Update (May 24, 2023): On May 24, the Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee held the proposed charter revisions to allow for further discussion among the Kansas City Council members next week.
As a result, the proposed changes will not meet the May 30 filing deadline to appear on the ballot in August 2023 and will likely appear on the November ballot instead.
Every 10 years, the mayor of Kansas City is required to form a commission to review the city’s charter and recommend changes to be placed on the ballot. The 2023 Charter Review Commission met for the final time on May 16, rejecting calls from some members of the public to extend their timeline.
In 2013, the Kansas City charter review lasted five months. This year, the charter review lasted five weeks.
The commission submitted its final slate of recommendations to Kansas City Council, which will need to approve each recommendation before the end of May in order to be placed on the ballot this August. The proposals include changes to primary elections, reviewing the makeup of the City Council, and altering the signature requirements of initiative petitions, recalls and referendums.
And after a rushed review process that was criticized by dozens of members of the public at listening sessions and some local officials, the commission wants to make sure that the next charter review is different.
Under a proposed revision to the city’s charter, the next commission in 2033 would have to spend at least 90 days on its review of the charter — nearly three times as long as this year’s timeline.
What are the finalized proposals?
This year’s proposed changes will appear on the ballot as a single package unless the City Council ordinance is amended to place each proposed change on the ballot individually, which was done in 2013. This means as of now that voters could either approve all the changes or none of them.
The final recommendations include:
- Establishing a minimum signature requirement for recalls (3,000 for in-district and 18,000 for at-large), referendums (7,000) and initiative petitions (4,000) that remains consistent from year to year
- Increasing the required number of signatures for a recall from 20% of voter turnout in the most recent mayoral election to 25%
- A change to municipal elections, so that any candidate who receives more than two-thirds of the vote in the primary automatically wins the general election
- Randomizing the ballot order instead of listing candidates in the order they filed at the election office
- Forming a separate commission to consider changes to the number of in-district and at-large City Council districts
- A set of reforms to the charter review process, which includes increasing the number of commissioners, requiring a listening session in every City Council district, and setting a minimum timeline of 90 days to complete the charter review. The full list of reforms is written under Section 1212 of the proposed city ordinance.
The commission rejected proposals to modify the election calendar, to implement ranked-choice voting, and to move the parks department under the control of the city manager.
Calls to reform the charter review process
From start to finish, this year’s five-week-long charter review represents only a fraction of the time spent on charter reviews in comparable cities like St. Louis and Portland, Oregon.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas set this timeline to minimize the potential conflict of interest of a City Council member voting on their own recall conditions and election process.
This rationale was particularly relevant when the commission was considering changes to the election calendar: Certain proposals could have extended the next City Council’s term by anywhere from five months to a year and a half. Lucas determined it would be better for the current City Council, whose terms would be unaffected, to approve this change rather than the newly seated council later this year.
But some commissioners, such as 4th District representative Wilson Vance, believe that the constricted timeline did not allow for as thorough of a review as the city deserves. Vance is also the organizing director for KC Tenants, the city-wide tenants union.
“The city’s charter review only happens every 10 years, so the commission has the opportunity and, frankly, the responsibility to review the document in its entirety,” Vance said. “It’s 51 pages long, and some of it is dry as hell, but some of it opens up our city for some pretty transformative change.”
At listening sessions, raised ideas such as lowering the voting age in municipal elections from 18 to 16 and implementing ranked-choice voting. In a ranked-choice system, voters rank several candidates, instead of selecting only one, and the winner is picked using a simulated runoff.
And although the commission had initially expressed that those ideas might be incompatible with the Missouri constitution, that’s not the case because Kansas City has more discretion in its elections as a large city.
But because of the short timeline, the commission could not pursue those ideas further before the May 18 deadline.
“Reading through the information that was provided there right at the end of this, I thought that it would have been worth thinking about, talking about, and reviewing what the options really look like,” said Karen Slaughter, the commission’s co-chair and 3rd District representative. “That’s part of why we thought it was important to say, in the future, giving a commission more time and opportunity to really do the service that it is being called upon to do.”
A proposal to reform the charter review process
When Vance initially proposed a set of changes to the charter review process at the May 16 meeting, her proposal looked slightly different.
She researched the charter review process in cities of roughly similar size, and she said that Portland’s charter review commission held 81 public meetings over two years, compared with Kansas City’s eight meetings over five weeks, and they heard testimony from 1,600 people.
“They wanted to make sure that, in a document that important, everybody in their city was able to participate. And if you look at their report, I mean, it’s beautiful what they were able to do,” Vance said. “It’s a question of priority, not ability. I really believe that Kansas City could have a truly democratic and accessible charter review process.”
Under Vance’s original proposal, the charter review would have had a minimum timeline of six months, instead of three, with a requirement that the city provide child care and language interpretation at every public listening session.
The original proposal also would have called another charter review under the new requirements to occur before August 2024.
After a series of compromises, the commission eliminated certain provisions, including the translation and childcare requirements and the requirement for another charter review to happen next year.
Several commission members, including co-chair Jack Steadman and 6th District representative Michael McGee, argued that the public engagement requirements were better suited as a city ordinance instead of being enshrined in the charter. Some of them, including Steadman, also said that if they called another charter review so soon, they would undermine the work they had just completed.
The compromise proposal is now included in the list of finalized recommendations coming before the Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee on May 24, and then the full City Council on May 25.
But Vance, with KC Tenants, is continuing to advocate for deeper reform. KC Tenants plans to attend the committee and City Council meetings to ask members of the City Council to amend the proposals to bring back the provisions from Vance’s proposal that were cut by the commission on May 16.