Wichita City Council members are set next week to approve new boundaries for the city’s six council districts, a potentially temporary move as they weigh a variety of ideas to change the council.
Some of the change options on the table at Tuesday’s City Council meeting included fewer council districts, more council districts, a full-time vice mayor elected at large across the city and potentially the most expensive option to taxpayers: A full-time council with full-time salaries.
Meanwhile, city staff will get 60 to 90 days to explore some options, including shrinking to five city districts, expanding to eight and expanding the role of the vice mayor and the council.
Council member Pete Meitzner, who represents the city’s 2nd District in northwest Wichita, led the drive to expand the council’s role from part time to full time while cutting council districts from six to five and adding a full-time citywide-elected vice mayor.
“I am further convinced that having an additional citywide representative elected on the council would be beneficial to all our efficiencies, as it comes to citywide issues and our representation in Topeka,” Meitzner said. “The mayor is not able to be in all places at all times, and it would be beneficial to have another full-time person.”
Meitzner also advocated a full-time council. Currently, City Council members are part time at about $33,000 per year, while their commission peers at Sedgwick County make almost $84,000 a year.
“This council is part time, and across the street they’re full time at double the salary,” he said. “A lot of issues come to the city first before they come to the county, and that requires council members to be more engaged than their part-time role.”
Mayor Carl Brewer lined up against Meitzner, saying Wichitans need more representation on the council, not less.
“I’ve had an opportunity to be here for a long time, and I’ve seen the history,” Brewer said. “To make a mayor and a vice-mayor citywide, I don’t see where you gain anything.
“I’d ask council members to stop and evaluate their job performance. I’ve seen council members with 60,000 constituents who don’t represent 15,000 of them in the district and you want to do this (cut the council districts by one)? ... If you did anything to address the issues of fair representation for every citizen in this city, I’d be inclined to think you should increase the number. Some people struggle to represent 60,000 people. Why add another 10,000?”
However, there seemed to be significant council support for re-examining its composition after the first of the year.
“There’s some sense in ... redistricting down to five council members. That has some merit,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “There are some efficiencies there. We get rid of a few parochial issues, and at the same time add another voice for citywide concerns. Not just one person carrying that mantle.”
But Longwell urged the council to take the proposed changes to the public before acting.
“Because it’s such a big change, like the significant change several years ago to add members and go to a full-time council member, maybe we need to let the people decide if we go to a full-time council. It might be a good time to tackle that issue too.”
Tuesday’s debate first grew out of council dissatisfaction with the way district populations were changed to balance them out, and forecasts by the citizen redistricting panel of future city growth.
The citizen panel adjusted district balances to meet city ordinances that require that approximately one-sixth of the city’s total population — or 63,728 people, based on the 2010 Census — be allocated within each district, with no district deviating more than 5 percent from that number.
Meitzner led that debate, too, with his District 2 cut to 60,630 residents, down almost 3,000 people - the lowest population figure for the six city districts - in anticipation of major growth over the next decade.
The citizen redistricting group began its work in August, a once-a-decade process mandated by city ordinances.