Government & Politics

‘The ship must continue to move forward.’ Mayor Sly James, council say farewell

Sly James delivers his final State of the City speech

Kansas City Mayor Sly James reflects on his nearly eight years in office as he gives his last State of the City address at Rockhurst University, his alma mater.
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Kansas City Mayor Sly James reflects on his nearly eight years in office as he gives his last State of the City address at Rockhurst University, his alma mater.

As his time presiding over the City Council drew to a close Thursday, Mayor Sly James said nothing he accomplished in his eight years leading Kansas City happened alone.

“It’s always been about us and we, not about me and I,” James said, remarking on a resolution honoring his tenure.

James, along with five other council members, leaves office in two weeks. All six were recognized during their final legislative session ahead of the Aug. 1 inauguration, when Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, and six new members will be sworn in.

In an at times emotional two-and-a-half-hours of tributes, followed by some last official business, James and the five outgoing members said their goodbyes to City Hall and to each other. They commended one another on major projects, from the streetcar and the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport, to hard work on lower-profile neighborhood issues.

James, who had never held public office prior to ousting incumbent Mayor Mark Funkhouser in a 2011 primary, said it was the “professional honor of (his) life” to represent Kansas City for eight years.

Over the course of his two terms, James presided over the continued revitalization of downtown, an agreement for a new convention hotel, the KCI deal and the creation of the streetcar. He also pushed to put Kansas City in a more prominent spot on the national stage.

In a departure from previous mayors, James focused energy on education, spearheading a children’s literacy program called Turn the Page and pushing for a 3/8-cent sales tax to fund a pre-K expansion, a ballot measure which failed in April.

He said coming out of the recession, he and other council members labored to get projects rolling in Kansas City, because “the ship must continue to move forward.”

“If it ain’t moving forward, we’re sinking,” he said.

Also leaving office were council members Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large; Jermaine Reed, 3rd District; Jolie Justus, 4th District; Alissia Canady, 5th District; and Scott Taylor, 6th District at-large, all of whom ran for mayor. Lucas will also be replaced on the council as he assumes James’ position.

The council members, who have found themselves at odds on myriad issues, set those aside Thursday for what at times took the tone of a humorous and bittersweet commencement ceremony.

James commended Justus, whom he endorsed over Lucas in the mayor’s race, for dedicating the last four years to her council position and eight years before that in the Missouri Senate.

Her fellow council members praised her dedication to constituents and major city issues. She led the Airport Committee through the contentious process of approving a deal for the new single terminal at KCI.

Councilman Dan Fowler, 2nd District, joked that during periods the council was grappling with major issues, he would call Justus and her wife, Lucy Bardwell, who would answer the phone and tell Justus, “It’s your boyfriend.”

“It never quite got that far,” Fowler said, drawing uproarious laughter from the rest of the council.

In a parting speech, Reed called it a “bittersweet moment” after getting elected to the council at 25 and serving eight years. He said his goal from the beginning was to energize the 3rd District.

“As I leave this post today as a city council member for the 3rd District, I can tell you I am extremely proud to stand here and report that we’ve been able to do just that,” Reed said.

Council members joked about the absence of Taylor, who missed several meetings after losing the April primary. James said he appointed Taylor to chair the planning, zoning and economic development committee because he wanted to work on small business issues.

“He worked very hard from day one until the day he left, which was some time about six months ago,” James joked.

He added that eventually Taylor will see the video of the council meeting.

“And when you do, I will have moved,” James said.

Taylor was at a family engagement Thursday.

Council members cited Canady for being, as James put it, a “fierce advocate” for her district on issues she believed in. Lucas said she was “constantly underestimated” and an example to others.

“She raised the bar in such a way — I am so proud,” said Councilman Lee Barnes, 5th District at-large. “I am proud to call her my colleague.”

Wagner, commended by James for leading the finance committee and serving as mayor pro tem, seemed to surprise even himself when he became emotional during his goodbye remarks.

“You all are too kind,” Wagner said, “and I especially am appreciative of it because it shows my boys that I did okay.”

Wagner continued: “When I came here as a former neighborhood president, I wanted to do right by my neighborhood and the other neighborhoods that were out there. And I feel like I did.”

The major item on the council’s agenda, a $132 million downtown office tower called Strata, was delayed until after the next council takes office at the request of the developers.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.