Window on the West
by Mary Rupert
The Unified Government’s mayoral election process is being reviewed by the Justice Department.
Alvin Sykes, a human rights activist, said he returned Wednesday from Washington, D.C., where he met with representatives of the Justice Department to discuss whether the UG’s mayoral election process is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
The UG charter sets out the process of running for election for mayor, and the staggered terms of the UG commission districts are the issue. Commissioners who run from certain districts in Wyandotte County will always have to give up their seats to run for mayor, while other commissioners will be able to parachute back to the commission seat for another two years.
Sykes said it has turned out that the mayors in the past several years have come from commission districts where they could parachute back in case they did not win election. However, candidates such as Nathan Barnes, from the historically black 1st District in northeast Kansas City, Kan., ran for mayor and were not able to come back to the commission because of the staggered terms.
Sykes said the Justice Department is reviewing the election policy to see if it violates the Voting Rights Act. If it finds enough reason to proceed, the department can then open an investigation and file a lawsuit, he said. Under the Voting Rights Act, it is not necessary to prove intent to discriminate in order to move a case forward, he said. The act is based on discriminatory effect, and intent and motivations are not necessary to the case, he added.
If an investigation is opened and a lawsuit is filed, a solution may be sought, such as finding a way to make it an equitable policy for any commissioner who wants to run for mayor, Sykes said.
Although there are some other cities in Kansas where commissioners have to give up their seats to run for mayor, while others do not, what makes this situation different is there is a majority black district involved, Sykes said.
As it originally was developed, the policy on mayoral elections and districts stemmed from vote totals in 1997, Sykes said. The four commissioners who had the most votes in 1997, when the UG Commission was first elected, were elected at the same time as the mayor, while the weakest four commissioners’ districts were on staggered terms, running again two years later. Sykes said there did not seem to be any intent to discriminate when this policy was made.
Charter changes that might be made to rotate the commission terms would solve the problem, he believes. Another possible solution could be to change the term for the mayor. Also, all the commissioners’ terms might be changed to coincide, with all running at one time, he said, as in the House of Representatives.
Commissioner Ann Murguia said recently that she believed there was a discussion currently underway to change the charter ordinance so that commissioners don’t have to give up their seats to run for higher office, and that some commissioners were in favor of a change.
UG Attorney Jody Boeding said last week that she was not aware of any formal proposals yet on the commission level on the topic of changing the charter ordinance to change the staggered terms or the timing of the mayor’s election.
“I think that it is fundamentally the right of all people to have an equal and fair chance to be elected to office in this community and in this nation,” Sykes said.
This instance is a “second-generation” type of violation, he believes. The “first-generation” violations consisted of rules against individual voters trying to exercise their right to vote.
Sykes said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier this year that what’s most representative of what remains to be fought in the Civil Rights and voting rights movement are policies and procedures that appear to be fair on the surface but actually have discriminatory effects.
“I think that the people here are good, but I also think we need to step up to best practice type of policies and procedures, functions in government, so we can be a great city,” Sykes said.
1st District, at large commission seat
Sykes also had been working on the 1st District, at large UG Commission issue. The seat has been unfilled for more than a year; the UG Commission deadlocked on votes more than once, unable to reach a majority of six votes on any candidate.
The UG is not intending to bring it back for a commission vote, and the position is open until the election in the spring of 2015. When contacted earlier, the mayor’s spokesman said the mayor wanted the position filled, but the commission could not reach six votes.
Boeding said recently that the mayor had brought the issue back to the commission fairly recently, and the vote failed. It had already failed about three times previously. Now it’s so close to the filing time for the open seat and the spring elections, that the person would only be appointed for a couple of months before it would be time to run again, she said. The spring primary is usually in March, and the general election is often in April.
A lawsuit filed by Carolyn Wyatt, a resident, in Wyandotte County District Court to try to get the UG to fill the seat was not successful because of lack of standing. One of the candidates for the position might have had standing to file a case, however, Wyatt was not one of the candidates who submitted their names for the position.
Judge David Boal in his decision also said that the court has no authority to fill the seat, as that is a “legislative, discretionary, political process not subject to a writ of mandamus. Apparently recognizing this, at the arguments on these motions Plaintiff shifted ground somewhat and argued that she sought an order requiring the Commission to ‘keep voting,’ implying that finally someone would perhaps wear down and change his or her vote. This Court has no doubt about the Mayor’s and Commissioners’ ability to read the tea leaves and if any of them thought 6 votes were available for a candidate the issue would be on the agenda.”
Sykes believes that the failure of this lawsuit, and the lack of action in filling the seat, may help in the long run with the effort to get the Justice Department to look at the mayoral election issue, because he believes there are now two issues involving UG elections.
“Collectively that may be a blessing in disguise, to have heightened scrutiny by the federal government,” he said.
Sykes said Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., is preparing a bill to introduce in the Kansas Legislature that would require that all vacancies in elective offices throughout the state of Kansas to be filled within a certain number of days, and would give alternatives such as a flip of the coin or a special election.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.