White, now serving a second tour of duty on the council, is trying to persuade his colleagues that elected officials should mirror OKC’s population and increasing the number of wards would be the first step. So far, White’s idea, although discussed at two separate meetings, has been largely criticized by most of the other council members.
The numbers speak louder than a councilman’s words.
Eight of the nine OKC council members, including the mayor, are white. Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis, Jr., is the lone black member. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, whites comprise 56 percent of the city’s population, followed by Hispanics at 17 percent and blacks at 15 percent.
“I want to change it (ward alignment) so the possibility exists,” White said. “I want to put together a situation so a young Latino person who decides to run (for city council) has the opportunity to win,” he said. “Right now, that’s not possible. I don’t want to gerrymander anything. I just want to create a level playing field.”
Currently, the Hispanic population is concentrated in south and central OKC, which is represented mostly by White, Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell, Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer and Pettis.
Without a Hispanic presence on the council, it’s difficult for OKC’s elected officials to understand the issues that affect people in that community, White said.
“I think there is still some perception of lack of opportunities, although they are out there. But I’m an old white guy, so what do I know?” he said.
But OKC isn’t alone in its lack of racial diversity among elected officials.
Last year, a Kansas City, Mo., charter review commission recommended the city change the way councilmen are elected, but the council rejected the proposal by an 8-5 vote. Kansas City’s council is comprised of nine white members and four black members.
The commission suggested Kansas City move away from its current six in-district and six at-large configuration to a 12-district model. According to the commission’s final report, advocates of the proposed method believed smaller districts, or wards, would encourage more grassroots campaigning and might increase participation by minority groups. In addition, supporters thought the 12-district model would limit the influence of money in citywide elections.
Those reasons were almost identical to comments made by White and Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid.
On the flip side, status quo supporters said the current method of electing council members in Kansas City had served the city for nearly 50 years. In addition, proponents of the current system said at-large officeholders “govern with an eye toward the best interest of the entire city” and focus less on specific concerns to a particular area, the report showed.
White served on the council from 1982 to 1989 and returned as one of OKC’s eight councilmen in 2005.
“I’m just trying to do my part, a little bit at a time, to ensure the city council is representative of the entire population,” he said.
A larger national voice agrees with him.
In May 2012, the National Urban Fellows, a public service leadership diversity initiative, released a report that showed a significant lack of minorities in national, state and local elected offices.
“Until public service leadership becomes truly diverse — where the representation and perspectives from communities of color begin to approach the proportion of the overall population — the total capacity of our full efforts will remain unrealized,” the report’s authors wrote.
The authors also commented, “The absence of racial and ethnic inclusion is a gap that must be filled if our nation is to uphold its core value of unobstructed opportunity for all.”
White’s other argument for increasing wards is to reduce the number of citizens each council member must represent. Currently, each council member serves about 72,500 residents, according to city data.
A survey of 24 peer cities revealed information about the number of council members, length of term, term limits, population, average number of citizens per ward, form of government, compensation and if council members served in a part or full-time capacity.
Oklahoma City, with a population of about 600,000, has four-year terms for its council and mayor with no term limits. Council members are paid $12,000 a year, and the mayor earns $24,000.
The survey showed 10 of the cities have term limits and the number of council members ranges from 40 in Nashville to five at-large commission members in Portland, Ore. The number of citizens per ward ranged from 10,000 in Madison, Wis., to more than 99,000 in Las Vegas, which has six council members and a mayor with a city population of 596,424.
After looking at the survey, White said the information can be used to “justify whatever you want to come out with.”