Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte pushed back hard Wednesday against a proposal to limit his power to spend taxpayer money without City Council approval, effectively daring council members to muster the votes to fire him.
“If the core issue is, quite honestly, that they don’t like my management style or where they think I’m taking the organization, that’s easy,” he told The Star in a defiant interview at his City Hall office.
“That’s seven signatures on the paper with the mayor and nine without the mayor, and I’m gone tomorrow. I’ll earn more money and sleep better at night. Life’s too short.”
Dismissing Schulte, who makes more than $220,000 a year, would require the support of Mayor Sly James and seven council members. If the mayor vetoed a firing, the council would need nine of 13 members for an override.
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Schulte’s extraordinary line-in-the-sand comments come in response to a story in The Star Tuesday about a proposal by Councilman Quinton Lucas.
Under existing rules, Schulte and his department heads have wide latitude to spend millions of tax dollars without a council vote.
They can solicit bids and sign construction contracts of up to $1.3 million. Agreements of up to $400,000 are permitted for non-construction contracts and for goods and services, consultants, or other technical experts.
Lucas’ ordinance would place a $500,000 ceiling on any construction agreement without council authorization. It would drop the cap on non-construction contracts and other services to $160,000. Agreements to hire consultants, outside attorneys or other experts would be held to $50,000.
The proposal follows disclosure by The Star that Schulte helped fund a study of possible downtown sites for a new baseball stadium. Council members said the city’s participation in the study caught them by surprise.
A spokesman for James said he was traveling and not available for comment. But Lucas said Schulte was overreacting.
“I have no interest in considering replacement of the the city manager,” he said. “I respect him and I’m just saying we have some disagreements.”
Lucas, who is considering a run for mayor in 2019, said the measure reflects the council’s interest in bringing more oversight to city spending.
“All I’m trying to do as a city council member is get information for our voters,” he said. That included more data on what he called the city manager’s “off-book” spending.
The breach between the manager and the council comes as the city is attempting to sell voters on a Nov. 7 ballot proposal just to build a new single terminal at KCI.
At least four council members are prepared to become co-sponsors of the ordinance, Lucas said Wednesday evening: Lee Barnes, Alissia Canady, Teresa Loar and Katheryn Shields.
It is group that has been outspoken in its unhappiness with the tone set by James and Schulte, especially the secrecy surrounding their abortive attempt to award a no-bid contract to Burns & McDonnell for the $1 billion KCI project.
Schulte said council members are completely within their rights to set whatever contracting limits they saw fit. But he sees this ordinance as just another manifestation of their discontent. He sounded as if he was prepared to be shown the door.
“My sense is you’ve got a small minority of the City Council that don’t like the current leadership. They don’t like that I work well with the mayor, and this is a way to send a message,” he said. “If that’s the majority of opinion of the City Council, I’ve got a contract and it’s pretty clear. I don’t take it personally.”
Schulte has served as city manager since 2009 and signed a multiyear extension in 2016. His tenure makes him one of the city’s longest-serving city managers. If dismissed he would receive a year’s pay as severance.
“I’m well past my half-life,” he said.
Schulte said that councils in the late 1990s and early 2000s required that any spending over $35,000 be placed on the agenda for a vote, and that made for long meetings that limited the time available to discuss broader policy issues. The limits were steadily lifted in subsequent years.
Lucas said that placement of contracts on the council’s “consent agenda,” which is voted on as a block, would not drain that much time. At a minimum, he said, it would place these “off book” measures on the record for the public to review.
“I hope everyone uses this as an opportunity to see how we can be more transparent with our voters,” he said.