Sly James wants mayor to have more power under a new KC charter

10/14/2013 6:35 PM

10/14/2013 9:50 PM

Kansas City Mayor Sly James on Monday urged the Charter Review Commission to recommend changes that would give him more power to hire and fire the city manager.

But James stopped short of supporting a major change to the City Council districts that the commission is also considering.

Under the current charter, the mayor is one of 13 votes on the council and they are the city’s political leaders. But the city manager, who is hired and fired by a council majority, runs the government’s day-to-day operations.

James told the commission that he is held accountable for running city government and gets blamed for everything that goes wrong. But he doesn’t actually have any authority except through “powers of persuasion” or a “temper tantrum.” Other former mayors, including Kay Barnes and Charles Wheeler, told the commission the same thing.

James said he and City Manager Troy Schulte have a great relationship, but getting things done takes too long, and other strong-mayor cities are progressing faster. He suggested the charter should give mayors more control over the city manager to carry out their visions for the city.

James characterized his preferred strong-mayor concept as a “poor man’s CEO” and said he would still act with some kind of advice and consent of the council. The city manager would still have authority to hire and fire department heads.

Kansas City’s council-manager form of government grew out of fears of corruption in the 1920s, but James said that was a long time ago and it’s time for Kansas City to adapt to more modern governing methods.

“Fear of a mistake is a bad reason not to progress,” he said.

Some minority groups have urged the commission to change the City Council structure from six in-district and six at-large seats to 12 in-district seats. They have said that smaller districts would give minority candidates a better chance of getting elected and would make city government more responsive to the electorate.

James said he liked the current blend of in-district and at-large candidates. He said he worries that 12 in-district council members could lead to a more divided city. James said that if the commission recommends 12 in-district seats, it would make a stronger mayor more imperative to provide a unifying voice.

The commission hopes to wrap up its discussions Oct. 21. Any recommendations go to the City Council, which must agree to place those changes on a citywide ballot.

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