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An Oklahoma City councilman wants to break eight wards into 10 in an effort to promote district parity both in service and across ethnic and racial lines.

Tim Farley November 27th, 2013

Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White isn’t giving up on a plan to increase the number of wards from eight to 10.

White, as the Ward 4 representative, believes extra wards will help the city’s elected officials work more efficiently with their constituents, create smaller geographical areas and bring about a higher level of ethnic and racial diversity.

According to White, there are about 72,000 people in each of OKC’s wards.

“I tried to make a run at this issue two years ago but didn’t receive much support from the rest of the council,” he said in an interview with Oklahoma Gazette. “I truly believe with smaller wards we could serve the taxpayers better.”

White, a lifelong Ward 4 resident, served as the area’s councilman from 1982 to 1989 and then returned to the council in 2005. With experience on his side, White said smaller wards would create “more cohesive constituencies.”

“I represent people who live in million-dollar mansions and people who live in very desperate situations,” he said. “I have rural residents and urban residents. There are a lot of differences among those I serve.”

That situation, White said, can force politicians into difficult decisions.

“Everything is a compromise, but there should be a compromise of ideas, not elected officials who are compromised. You don’t want conflicts like rich versus poor or urban against rural,” he said. 

Ward 4 has 73,133 residents over 158 square miles, which is the largest in terms of geography, according to city records. Ward 3 has 140 square miles and a population of 71,811, while Ward 7 encompasses 136.8 square miles and has the highest population, at 73,867 residents. Ward 6 is the densest, with 71,068 residents over 18.7 square miles.

More diversity Only one of the nine elected officials, including the mayor, is non-white. John Pettis, Jr. is black and represents the historically African-American section of OKC. Pettis defeated former Ward 7 Councilman Skip Kelly, who also is black, seven months ago in a runoff election.

“Oklahoma City is so close to being a minority-majority city, but the council doesn’t reflect that at all,” White said.

Pettis wasn’t sure adding wards would create more diversity.

“We do need a more diverse council, but are we truly going to get more minorities by creating more wards? There’s no guarantee because people are so scattered everywhere,” he said.

No Hispanics or Asians are represented on the council. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanic residents comprised 17.2 percent of OKC’s population while Asians were 4 percent of the city’s residents. The Hispanic population figure increases to 24.8 percent when the entire OKC metro is counted. The 2010 Census shows whites make up 56 percent of OKC’s population.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer represents part of the Hispanic population in southwest OKC. However, she was hesitant about adding new wards to create more diversity on the council.

“Are you suggesting that would bring a certain type of person to the council? The fact that one (Hispanic) hasn’t chosen to do that (seek office) is a personal decision. I would like to see those minorities in city politics, but we don’t have to change what that (the council) looks like to make that happen,” she said.

White intended to poll the city council about increasing the number of wards at its Nov. 19 meeting. If he fails to receive council support, White said he may seek an initiative petition to place the measure on the March 4 ballot along with the mayoral race if the council fails to support the idea. An estimated 6,000 signatures would be needed so voters could decide the issue.

OKC redrew its ward boundaries after the 2010 Census. The city charter states wards must be divided as close as possible in terms of population, and council members can create more wards to evenly distribute the population.

A city council ward map can be found at www.okc.gov.

 
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