GEORGE KENNEDY: First Ward remains hurdle in reapportionment debate

Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 5:58 p.m. CDT

Much as I enjoy a good mud-wrestling match, I passed up the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night in favor of a more substantive discussion. I listened instead as about a dozen concerned citizens addressed our Ward Reapportionment Committee.

I came away reminded of two important points. First, as committee member Colleen Coble felt compelled to insert into the testimony, the City Council and not the committee has what she termed the “ultimate authority” to decide on the configuration of our representation. And second, one should never ask John Clark what he thinks about a public issue unless one is prepared to listen for an extended period.

John, for those who’ve never had the pleasure of his acquaintance, is a large, shambling fellow, both a lawyer and a CPA, whose passion is civic betterment. You might even say, as another local politician once said to me of Karl Skala, that John is civically obsessed. He has led the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association; he has run for mayor; his presence is a constant at sessions like Wednesday’s.

I approached him after the public hearing ended because I don’t know anyone more thoughtful or better informed on the topic of local governance. He is also often entertainingly contrarian. But, boy, does he love to talk.

He urged the committee to send forward to the Council at least three of the five versions of reapportionment that were before the body. Not surprisingly, his favorite (termed Trial F) is the one most speakers and several committee members have found unacceptable. He abhors the version (Trial E) that most of the speakers and several committee members favor.

At the center of discussion, and the center of the city, is the First Ward, which encompasses downtown, part of the MU campus and much of the city’s poorest section, between Broadway and the Business Loop 70. The major issue is how best to expand the ward, both to bring its population closer to the average of about 18,000 and to increase its clout on the Council.

Of the versions that drew comment Wednesday, Trial B would extend the central city ward to the north and east. That draws objections from neighborhood association leaders who don’t see a comfortable fit with the existing First Ward.

Trial D would shift boundaries northeast and southwest, taking in progressive and activist voters from the Third and Fourth wards. Its critics smell a Republican or at least a Chamber of Commerce plot to tilt the balance of power on the Council rightward.

Trial E (similar to a version drafted by a citizens’ group but not formally under consideration) simply extends the First Ward west to take in the apartment complexes near the Columbia Mall.

By contrast with all the others, Trial F breaks with recent tradition and creates two wards that split the central city, leaving four more suburban wards, one of which wanders narrowly across the southern city limit.

John argues that the current state of the First Ward — the residential section, not the downtown merchants — demonstrates the failure of the prevailing philosophy of the past 40 years. That is the notion that every Council member has the well-being of the central city at heart. If they really did, he insists, infrastructure and code enforcement would be better. Renovation would have had a higher priority than outward sprawl.

That critique has a lot of merit, it seems to me, though we’ve seen money spent and improvements made during the recently ended reigns of Mayor Darwin Hindman and City Manager Bill Watkins.

What’s not so persuasive is the argument that having two Council members with central city constituents would be a solution, when both of those wards would reach beyond current First Ward lines and into more affluent neighborhoods with more active voters.

After I bade farewell to John, I encountered a couple of other analytical activists who put the evening into perspective. No matter what the committee recommends, they speculate, the decision will come down to an evenly divided, progressive versus conservative, Council. So the opinion that counts the most will be that of our councilman at large, Mayor Bob McDavid.

The committee will make its recommendation Monday. Then we’ll await the real ultimate authority, His Honor the mayor.

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