice on the 13-member council.

Ford told KCUR he thinks the proposed horizontal boundary is an attempt to “screw the Northland” and dilute Northland Council members’ political influence.

Redistricting Commission members are sharply divided over the horizontal split approach.

Some Commission members have suggested that the Missouri River is a big barrier to city unity. Drawing a horizontal boundary between Districts 1 and 2, they say, could help erase the river as an artificial dividing line, reducing political friction between council districts north and south of the river.

Redistricting Commission Chair Stephenie Smith, longtime 1st District resident, said she was persuaded by Northland residents who feel marginalized or unheard. She said she doesn’t believe a horizontal boundary hurts established groups that traditionally have had the power.

“The only evidence I can see is about a power dynamic, and wanting to maintain power and not allow others to build and grow power, and I have a problem with that, as a Northlander,” she said.

But Commissioner Martin Rucker, who lives in District 2, said there’s considerable public comment and support for the vertical map and it’s not a power grab.

“I don’t want Northland North to work against Northland South and Northland South to work against Northland North,” Rucker said, adding that he wants boundaries that promote socio-economic diversity “for the greater good of the entire Northland.”

Northland Chamber President Jenny Johnston said in an interview with KCUR that the current vertical boundaries actually benefit older neighborhoods in the Northland’s southern sector. That’s because District 1 and 2 council members often pool their public improvement tax dollars, about $4 million per district, to fix crumbling infrastructure in the needier southern sector. A horizontal split, she said, would re-direct half that money to the northern sector, leaving less money for the southern part.

While some Northland residents say they don’t feel heard, District 2 Councilman Dan Fowler said the Northland council members currently work hard to represent all their constituents.

A large crack runs through a Northland sidewalk where infrastructure concerns have become part of the redistricting conversation.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A large crack runs through a Northland sidewalk where infrastructure concerns have become part of the redistricting conversation.

The Country Club Plaza moves to the 6th district

When Kansas City redistricted in 2011, the city had about 460,000 residents, so the six Council districts were drawn to each have 76,500 people.

But the city’s population is now 508,090, with growth occurring unevenly. Districts 1 and 2 in the Northland and District 4 (representing Briarcliff, downtown and Midtown) each have about 90,000 residents while Districts 3, 5 and 6 in the city’s urban core and southern sector each have fewer than 80,000.

The Redistricting Commission must recommend new districts that each have about 85,000. Under the Voting Rights Act, they also must protect African American voting blocs in the 3rd and 5th districts. They are trying to give Latinos a greater chance to elect a Latino representative.

“We’ve gone through too many generations without Latino representation on the Council,” Commission member Clinton Adams told his colleagues at a September meeting.

To consolidate more Latino neighborhoods, the 4th District boundaries may change to include both the West Side and old Northeast, as well as a bigger Northland chunk to the Gladstone city limits. That means District 4’s southern boundary at 59th Street could move close to 43rd Street, pushing the Country Club Plaza and much of the southwest corridor into the 6th District. Fourth District Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who lives near the Plaza, would be in the 6th District.

Vicki Noteis, a former Kansas City Planning Director and 4th District Commission representative, has noted that the 4th District is changing overwhelmingly, with nearly 20,000 residents south of 43rd moved into District 6, which would stretch south to 155th Street. Every district is facing change and compromise, but Noteis worried about splitting key Midtown neighborhoods between the 4th and 6th Districts.

The commission will finalize proposed maps this month, and is expected to present its recommendation to a Council committee the week of Dec. 6. The Full City Council must approve a final map by the end of December.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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