Kent council will decide Dec. 6 whether to send a charter amendment on ward maps to voters

The Kent City Council ward map as of Sept. 10, 2023. These wards do not currently satisfy the city charter, which requires a population differential of less than 10% among the wards. Image via the City of Kent

Kent voters could decide in March how the city’s six political wards will be divvied up if city council approves a ballot measure Dec. 6.

At issue is a city charter stipulation that requires each ward to have roughly the same population, plus or minus 10%. The population statistics are based on the most recent census data, which in this case was from 2020. The pandemic caused an exodus of students that reduced the population in certain neighborhoods.

That left Kent Community Development Director Bridget Susel struggling for months to create ward boundaries with no fewer than 4,465 residents and no more than 4,936 — never mind that the students have returned and Kent’s actual population distribution is vastly at odds with U.S. Census data.

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Having rejected one set of maps Susel created and having declined even to examine a second set, in September council suggested the city charter could be changed to stipulate a 15% population differential. That, council members agreed, would both render the redistricting process less difficult and make ward boundaries more stable over time.

Getting the issue to the ballot box hasn’t been easy. Voting against the proposal on Sept. 6 were council members John Kuhar and Garret Ferrara. Council members Roger Sidoti, Gwen Rosenberg and Heidi Shaffer Bish were not present.

Kuhar’s concern centered on developments like Summit Gardens impacting ward populations in the next few years, while Ferrara insisted the 10% differential stipulated in Kent’s charter has stood the test of time.

Kuhar, Ferrara and Rosenberg logged no votes on Sept. 20, with Rosenberg citing cost concerns, an existing mechanism for charter review and the difficulty of justifying the change’s benefits to residents. She suggested council would do well to evaluate the maps Susel created instead of pursuing a charter amendment.

Council’s committee of the whole took the proposed charter amendment out of council’s hands on Oct. 18, with Shaffer Bish saying further discussion was needed. That vote was 7-2, with Rosenberg and Council Member Tracy Wallach dissenting.

The committee tweaked the dates council would review the proposal so that a special election would not be necessary.

City Law Director Hope Jones told council in November that if council wants the measure to be on the March ballot, two-thirds of its members must approve the proposal and submit it to the Portage County Board of Elections by Dec. 20.

Over Kuhar’s and Rosenberg’s objections, on Nov. 1, council’s committee of the whole sent the issue back to council for a second reading on Nov. 15. During an interview after the meeting, Rosenberg said she opposes the measure since the city charter already addresses the issue, and there is an established charter review process.

That process gives citizens the chance to periodically review the entire charter and suggesting changes, all of which voters would ultimately have to approve.

“Seems to me we should use that,” Rosenberg said. “By sending it to charter review, we’re not taking it away from voters.”

Ferrara, Kuhar, Rosenberg and Sidoti rejected a bid to approve the proposed charter change then and there, so council will hold a special meeting Dec. 6. Should the proposal gain its required two-thirds majority vote, and should the board of elections approve the draft language, Kent voters will have the ultimate decision on the March 19 ballot.

Also on Dec. 6, council will consider legislation that would prohibit people from leaving their cars running but unattended on public streets and parking areas. Council Member Robin Turner characterized the proposal as sending a message that the city opposes wasteful fuel emissions, but Rosenberg worried that people with limited means would be more impacted than more affluent people.

The measure would not affect vehicles parked on residential property, emergency vehicles, public safety vehicles and public service vehicles.

State law enacted in 2017 already prohibits people to leave most unattended vehicles idling, but it does allow for locked vehicles to idle.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.