Ward reapportionment history repeats itself in Columbia

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | 5:20 p.m. CDT; updated 8:16 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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As the Columbia Ward Reapportionment Committee is redrawing the wards to reflect population changes from the 2010 census, reporter Alex Wood revisits reapportionments over the past five decades.

COLUMBIA — Although the Columbia Ward Reapportionment Committee got started on the process of redrawing ward lines earlier than ever before, its deadline is rapidly approaching.

There is very little consensus.

The committee is responsible for redrawing the ward lines to balance the populations of the wards based on 2010 census results. The committee has until Sept. 15 to recommend a plan to City Council.

Since the first reapportionment in 1971, Columbia residents have debated what ward configuration is best for the city, and many of the arguments haven’t changed.

The primary issues the reapportionment committee must consider are:

  • The shape of the wards: While a “slice of pie” approach gives every ward a section of downtown, the city favored the creation of a central-city ward more attuned to downtown issues.
  • The precincts in each ward: While combining areas with similar interests in one ward helps its representative better understand the ward’s concerns, diversity within wards could increase votes for issues shared by multiple wards.
  • The representation of the black population: Throughout its history, Columbia’s reapportionment committees have looked to consolidate areas with high numbers of black residents to increase representation.
  • Political clout of the First Ward: With low voter turnout and issues dissimilar to those of other wards, the First Ward’s increasingly large portion of the downtown, central-city area may struggle to win majority votes in council.

1971 and 1981: First attempts at balancing population

In 1973, Columbia went from having four  wards to six. The wards were created in what is often referred to as a “slice of pie” or “hub and spoke” approach in that each ward radiated from the center of the city, giving every ward a piece of the downtown area.

Longtime Columbia resident and civic activist John Clark, who was involved in the last two reapportionment processes, called the pie slice approach “an unmitigated disaster.”

"We have 40 years of evidence that it didn't work," he said.

That's because it placed an “emphasis on expansion on the periphery" as opposed to the "issues of your core central city." 

When new ward boundaries were implemented in 1983, the "slice of pie" approach remained, but new concerns emerged.

According to a Missourian article published on June 6, 1981, consolidating areas with the highest black populations was the primary topic of consideration for the committee.

The solution was minor shifting of wards to place 42 percent of the city’s black population in the First Ward and 22 percent in the Second Ward. 

“We’d rather have one councilman that’s representing the majority of the black community,” then-Second Ward Commissioner Sarah Belle Jackson said in the 1981 Missourian article. “When you add more (white) people to the ward, it automatically dilutes the black vote.”

A decade later, the concern of minority representation only increased, leading to the biggest shift in the history of reapportionment in Columbia.

1991: Creating a central-city ward

Columbia wards were drastically redesigned to create a central-city ward. The central ward’s purpose was to keep residents with common interests in one ward with the hopes of the eventual election of a council candidate “more attuned” to the needs and personality of neighborhoods of the inner-city.  It was also supposed to give minorities a stronger voice, according to a Columbia Daily Tribune article from Nov. 5, 1991.

African American representation was a focus for the committee, especially in regard to increasing voter participation, according to a Tribune article from July 16, 1991.

This remains a key issue in the current reapportionment process, with the recent addition of committee member Wiley Miller in response to a complaint that the committee lacked diversity.

Miller said one of the 2011 committee's priorities is "the preservation and perhaps the enhancement of the original intent of the First Ward."

"That intent is to enhance the prospects that a person of color could be, would be elected to council,"  he said.

With the First Ward lagging in population growth and covering an increasingly larger area of the central city — though it is known for its low voter turnout — many fear the ward is losing its political clout as well as its diversity.

"What I think we have to be aware of is we don't want to do anything that would diminish the desirability and the appeal of the image, the strength and presence of the First Ward. And we want to do something to enhance it if we possibly can," Miller said. 

Bob Pugh, the chairman of the committee, said he feels the designation of a central-city ward in 1991 didn't affect downtown representation.

"Downtown Columbia has always been a part of everyone in Columbia. It's always gotten a lot of attention," he said. "It had its problems back then. It has its problems now."

“The biggest problem is once you create a central-city ward, it’s landlocked,” said reapportionment committee member Terry Smith, who cited effective representation for the central city as a main priority for the 2011 committee.

Miller said he thinks that balancing the population is "by far the largest issue." 

"As we reapportion, and do so in a way that nearly equalizes population in each ward, we will also reapportion in a way that protects the original intent of the First Ward," he said.

