The three candidates in this year’s Lee’s Summit mayoral race fielded questions Tuesday from voters during a public forum at the Missouri Innovation Campus.
Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Chamber members Mike Allen and Andrew Belker, the candidates — Bill Baird, Rob Binney, and Ron Williams — shared their positions on a wide spectrum of topics, including a vision for economic growth, city employee compensation, the biggest challenges facing the city, and strategies for working effectively with the city council.
“We have three good candidates,” said Roby Little, a lifetime Lee’s Summit resident. “I came tonight to learn more about their positons. I want to know what they see for the future of our city. I hope to find that out tonight to help me make my decision.”
Others needed the cheat sheet the forum provided.
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“This is the first election since I moved to the city,” Angela Fasci said. “I don’t know much about Lee’s Summit politics, but I want to learn. I’m a voter. I’m interested in the city and want to make my vote count.”
Although the candidates bring a range of experience to the table, throughout the evening there generally seemed to be more common ground than stark contrast when discussing, for instance, the importance of fueling economic growth.
“I’d like to lead more economic development,” said Binney, who currently serves as mayor pro tem. “I would like to keep jobs here and attract new businesses and employers. We have so many good things going. It’s our job to build on those and make them better.”
Baird and Williams agreed.
“Economically, it’s time to grow healthily,” said Baird, a real estate broker and former Lee’s Summit Board of Education member. “We need to bring outside tax dollars in. What will it take to get a convention center here and make Lee’s Summit a real destination?”
Williams, who owns Integral Construction Services and is a former city councilman and mayor pro tem, agreed: “I think it’s the responsibility of local leadership to grow this community dynamically — whether growth is industrial, manufacturing, or commercial.”
It was a pattern that emerged during the forum.
Responding to a question about the need for affordable senior housing, the candidates again concurred. All three recognized the need exists and believe the city should step in to address the issue. They also agreed the fundamental challenge is finding a development partner that can meet the economic parameters for these types of projects.
Some responses got pointed when the discussion turned to working with the wider city council.
To alleviate conflict within the council, Williams said he would ensure clarity is a priority when issues are presented and voted on. He also said that getting to know the members personally would be key in decreasing conflict.
Binney said respect was key in decreasing conflict among council members.
“I would establish ground rules and build a consensus on how we should treat and respect each other,” he said. “We have to agree to disagree. The mayor can be influential in resolving conflicts, and I would maintain order and make sure everyone is respectful.”
Baird was a bit more critical of some of the in-fighting that has gripped the council.
“As mayor, it would be my responsibility to set good policy and be accountable to that policy,” he said. “Not all of the council is functioning at its highest level. We can do more. Our biggest challenge is contentiousness. We need to get the council working together and seeing the bigger picture. We need to find middle ground.”
Beginning this year, the mayor will participate as a voter on the city council.
“The mayor is now a voting member,” Williams said. “As mayor, you have an even greater reason to lead on an issue, so engage, lead.”
Baird agreed that it presents an opportunity for the mayor to put his stamp on Lee’s Summit.
“I’m excited to vote,” he said. “I can negotiate that middle ground we’re talking about, and present the mayor’s point of view.”
Another small divergence was apparent when the candidates were asked by an audience member how they’d address the needs of the homeless, childhood hunger, and mental health issues in the community, though none expressed a belief that city government should have a direct role.
“Our community service organizations address these issues,” Williams said. “It doesn’t seem the city should set up these programs. We should engage our social service organizations here and I would see that we get the proper people involved.”
Binney echoed that position: “It’s the job of the mayor and city council to assist our community partners and organizations who have the knowledge, heart, and know-how to address these problems.”
Baird took a somber tone, but didn’t offer much practical difference.
“My wife says I always smile when I’m asked a question, but I’m not smiling at this one,” he said. “These are bigger issues than people realize. I saw this on the school board. Mental health is our schools’ number one concern. This is a passionate, generous community and we have to engage our resources for these problems.”