There’s one key point to consider in the debate over new boundaries for City Council districts in St. Joseph.
Whatever is selected, it will be an improvement. The current map looks more like a children’s jigsaw puzzle than a coherent set of political boundaries. In particular, District 5 is oddly shaped, with a wide stretch from South 28th Street to Riverside Terrace that then extends north and reaches a narrow point near the Belt Highway and Ashland Avenue. On the map, it looks like a church with a steeple.
There will be no steeple or extreme doglegs in the new council districts, which were pared from five to four in the City Charter changes that voters approved last year. A fourth citywide at-large district will be added to keep the current council makeup at eight members plus the mayor.
In determining the new boundaries, the council will have to decide on one of two versions of a district map. One offers simple, square boundaries that divide the city into four quadrants of roughly equal shape. The problem is that the population is not equally distributed across the city.
The other map proposal is drawn to keep the districts roughly proportional in population, resulting in a smaller Downtown district and two larger districts that cover the city’s north and south sides from the Missouri River toward Riverside Road. Another district, in the city’s midsection, would extend from 28th Street to Riverside.
It’s worth recalling why the City Charter Commission decided to go with four neighborhood council districts, rather than five or zero. Maintaining some district representation allows citizens to more easily contact their elected council representative, especially on a more narrow neighborhood matter that needs attention.
At the same time, a reduction in the number of districts diminishes the sense of parochialism that often holds this city back. For this reason, some on the Charter Commission wanted to make all council seats at-large ones, but the final proposal called for four districts as a compromise.
With the new maps, both options deliver on the goal of facilitating proximity between elected leaders and their constituents. But proposal three, the one that bases the districts on population, is the one that’s better able to address neighborhood factionalism and create a sense that each district is also part of a city that sinks or swims as a unified whole. The boundaries are not as squared off as the other options, but they are more rational than the current five-district map.
For this reason, we agree with Mayor Bill McMurray that this district map, the one based on population, is the better option.