How Mayor Sly James weathered the big snowstorm

02/06/2014 7:19 PM

02/06/2014 7:19 PM

City Hall appears to be getting good marks for its response to this week’s snowstorm. Sure, there are complaints — there always will be in a city this size — but for the most part, Kansas Citians seem happy with the snow removal effort.

And it was better than in years past. New technology, like GPS tracking, helps. Forecasting is more accurate than it was even 10 years ago, allowing crews to mobilize before a winter storm. And those workers do an amazing job in difficult circumstances.

Merits aside, though, the public’s cheery endorsement of the snow removal response reflects an important political truth: The perception that someone is in charge is often as important as the actual response to a natural calamity.

Previous Kansas City mayors didn’t completely get this, often to their chagrin. They depended on the city’s management to prepare and execute snow removal plans.

As it turned out, though, those unelected bureaucrats were utterly indifferent to how the public viewed their work. I once called a city manager and asked for an interview to discuss the city’s preparations for a major ice storm just a few hours away.

He laughed. Don’t worry, he said. We’re ready.

He wasn’t.

Just as important, though, City Hall communicated a complete lack of urgency as the storm bore down on the area. It seemed as if no one was in charge. Ultimately when the ice finally hit, that indifference colored the public’s reaction to the response.

Sly James understands this completely.

See him now, on the 5 o’clock news, live, ball-capped, at a “command center,” telling residents to get ready as the storm approaches. Move your cars to one side of the street. Stay home tomorrow. Stagger your business opening times.

Follow him on Twitter: He’s engaged in a two-day conversation with snowed-in constituents, angry commuters, happy voters, public workers. There are pictures.

Interactive maps. Websites. The TV monitors hum. Sly James: a mayor in full — urgent, concerned, focused as the snow falls.

Most of this is for show. Sly James doesn’t run the city; City Manager Troy Schulte does. The city’s snow response would have likely been the same if James had stayed home.

But most people don’t see that. They like to see someone they voted for in charge, and they judge the results accordingly.

Of course, your view of the city’s snow removal effort will still rest in part on the amount of snow on your block. If you’re dissatisfied, you can call City Hall for help.

If that fails, though, try tweeting the mayor. He’s the guy in the ball cap.

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