One of the great traditions of Kansas City politics is the City Council gadfly — that member of the council who takes on the often thankless task of poking sticks at the mayor.
Dan Cofran was often at odds with Emanuel Cleaver — on the budget, on Union Station, on a number of issues. Paul Danaher and Jim Rowland picked at Kay Barnes. Mark Funkhouser’s gadfly was … um, the whole council.
The gadfly’s approach isn’t personal, at least at first. He or she may have a legitimate policy difference with the mayor and may even try to work out the problem quietly behind the scenes. It’s all quite collegial and low-key.
Eventually, though, the dynamic changes. The gadfly, worried that his or her concerns are not being met, goes public.
This drives Kansas City mayors crazy. Private criticism is one thing, public complaints are something else. A mayor’s only real power in Kansas City relies on persuasion and the perception of comity, both of which are threatened by the gadfly.
The mayor’s ego plays a role too. Kansas City mayors are not accustomed to challenges to their authority, internally or in the media. They don’t like it.
So mayors respond with the tools they have — removing the gadfly from an important committee, maybe. More likely is the freeze-out. Suddenly the gadfly isn’t invited to important meetings or asked to sponsor significant legislation. In the worst cases, routine matters become life-or-death struggles between the mayor, his council supporters and the gadfly.
Sixth District Councilman John Sharp is now Sly James’ gadfly.
The two have been locked in a dispute over the billing practices of the ambulance service. James, angry about that and other slights, recently removed Sharp from the council’s Finance Committee.
If he believes the demotion will change Sharp’s approach, he is likely to be disappointed. Sharp is a council veteran who deeply understands process, power and politics at 12th and Oak.
Like most politicians, Sharp has supporters and opponents. He’s a pretty aggressive guy who likes to win. He studies issues. He doesn’t back down easily.
He is, in short, a perfect gadfly.
It can be a lonely job — in the cliquish world of the Kansas City Council, it takes courage to publicly battle the mayor.
But it’s important. No mayor should get a free pass from public scrutiny.
John Sharp makes sure Sly James won’t. In that, he upholds a Kansas City tradition that deserves to continue.
To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to email@example.com.