Yael T. Abouhalkah

Smackdown at City Hall for Mayor Sly James

Updated: 2014-01-26T00:02:58Z

By Yael T. Abouhalkah

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City Mayor Sly James made passionate and feisty arguments to the City Council on Thursday. He verbally got in the faces of some council members, at one point saying they were “afraid” of a potential city charter change.

Yet, in the end, James knew he was going to lose two arguments over what charter issues to put on the April 8 ballot for Kansas City voters to evaluate.

That’s the mayor’s story, and he’s sticking to it.

“Don’t make too much of this,” the mayor tweeted to me late Thursday night. “I never expected to win these votes. Had to have the discussion though.”

Still, it was an unusual day for the mayor, who’s had a long streak of getting mostly what he’s wanted from this council during his almost three years in office.

On Thursday, some City Council members were in a right-back-at-you mood toward the mayor.

Here’s the summary of the smackdown at City Hall (and here’s The Star’s story on the issues):

• The mayor wanted to let Kansas City voters decide at the April election whether to change the council form of government in which voters select six at-large members and six in-district members.

The new system would have gone to 12 in-district members, killing the at-large seats.

James said it wasn’t right for the council to, by itself, take this kind of decision out of the hands of voters. And as some council supporters noted, a citizens commission had promoted the change.

Still, the mayor also made it clear that he would oppose the measure if it got on the ballot. Other council members weighed in, with most saying they opposed it, too.

The best reasons: The current system with at-large members has served Kansas City well for 50 years by allowing voters to have a say in seven council elections. Making a change would have reduced that number to a single district election for voters, and it would have divided the city into 12 fiefdoms.

However, despite the mayor’s insistence on letting the voters have a say, a council majority of eight members said they didn’t want to go that far. Council member Ed Ford led the opposition, as he and others said this was a bad idea and shouldn’t be bothered with on the ballot. And it won’t be.

For the record, I agreed with the council majority. Kansas Citians have to vote on so many taxes, fees and other issues every year, why put a time waster like this in front of them?

• James wanted to let voters decide in April whether to give the mayor the power to fire the city manager.

The current charter requires the mayor to get six other council members to agree to any change in that position.

In this case, I totally agree with James.

Kansas Citians expect their mayor to have lots of power, power he or she doesn’t really have under the charter’s council/manager form of government. But this change would have at least made sure the single most powerful bureaucrat at City Hall — the city manager — would be in sync with the mayor.

Again, though, a council majority disagreed with James. This time it was 10 of the 12 members voting against the mayor, so the issue will not be on the ballot. Almost none came to the defense of the mayor’s position.

One reason stood out for the council members: They didn’t want to cede any power to the mayor’s office.

During the lengthy discussion at the council meeting, an agitated James pointed out the benefits of having a mayor and city manager work in tandem. He also noted that council members hadn’t walked a day in his shoes, as mayor, where he and City Manager Troy Schulte spend lots of time trying to get things done.

That needs to be a team-like approach, the mayor indicated, and if the team isn’t working, the mayor should have the right to change the manager.

But the council said “no,” emphatically.

As a result, Sly James had a rare day of negative outcomes at the office on Thursday.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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