Northland residents upset about the proposed redistricting map have been offered a free ride to a meeting of the Kansas City Council on Thursday.
Kevin O’Neill, a council member for the 1st District, announced he would provide a bus to pick up people at the offices of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. and deliver them to City Hall for the 3 p.m. meeting. A newsletter from the Clay County Economic Development Board encouraged people to reserve spots on the bus by phoning the office or emailing Deb Hermann, NNI’s chief executive officer.
O’Neill did not respond when asked by The Beacon through email whether the bus was being paid for using public or private dollars.
Northland officials push back on redistricting proposal
The transportation offer comes as tensions between council members representing the portion of Kansas City north of the Missouri River and members of the city’s redistricting commission continue to rise.
At issue is a potential redrawing of the 1st and 2nd Council Districts. Currently, the districts are separated by a north-south line that runs along the border of Clay and Platte counties.
The new map proposed by the nine-person redistricting commission, which includes representatives from each of Kansas City’s six council districts, recommends eliminating the north-south border. Instead, the districts would be separated along Barry Road, a horizontal divide that some commission members say will give lower-income residents in the Northland more of a voice in politics and city issues.
The current Northland council members disagree. O’Neill has cited the map as an attempt to separate Northland residents, and said it is symptomatic of a viewpoint that sees the Northland as a problem for the rest of Kansas City.
Diana Radzevich, O’Neill’s legislative aide, said longtime Northland residents were ignored at redistricting meetings, while those who support the horizontal divide received opportunities to speak.
“For some reason Stephenie Smith has her mind made up, and has decided how things should be,” she said, referring to the redistricting commission’s chairperson.
During a City Council meeting, 1st District council member Heather Hall said the economic reasoning for a horizontal divide ignored the council’s efforts to channel large amounts of the district’s public improvement funds to neighborhoods south of Barry Road.
County officials in the Northland are also pushing back against the proposal.
“The biggest thing is that there’s a lot of people very involved with the Northland, and we think we know what is going on and understand that,” said David Slater, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Council. “A lot of these people who are getting involved now have never been to Northland Neighborhoods meetings, or other meetings where we could help them.”
Deb Hermann, the chief executive officer of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., said none of the maps presented at the Northland redistricting meeting showed a horizontal divide. If they had, she said, perhaps residents would’ve been able to discuss the pros and cons of the map, instead of being caught by surprise.
Debate on which voices matter in the Northland
Who counts as an “involved Northlander” has become a flashpoint in the redistricting debate.
In a July email to council members, Mayor Quinton Lucas laid out redistricting deadlines and asked them to forward any commission recommendations his way. Lucas had final responsibility for appointing the members, but it is common to ask for recommendations from other members of the City Council and the general public.
Hall recommended Mike Kellam, vice president for business development at McClure Engineering Co. Teresa Loar, who represents the 2nd District, recommended Martin Rucker, owner of Martin T. Rucker Development. Both men were appointed to the redistricting commission.
Smith, the commission’s chairperson, lives in the 1st Council District. But her residency in the Northland doesn’t impress other leaders there.
Smith is a managing partner in a consulting firm whose services include diversity, equity and inclusion training. The Clay County Economic Development Council singled her out in an email newsletter on Nov. 5.
“Please don’t think that Stephenie Smith, First District At-Large and Chair of the committee was recommended by an involved Northlander,” an excerpt of the email said. “Except for the school districts who have hired her firm for diversity and equity training, no one that we know knew of her.”
Smith said the rhetoric in the email was intended to undercut her capability as chairwoman.
“That’s a form of being dismissive, and trying to be dismissive,” she told The Kansas City Beacon. “Despite what the EDC writes, I am still the chairwoman, I am always Black and always a woman. Part of the work in all of this is to illuminate that the Northland is so much more than people want to label it.”
In a redistricting committee meeting, Northland resident Madison Hays pushed back on the idea of an “involved Northlander.”
“Instead of telling you who I am, let me tell you what I am not,” she said. “I am not the president or chair of a chamber of commerce. I am not on the board of any commissions, EDCs, or political organizations. I’m not a ‘community leader’ or ‘involved Northlander.’ I don’t even own my own business. I AM a person. I shouldn’t need any titles to be heard and represented by my City Council people.”
In an earlier council meeting, Hall printed a series of emails she’d received from constituents that she said did not support the new map. Holding up the large stack of papers to her council colleagues, she said they were evidence the redistricting proposal was not popular among Northlanders.
Neighborhood association helps organize residents in redistricting debate
Although Northland Neighborhoods Inc. has officially opposed the proposed map, not all of its member neighborhood associations are in agreement.
Chouteau Estates Neighborhood Association, which sits in the 1st Council District, has been vocal about its support of horizontal redistricting. In a series of emails, association president Tonee Christensen encouraged members to let the commission know they are Northlanders, and to specify how long they’ve lived in the area.
Christensen also sent out emails informing neighbors when committee meetings on redistricting were being held, and offered assistance to those wanting to go speak in person or over Zoom.
“This whole redistricting process is ultimately about how we can be good neighbors to each other,” Smith said. “How are we caring for our neighbors across the city?”