2001: Increasing diversity within wards and inner-city representation

Creating a central-city ward in 1991 left the reapportionment committee with a problem that still exists today: The First Ward’s population growth is significantly slower than the rest.

The committee’s solution, which split members on a 4-3 vote, was to include more of MU, the area south of Broadway, in the First Ward.

The section was added because it was “likely to be less affluent and more akin to the demographics” of the First Ward, according to a Tribune editorial written by Henry J. Waters III on Oct. 18, 2001.

The alternative, adding a section of the Fourth Ward to the southwest corner of the First Ward, was struck down for fear that the politically active Fourth Ward voters would drown out the voices of inner-city residents. This alternative plan re-emerged in the 2011 reapportionment meetings as Trial D.

Smith, then-Second Ward representative, “said the committee’s most important recommendation was that the council appoint another group to explore the addition of new wards,” according to a Tribune article published Oct 16, 2001.

Although the possibility of adding more wards hasn’t emerged in the 2011 reapportionment process, some feel it’s a viable way to increase downtown representation.

Clark thinks more wards would increase political clout for the central-city area and improve representation for all residents.

“You can’t do it well with six wards, and you can’t do it well because 16,000 people is too many,” he said, adding that the city needs at least eight wards because of its increased population.

However, increasing the number of wards requires an amendment to the city charter, which only the council can change with the approval of voters.

Pugh agreed that it wasn't the committee's duty. "We're not asked to deal with that, and we won't deal with that," he said.

“It just muddies the water," Smith said. 

2011: Possible solutions

The reapportionment committee has brought three proposed maps to the public and is working on at least two more.

The proposals:

Trial A: Expands the First Ward east to include the Benton-Stephens neighborhood and west to include apartment complexes beyond Stadium Boulevard. This map takes territory away from the Third and Second wards. The committee recommended this trial initially but seems to have abandoned it following a public hearing.

Trial B: Expands the First Ward north along Range Line Street, adding a portion of the second ward to its boundaries. Benton-Stephens Neighborhood Association promotes this plan as does committee member Miller.

Trial D: Expands the First Ward south, west of Broadway down to Stewart Road. This map is based on Trial 5 from 2001 and was presented by Rob Monsees. Committee member Eugene Gerke also supports this map.

Coble's New Plan: First Ward committee representative Colleen Coble proposed at a recent meeting that adding the East Campus area to the First Ward would allow the ward to increase in population and political clout without annexing Benton-Stephens from the Third Ward. 

Smith's New Plan: Calling it a "conceptual bomb" at a recent meeting, Smith proposed the creation of two central-city wards divided vertically at Eighth Street. Although the plans are yet to be completed, Smith is enthusiastic about the idea. "It would increase the clout of the central city and makes its issues more visible," he said. 

Each proposed trial must move precincts into the First Ward from surrounding wards. The committee has to carefully consider which precincts the trials move in order to ensure equal representation for residents and political balance across wards.

At a recent meeting, committee member Michelle Gadbois made clear that she felt the areas included in each ward had an impact worth considering.

She warned that "grouping the precincts that traditionally vote Democratic” into the First Ward would be “determining the political makeup of the council for the next 10 years.”

Pugh said he thinks reactions to the reapportionment process have been amplified with the emergence of neighborhood associations.

"Some of the active groups have become more of a voice in this," he said. Before 2001, he said, there were fewer voices raised in response to the various plans.

Neighborhood associations such as Benton-Stephens that are directly affected by the proposed maps spoke out against their potential annexation at a recent public hearing, but Coble feels such feedback is inevitable.

"Every trial that has been brought forward has had some negative response from those who are subject to their changes," she said.

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Mike Martin August 11, 2011 | 8:49 a.m.

Bob Pugh is only telling part of the story when he says that "the emergence of neighborhood associations has amplified reactions to the reapportionment process."

Not exactly. The emergence of questionable reapportionment plans has amplified reactions. People are actually paying attention, which I think has surprised some folks.

Here's some important additional present-day context.

4TH WARD NEIGHBORHOOD GROUPS: Speak against Ward reapportionment plan

Is former Matt Blunt chief removing progressive votes from Columbia Wards?

WARD GERRYMANDER? Reapportionment committee member disputes former Blunt chief plan

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 22, 2011 | 2:55 p.m.

Plan 9 from Outer Space works for me.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 22, 2011 | 6:31 p.m.

Latest news on the reapportionment issue (with pix):

New Ward Plans E and F introduced

Citizens draw their own plan -- and it looks good!

Committee member Gadbois reiterates gerrymandering concerns

(Report Comment)

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