Kansas City’s voters go to the polls next week to begin picking a new City Council.
An abysmal turnout is likely. The city moved its primary from winter to spring in part because so few people cast ballots in February’s cold, but the guess is turnout next week will struggle to hit the 16 percent mark set in 2011.
That isn’t a reflection on the quality of the council field, which seems pretty strong. Kansas Citians have some difficult choices to make.
There are several reasons for this. James’ brusque manner has alienated some constituents, but he has made no real mistakes. He’s raised lots of money. He still benefits from a clear contrast with predecessor Mark Funkhouser’s first-term carnival.
And because James’ next term would be his last, serious candidates can wait until the seat comes open in 2019 to launch their bids.
Yet the lack of a serious mayoral campaign also illustrates an ongoing issue in Kansas City politics. Voters are uninterested in the mayor’s race because the mayor’s job is, essentially, uninteresting.
For all the changes to the city’s charter over the years, the mayor remains primarily a 13th vote on the council. He or she makes some appointments and gets his or her name in the news, but day-to-day operations remain in the hands of the city manager.
More importantly, though, the council itself is relatively powerless. It doesn’t have the power to tax. And much of the city’s spending is off-limits, leading to fierce disputes over relatively small amounts of money.
The council plays no significant role with the Police Department. School boards run the schools.
The council can hand out tax breaks and settle labor contracts with city workers. But a new airport? In voters’ hands. The same with an expanded streetcar system or a bond issue for infrastructure repairs.
Interest in the mayoral election is poor because so little seems to be at stake. Voters seem to sense that they really are electing a public relations specialist, not a chief executive.
The disinterest has some practical effects: A low turnout means future petitions will be easier to gather, for example. More fundamentally, though, Kansas City seems locked in a leaderless drift — not because it lacks leaders, but because its government is built that way.