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 may ask voters for a charter amendment to resolve ward map challenges

Once a decade, Kent leaders must adjust the city’s six political ward boundaries based on new U.S. Census data so the populations are roughly equal.

This year’s ward maps are proving to be a challenge — to the point that council members are considering a charter amendment to keep the existing ward map in place.

City Community Development Director Bridget Susel has been wrestling with the maps for months. She is hemmed in by Kent’s city charter, which demands no more than a 10% population differential between wards, and by Ohio law that requires ward boundaries to be “composed of contiguous and compact territory, bounded by natural boundaries or street lines.”

In practical terms, that means each of Kent’s six wards can have no fewer than 4,465 residents and no more than 4,936. Those numbers are based on the most recent census data, which in this case was the 2020 tally.

Nobody expected the pandemic, which shuttered Kent State three weeks before the 2020 census count was taken. Many students left town, dramatically reducing the population in neighborhoods dominated by college rentals.

“We’re talking about a student population. That’s the issue,” Ward 3 Council Member Robin Turner said in August. “Students can vote, and the bottom line is they’re residents. That becomes very problematic because quite frankly they can turn out. They’re not restricted from voting. So at any time, they can actually turn out. They choose not to.”

And since students often choose not to vote, Susel’s first proposal all but guaranteed a Glad Boulevard resident to win a council seat, Ward 5 Council Member Heidi Shaffer Bish said. She has suggested that council create a two-year “student representative” seat on council, but no discussions have yet taken place.

Kent City Council, which has had a fairly consistent roster in recent years, will soon see new faces. The way the wards are drawn may have ramifications for those seeking to serve.

Ward 1 Council Member Garret Ferrara is retiring and will be replaced by Melissa Celko, whose primary vote count topped that of opponent Ben Tipton.

Jeff Clapper bested Tracy Wallach in the May primaries, and will soon take his place as Ward 6 representative. 

Ward 4 is particularly noteworthy: Council Member John Kuhar faces a November challenge by Chris Hook. If Hook, a Mae Street resident, wins, and Mae is moved to a different ward, he would only be able to serve for four years because council members must live in the ward they represent. Kuhar lives on Glad Boulevard, which Susel had not proposed to move to another ward.

City council’s committee of the whole — a legislative body that considers issues before placing them before council for a final yea or nay vote — rejected Susel’s first attempt on Aug. 2 and her second attempt on Sept. 6.

City leaders rejected the Aug. 2 maps in part because Susel slated Mae Street, now in Ward 4, to be moved to an adjoining ward. Without even debating the maps she put before them Sept. 6, council committee members instead chose to focus on the city charter.

The 10% population differential is written in that charter, not in stone, committee members concluded. Get city voters to change the charter, and the whole redistricting process not only becomes easier, but ward boundaries become more stable over time.

Knowing, however, that the next charter review process won’t start until next year, and that any changes voters might approve wouldn’t take effect until 2026, committee members voted 4-2 to raise the population differential to 15% and submit a proposed charter amendment directly to voters next year.

Voting against a proposed charter amendment were Kuhar and Ferrara. Council members Roger Sidoti, Gwen Rosenberg and Heidi Shaffer Bish were not present.

As committee members continue to struggle with percentages and potential charter language, the city’s current ward map will stand in spite of its population imbalances. Council is expected to vote on proposed legislation Sept. 20, which would mean city voters would approve or reject it during next year’s balloting.

If council members and subsequently the voters approve a 15% population differential between wards, the city’s current ward maps will be allowed to remain in place, Susel said. However, if voters reject a more lenient population differential, council will find itself right back where it is now: scrutinizing ward boundaries that adhere to a 10% differential.

Susel compared Kent’s ward requirements with six other college towns, three of which do not divide their populations into wards, two of which simply require “substantially” equivalent populations, and one that disregards population altogether in favor of simple geographic lines on a map.

Leading objections against Susel’s second map revision, Ward 6 Council Member Tracy Wallach said that though the proposed wards are “technically” contiguous, they are not so in a geographical sense. Changing Kent’s charter to require a 15% population would make future ward map revisions easier and guarantee that wards would be more compact, she said.

In terms of geography, Kent’s wards 1, 2, and 3 are the largest. In terms of population, wards 3, 4, and 6 are the largest.

“I know in my ward there’s a section on Lake Street that would be put into Ward 1, so it’s across the river and in Ward 2 there’s a section that would be put in Ward 3, which is again across the river. They are contiguous, but they’re really not contiguous,” Wallach said.

The current wards have stood the test of time, Ferrara said.

“You start changing things because of one particular instance, what’s to say the next time we want to change it, [we say], ‘Why don’t you change it to change it to 20% from 15%?’ Then you don’t have to change the lines,” he argued, adding that the whole discussion is “much ado about nothing.”

People identify with wards, and may be put off if they suddenly find themselves in a different one, Turner added.

But Susel said adjusting the ward boundaries to main the required 10% population differential is not easy.

“It is very much like a puzzle. We would try to move [one line], and that would put somebody over, or we’d meet that one, but then we just made this ward under,” Susel told committee members in August.

Mae Street, now in Ward 4, is a particular problem. With 38 properties, 20 of which are rentals, it is one of few owner-occupied streets in a ward largely comprising KSU’s campus and various apartment complexes. 

“That is probably the corner that is the hardest because the density is so high in Ward 4. We don’t have small things that can move. It looks like they’re small, but they’re not,” Susel said, referencing large campus dorms and complexes such as College Towers and University Edge. “Those are big.”

Glad Boulevard and part of Morris Road are also largely owner-occupied, so moving any of those properties would reduce competitiveness and diversity, Shaffer Bish said in August, noting that students tend not to vote and not to be involved in city politics or issues.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Council Member Garret Ferrara lives on Glad Boulevard. Council Member John Kuhar lives on Glad.

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