Overland Park & Leawood

Tall mayor keeps a low profile in Overland Park

“Some elected officials prefer to be very visible. I prefer not to,” Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach says.
“Some elected officials prefer to be very visible. I prefer not to,” Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach says. The Kansas City Star

When it comes to mayoral politics, Overland Park residents are:

A. Disinterested.

B. Distracted.

C. Pretty happy with the way things are.

The answer is probably all of the above. And it means that Carl Gerlach has been able to run unopposed not once but twice — the second time was this month — for mayor of Kansas’ second-biggest city.

Political experts say it is curious for a mayor of such a large city to attract no challengers.

Overland Park has 176,000 residents. Of the four other Kansas cities that sport populations of more than 100,000, Overland Park’s mayor is the only one who ran uncontested in the most recent elections.

“Uncontested races in larger cities are unusual,” said Don Haider-Markel, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Kansas.

Gerlach’s success isn’t easy to explain.

After all, despite being 6 feet 10 inches tall, he doesn’t have a high profile. He’s not much of a glad-hander, nor does he seem to push hard for issues, at least in public.

Supporters and critics alike describe Gerlach as a nice guy, a good manager who is humble and shuns the spotlight.

It’s not that Gerlach is boring, said Mike Lally, who years ago served on the City Council with Gerlach. Lally said Gerlach doesn’t try to do everything himself, plus Overland Park has a good city manager and staff to run the day-to-day operations, and they do it well.

“The one thing he believes he can do is set the tone, provide a platform for good job creation and economic growth,” Lally said. “I think he has done that.”

Gerlach himself takes pride with operating backstage, saying he doesn’t need to be out front to foment change. The mayor position remains a part-time job, paying $24,000 a year.

The reason Gerlach may not attract opposing candidates may be less his mayoral abilities than the nature of Overland Park government, he said.

The suburb’s government is open, he said. Unlike several Johnson County cities, Overland Park hasn’t faced any bad publicity in recent years for secret meetings or withholding records.

In addition, Gerlach said he and the council are always accessible to the public, and residents can email or phone and will always get a response.

“Many times people get upset when they don’t understand something, and that’s what gives them the passion to run for office,” he said. “We try to keep government open.”

He cited surveys of residents that show general satisfaction. Traditionally, Overland Park residents seem happy. The previous mayor, Ed Eilert, served 24 years. In 2012, the city was ranked in the top 10 of Money magazine’s best places in the nation to live. The median household income is $71,000.

Still, Gerlach has critics who wish he would take on a bigger leadership role on a number of regional and statewide issues that many other leaders have railed about publicly, such as major cuts in education funding.

“He is not one to get excited about issues,” said Janis McMillen, the vice president of the National League of Women Voters who lives across the street from Gerlach. “This city needs to be a bigger player, both locally, regionally and statewide.”

And some issues are bubbling up in Overland Park.

Some residents dislike the city’s move to double-digit sales taxes and perceived giveaways to developers. They say the northern part of the city is being left behind as Overland Park sprawls to the south.

Neil Sader, who ran for mayor against Gerlach in 2005, said issues in Topeka ultimately will hurt economic development in Overland Park, and the city needs a strong leader to address that.

“What credible corporate board in Boston or California or in New York is going to say, ‘We are going to leave our area to go to Kansas … where people are toting guns on their hip and they are cutting schools?’” Sader said. “That’s the real problem.”

While Sader agreed that the city is well-managed, provides basic city services and has low property taxes, he said the new jobs that are coming in often bring low wages with no benefits.

Local boy

Gerlach grew up in Leawood and attended Shawnee Mission South High School. He said most of his youth was spent in Overland Park at places like the Ranch Mart, downtown Overland Park and the old French Market at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue. He also achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.

He didn’t set out to be a hometown politician.

A talented basketball player, Gerlach was recruited by Kansas State University and became co-captain in his junior year. K-State lists him as one of its 50 greatest players from 1961 to 2011.

But misfortune hit after he was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, when he suffered a career-ending injury while training.

Gerlach fell back on his degree in business administration. He returned to Overland Park, began working in the promotional products industry and married. Today, he has three children.

He was elected to the City Council in 1995 and as mayor in 2005.

McMillen hopes Gerlach will be opposed in the future, if only because that would be healthy for the city.

Lack of competition takes pressure off the incumbent but also doesn’t help residents learn about new ideas and developing problems.

“Competition is better,” McMillen said.

Challengers pressure elected officials to be more responsive to public concerns, Haider-Markel said.

“The lack of a challenger gives little incentive for citizens to be informed of the issues or to participate, ” he said.

If future opponents want an easy target, though, they might have a hard time. Gerlach is happy to remain behind the scenes.

“Some elected officials prefer to be very visible. I prefer not to,” Gerlach said. “It’s part of my personality. I’m not doing this for fame and recognition.”