COLUMBIA — Louis Wilson occupies a rare place in Columbia. What makes him — and his neighbors — unusual is location, location, location.
Anecdotally, many people in Columbia don’t know which of the city’s six wards they live in. As communications director of the Historic West Broadway Association, however, Wilson knows his neighborhood is one of few in the city that straddle two wards, in his case the First and the Fourth.
Because each ward elects one representative to the Columbia City Council, Wilson and his neighbors have the benefit of being able to bend the ears of two council members.
“That may be a stupid type of political addition, but it seems to make sense,” Wilson said. He spoke as an individual citizen, not on behalf of his neighborhood association. “It’s nice to have access to two parties.”
The issues of access and representation are central to the debate over how to redraw the city's ward boundaries. Equalizing ward populations was the primary goal of ward reapportionment, but the committee charged with the task was also directed by the council to avoid splitting neighborhoods. Aside from neighborhoods, any number of constituencies can be concentrated in one ward or spread among them.
Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley prefers to keep constituencies together as a matter of efficiency. Dudley is one of the two council members Historic West Broadway can tap, along with First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt.
Dudley said his first official meeting as a council member was with Wilson’s group. He doesn’t feel it's a problem to work across ward boundaries in that case, but he likes keeping neighborhoods together.
“I believe 50 percent of a ward wanting the same thing is better than 10 percent of five wards wanting the same thing," Dudley said.
If you concentrate an interest group in one place, Mayor Bob McDavid said, you increase the likelihood that those people can elect someone from their group to the council.
This is widely regarded as a reason the current First Ward, which comprises most of the central city, was created in 1991. Whether that was an effort to boost representation for black residents or for downtown businesses and residents depends on whom you ask.
“But if you carve the wards to try to meet the interests of constituency groups, are you diluting their influence paradoxically?” McDavid asked.
He offered the city’s college population as an example. Concentrating student populations in one ward might result in a student being elected to the council, but that person would have only one of seven votes. But would students be better served if more council members were obliged to respond to them?
“I’m asking because there are two answers,” McDavid said. “And I don’t know which one is right.”
Central city, central question
To ensure equal representation among citizens, the population of all wards must be roughly equal. That's why Columbia’s ward maps have been redrawn about every decade since 1971, following the U.S. census.
Wilson described it as “a numbers game. ... You need so many heads in this ward to make it equal with all the others. Well, what group of heads do you push into it?”
This time around, the ward at the center of that question is also at the center of the city: the First Ward. Its population increased the least of all six wards in the past 10 years.
Columbia has grown outward through annexation, but the First Ward is landlocked. Before the city created the central ward in 1991, wards were drawn more like a pie, with every slice including part of the central city.
But since the First Ward became landlocked, it has had no room to grow. That means either more people must move in, or it must absorb adjacent neighborhoods from other wards. Although there has been some debate about returning to the pie model this year, all the official trial maps leave the First Ward surrounded.
The tension in reapportionment debates illustrates the tug-of-war between central Columbia and the city's periphery.
The central city, being the older part of town, needs major infrastructure work. The outskirts of the city, on the other hand, are composed mostly of newer subdivisions where infrastructure is up to date.
“To completely refurbish (central city stormwater systems) is going to take a lot of money,” McDavid said. “The people who live in the new subdivisions don’t have that problem. What’s the extent to which they should be asked to fund what doesn’t affect them directly?"
Distribution of power
Racial and political sensitivities have made the decision of which neighborhoods to move into the First Ward sticky.
Census figures from 2010 show racial minorities are now more distributed — especially in the First, Second and Third Wards — than ever before. The city was unable to provide statistics on income distribution among the wards.
Dan Cullimore, a member of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association board and a resident of the First Ward, has attended every public hearing held by the Ward Reapportionment Committee. He called the minority representation issue "a specious argument.”
“It also assumes that they’re all going to vote the same,” he said.
Steve Calloway is president of the Minority Men's Network and a resident of the Fifth Ward. “It does not appear that any of the plans allows us to have concentrations of (minority) populations because the city of Columbia is diverse,” he said.
“The idea of reapportionment is it ought to be a reshuffling of things so that from a representative standpoint, the (City Council) should reflect what the people look like,” Calloway said. “That doesn’t mean that a minority population should have a minority representative, but if they feel that a person of color best represents their interest, they should have a better opportunity to make that happen.”
That said, he worries about possible “dilution” of First Ward interests. If the city moves neighborhoods with similar infrastructure needs into the First Ward, there may be one less council member advocating for infrastructure.
“It might be less likely to get done if only one ward needs it,” Calloway said.
That may or may not be true, depending on the issue, said Terry Smith, a member of the Ward Reapportionment Committee and executive vice-president and dean of academic affairs at Columbia College.
“You’ve got to count noses and get four votes to get anything passed,” Smith agreed. “In that regard, you’ve got to reach across ward boundaries.”
But whether it’s best to concentrate interest groups within one ward depends largely on the interest, he said.
“If it is an interest that has a good vibe citywide,” Smith said, it doesn’t matter so much whether the group advocating for it is concentrated in one ward.
“If it tends to be a localized issue or people tend to feel negative about it, then it’s better to be dispersed.”
When it comes to advocating for central city infrastructure, Smith believes spreading the interest is best.
Cullimore said wards create a system that represents a population geographically, even though people within that geography are diverse in terms of education, community involvement, personal interests and “the problems they face on a daily basis.”
“The perfect solution would be to randomize everyone’s assignment to a ward,” he suggested. He realizes that's neither practical nor probable, but his point is about equal representation.
Cullimore argued that “power has to cross those boundaries” if a group is going to be heard.
“If you want to address minority representation, you have to do it another way," Cullimore said. "It has to be done politically, not geographically.”
That's where the pie approach could help. "If you have the pie, then every council member has more of (any one interest group) to deal with," McDavid said. "So you have very close elections, and a constituency that is a minor player spread throughout the community could in fact have influence on more than one ward.”
When wards matter
“Truthfully, I don’t really care which ward I live in,” said the Rev. Jim Bryan who, incidentally, lives in the Fifth Ward. He retired in 2010 from his position as pastor of the Missouri United Methodist Church on Ninth Street. When Bryan was a boy, his father served as pastor at the same church he went on to serve for 10 years.
“My interest was the whole city, so I don’t really have a ward mentality,” Bryan said. “I think every area ought to be concerned about every other area, and we all ought to be concerned about each other as individuals.”
Bryan said he’ll learn which ward he lives in when the next election comes. For now, he is not even sure who his council representative is. (It's Helen Anthony, by the way.) He said he talks to any council member he sees.
He's probably not alone. Wilson appreciates the energy and untold hours Columbia residents contribute to the civic process, but he doesn't believe most people identify themselves strongly based on ward boundaries.
“I don’t think I’ve been in a conversation in this town 30-plus years where somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s go over to the Sixth Ward and drink all night’ or something like that,” Wilson said.
“The only time wards come up in conversation seems to be when you’re having local elections or,” he laughed, “at the time when wards are reapportioned, I guess.”