Kansas City’s powers that be don’t always get what they want

02/12/2014 3:30 PM

02/12/2014 9:32 PM

Who calls the shots in Kansas City?

It’s a time-honored question that’s tough to answer.

Kansas City has thrived at times because lots of people got involved in making the right decisions. For example, it took strong leadership at the grassroots level to pass the taxes to finance the downtown streetcar system. But it also required heavy lifting by Mayor Sly James and other politicians to get that far.

At other times, the city has faltered because having lots of people involved left no one in charge. That’s been all-too-true in Kansas City’s many failed attempts to approve light-rail plans.

Here’s a look at some of those who tackle what they think are crucial priorities, not always successfully.

• The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City.

It’s comfortable to fall back on the notion that the area’s mostly male, mostly white top business leaders who seem to have been in power forever call the shots on many causes.

But can you say “translational research?”

Voters late last year overwhelmingly defeated a sales tax — pushed hard by the Civic Council — to finance medical research in Jackson County. Among the tax’s many problems: The project had been put together out of public sight, with no real involvement by elected officials or community groups.

Yet the Civic Council is also responsible for one of the best things that happened to Kansas City in the first decade of this century. The group financed the Sasaki plan, an ambitious set of proposals to remake downtown, especially by focusing attention on the importance of adding thousands of residents.

• The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

To see the limits of its powers, just look at the recent medical research tax that it also very publicly backed. In fact, translational research is one of the Big 5, the chamber’s worthy effort to create jobs and improve the quality of life for Kansas Citians. Another Big 5 goal — to hold a worldwide animal health symposium — was dropped last year with a lukewarm “mission accomplished” message that the area’s successes in this field already were enough.

However, the chamber’s involvement in many other issues has kept up the pressure to make good things happen. Another Big 5 goal of reviving urban neighborhoods could pay off in the long run with the right kind of corporate muscle behind it.

• Mayors and City Council members.

Politicians have the authority to set priorities, approve big budgets and pursue lots of other lofty goals for the city.

Yet all mayors and council members have tasted defeat on efforts they backed. Every day, plenty of elected officials find the limits of their powers.

On the other side of the ledger, mayors especially have provided strong leadership when Kansas City needed it. Highlights include Kay Barnes’ efforts to remake downtown and James’ involvement in positive outcomes for streetcars and a new sales tax for better roads and parks.

• Voters.

Let’s not forget the most powerful people at the end of the day — the ones who approved streetcars, defeated light rail, killed the translational tax, endorsed the roads and parks tax, and have had the ultimate say on dozens of other good (and bad) ideas on local ballots.

But even with all that power, voters can only control so much. They are the ones who count on the Civic Council, the chamber, the elected officials and others to bring reasonable plans to them.

In other words, it really does take a lot of people working toward common goals to get good things done.

It’s a recipe for success that requires plenty of practice to get right.

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