All the hubbub over the drawing of new lines for the six city council districts in Kansas City culminated last Thursday in a debate that I couldn’t tear myself away from.
I wasn’t there, but I watched a rerun of the legislative meeting on Channel 2, the Kansas City government channel. I’m an old government junkie, you know, having covered the Jackson County Courthouse for seven years (’71 to ’78) and City Hall for 10 (’85 to ’95).
The debate wasn’t compelling because it was heated; it really wasn’t. It was because council members spoke fervently and eloquently about their reasons for wanting to either keep the lines that a citizens advisory committee had drawn up or make minor alterations.
The Star’s Lynn Horsley covered the redistricting debate, but, because of space limitations, she wasn’t able to get much of James’ speech in the paper. Before I lay out for you what James said, let’s back up…
In the final days of the redistricting discussion, the biggest issue was whether the former Bannister Mall area should be in the 5th District, where the citizens advisory committee had moved it, or whether it should revert to the 6th District, where it has been all along.
That was one of several significant boundary changes that the advisory committee made as it attempted to equalize population, district to district, based on the 2010 U.S. Census.
Councilman John Sharp, who does his homework and almost always makes a reasoned case for what he favors or opposes, led the charge to bring the Bannister Mall area back into his 6th District. He spoke at length in favor of an amendment that would return the site to his district.
He said that 6th District residents, having suffered through the demise of the mall, had earned the right to see the area redeveloped, if and when a good plan comes along. Then, 6th District residents could take pride in that area once again.
After Sharp and a few other council members had spoken, it was clear that he didn’t have the votes to get the mall moved back to his district, but Sharp has always been good at making a strong case in the face of overwhelming opposition.
After everyone else had had their say, James exercised his right to have the last word, and he was impressive.
Following is his speech, edited for length…
“You know, the real problem here is twofold. No. 1, we wouldn’t even have to be going through this nonsense if we weren’t a segregated city. The Voting Rights Act wouldn’t apply. But none of us are talking about that. This concept that somehow changing a line on a map disenfranchises you from going somewhere, doing something, or (changes) who you are the day before is, in my opinion, total and utter nonsense.
“We have too many people sitting here saying, “My this, my project, my district, my line, my house.”
“Let me say this: This is my city. Everything in it is my city. So I guess I’ll just ask all of my colleagues: Do you love your council district more or your city more? Because if you love your city more, we’ll put this nonsense to bed, stop worrying about all these lines that we’re using to divide us, and we’ll move on.
“Nobody’s life will change because their district lines change. I would be willing to bet you that you can walk into any district in this city and ask the first 50 people you see what district they’re in and 40 of them won’t have a clue…and won’t care.
“This is the reason that we are still struggling to do the things in this city that need to be done…Because we systematically play one district against the other so that nobody gets what they need. We’re talking about 500 people here (moving them from one district to another). If it’s that big of a nothing, then why worry about it? If it doesn’t really change that much, then what’s the big deal about not doing it?
“Why are we spending so much time talking about two parcels of land…Geez, people. The only thing that matters is this city. That is the only thing, and until we start acting like that, we will continue to have these fights and arguments over pieces of property hither, thither and yon.
“I don’t understand it. This has gotten totally off track, totally out of whack…It is time for us to change our attitude and start believing in the entirety of this city. Each and every one of us took an oath to the city, not to our council district…
“If there’s no other discussion, will the clerk please call the roll?”
The clerk did not announce the vote after the roll call, but from what I could hear, it sounded like only Sharp and Councilman Ed Ford voted for the amendment and everyone else voted “No.”
The council then took up the redistricting ordinance itself, and Sharp cast the only “no” vote.