COLUMBIA — City Council members remain in suspense about the outcome of their own vote scheduled for Monday. That's when Columbia's months-long discussion of ward reapportionment is scheduled to come to a close with a final vote.
The impact of that vote, however, will resonate long after next week. The new ward maps chosen Monday will determine the city's voting districts for roughly 10 years. The city has redrawn its maps about every decade since 1973 to keep ward representation numerically equal according to the latest census numbers.
"I think it's going to be very close, extremely contentious and a very long council meeting," said Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony.
The council's conversation will be held against the backdrop of a petition started this week to recall Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley from his post. The initiative was spurred by opposition to Dudley's most recent proposal for ward reapportionment.
Dudley went out of his way to advocate for the map known as Trial D, which maintains a central city ward. His most vocal opponents favor Trial E, which extends the First Ward (currently the central city ward) to the west.
Dudley's opponents have charged that he selected neighborhoods to move from the Third and Fourth wards into the First, purposefully relocating those in which he and Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespolh fared worst in the last election.
Dudley denied the charge at a meeting on Oct. 7. He did not respond to repeated calls for comment for this article.
Where they stand
Trials D and E are the two proposed maps that received the most support from members of the Ward Reapportionment Committee when it finished its work in September. Trial E earned majority approval with a vote of 5-3, while Trial D tied the committee's vote 4-4.
As of Thursday, Trial E had three confirmed votes among City Council members — from Anthony, First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe.
Dudley was not alone in seeing merit in Trial D, but it remains uncertain who will choose to join him in voting for it. Kespohl said two plans came to the forefront for him, but he declined to name them.
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said he was leaning toward Trial D before the plan ignited a "firestorm" of gerrymandering charges.
"I don't think it was put together for that purpose, but I don't want any part of being involved in something that folks think is that insidious," Thornhill said. He said he is also considering Trial A.
"I have no idea where the mayor's at, and I've quit trying to figure that out," Thornhill said, laughing..
Mayor Bob McDavid was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Heart of the matter
The debate places Columbia's central city at the heart of the council's tug-of-war. Council members agree that the aging infrastructure in the oldest part of town is a pressing need. But when discussing how to apportion the central city in the new ward configuration, the conversation quickly moves beyond sidewalks and sewer systems.
Those in favor of Trial D cite the benefits of a central city district made up of neighborhoods with similar needs. They say grouping the areas with aging infrastructure would give those residents a stronger voice.
"I think it may be ... important to get as many voices as you can piled up around one central subject," Thornhill said.
Kespohl pointed to the politically active Benton-Stephens and Old Southwest neighborhoods, which would be encompassed by the First Ward under Trial D. The First Ward traditionally has had the lowest voter turnout in the city.
"That might be a good shot in the arm for the First Ward, to have them help engage the other people in the First Ward," Kespohl said.
He also said a central city district makes for better policy. "It's simpler to address needs through policy ward by ward," Kespohl said.
This premise is challenged by many Trial E supporters, who advocate distributing needs and interests across ward boundaries so as to increase representation on the council.
Hoppe said that in her nearly six years on the council, "I've found that I could get movement and success on issues where I can communicate with council members who share similar concerns in their ward."
She also said, "I think it's a not-so-disguised move to fundamentally change the composition and voting patterns of several wards, and that is very troublesome to me."
Anthony said she'll be voting for Trial E because it received the highest number of votes from the committee and the least opposition from the public.
"I think this is clearly gerrymandering," she said, referring to Trial D.
Council members agree on one point: They expect a big turnout at their next meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday at City Council Chambers in City Hall, 701 E. Broadway.