Ward Reapportionment Debate Fuels Diversity Concerns

Related Story

COLUMBIA - As a vote on the new shapes of Columbia's wards comes before the City Council Monday, concerns have arisen over a supposed lack of racial diversity in the local administration.

"The support for African-Americans trying to get on the City Council has not been, when ever someone has tried, has not been very good," said Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff.

Ratliff, a long-time Columbia resident and advocate for African-American rights, said she thinks there is a lack of representation in the city's government.

Not since 1st Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton lost her seat in the 2008 election cycle, has an African-American--or any other non-white--served on the Council.

"It doesn't give the community that flavor that it needs to have from all across the community," Ratliff said.

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, Columbia has 108,500 people-- with 85,769 calling themselves white.  There are 26,487, or nearly a fourth of the total population, defined as non-whites.

In terms of population by ward, the majority of African-Americans reside in central and northern Columbia, with 9,205 of 12,217--or nearly 75%--African-Americans in wards one, two, or three.

These worries come as the City Council faces a crucial vote on district, or "ward," realignment Monday.  As many as five different trials have been recommended by both local residents and a city committee tasked with fairly drawing ward boundaries.

City administrators tried to combat the proposed lack of racial representation, appointing local psychologist Wiley Miller to that Ward Reapportionment Committee in June.

Miller, a Columbia resident for over 30 years, said he knows he was appointed to address diversity concerns.  But, he said, he just wants to represent the people of Columbia as a whole.

"I hope we don't find ourselves having to have representation throughout city government on the basis on something like color. I think that would be very unfortunate," Miller said.

But Columbia's government, Miller admitted, still does not have enough of a racial mix.

"It would be good if we had more people of color represented in city administration...That would be wonderful," said Miller.  He was adamant, however, that the most important part of the reapportionment debate is the creation of wards equal in population, skin-color aside.

Columbia-based civil rights attorney Dan Viets echoed this sentiment, calling for more wards and, in turn, more representatives on the Council.

"I don't think you have to be a black person to represent black people or a white person to represent white people," Viets said.  "I'm not going to say it's an absolute necessity."

For Ratliff, however, she will continue to work toward a minority official on the Council, saying it's been a difficult fight.

"It has worked me to death because I always have to be the voice," Ratliff said.

"I feel those voices aren't heard on many fronts."