Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas says outgoing incumbent Sly James was seldom seen over the last four years on City Hall’s 22nd floor, where the City Council’s offices are located.
“I hope to spend a lot more time on the council floor — the 22nd floor,” said Lucas, the District 3 at-large member. “I have not seen the mayor down there in about maybe three years and 11 months, or three years and nine months.”
Kansas City mayors have a bully pulpit that gives them voice and visibility, but little in the way of executive power. When Lucas takes office on Aug. 1, he’ll need buy-in from the City Council to move forward the agenda that got him elected: affordable housing and public safety.
Lucas will have new members filling half of the council’s 12 seats. He also has his 17-point margin of victory over Councilwoman Jolie Justus, which he believes gives him a mandate.
“It wasn’t so much a mandate for me; it was a mandate for the issues that I think we addressed,” said Lucas, who prioritized crime, affordable housing and equitable neighborhood growth in his bid for mayor.
Those priorities are shared by many of the new and returning council members. But that doesn’t mean Lucas will have an easy road.
“You’re going to have 12 council people who feel like they have mandates,” said Ed Ford, a former councilman and vice president of Forward KC, a Northland political advocacy group that endorsed Justus. “Particularly if they have a position on an issue that’s different from Quinton’s.”
Like Lucas, much of the incoming council ran on the same general neighborhood issues — safety, infrastructure and housing — with little emphasis on big, downtown projects. But the specific concerns of members are often different, and money is limited.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a honeymoon,” said Councilman-elect Kevin O’Neill, 1st District at-large. “I do think that most of my colleagues on the council will be pretty tough on their questions, and “I think they’re going to all want answers on what to spend the money on. And frankly, I think everyone has a different agenda on that one.”
But O’Neill likened the incoming council to the one James served with in his first term from 2011 to 2015. James was warmly welcomed by members who were happy that unpopular predecessor Mark Funkhouser was gone. His relationship with the current council has been more tenuous.
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, who served as Kansas City mayor from 1991 until 1999, said he benefited from a smooth working relationship with the council members during his two terms.
“So I think that if any mayor fails to connect with the council, that mayor’s term will be far less productive than those of mayors who had a healthy relationship with the council,” Cleaver said. “I would suggest very strongly to mayor-elect Lucas to begin now, meeting with the members of the council.”
Lucas said the early months of his administration would be essential to lay out policy proposals and establish working relationships with council members
“I do not expect an era of good feelings necessarily...but I do expect everyone to come in wanting to get things done,” Lucas said.
A mandate on neighborhoods
Lucas isn’t alone in thinking he has a mandate on neighborhood issues. Richard Martin, director of government affairs for general contracting firm J.E. Dunn, said the same — but with a key qualification.
“I think he’s going to be held accountable for that,” Martin said. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to change directions if he gets swayed by big investments, big investors. He’s going to have to show that his administration has followed through on what it ran on.”
All eyes will be on Lucas to follow through on his campaign issues, particularly housing. Tara Raghuveer, founder of KC Tenants, said the housing advocacy group sees several potential champions of housing issues joining the council. Getting something done to address affordability in Kansas City will be Lucas’ first major hurdle, she said.
“I think if Quinton Lucas wants his legacy to be housing, which he has said that he does, that will require bold and swift action that doesn’t look like little band aids or just dancing around the issue,” Raghuveer said, “but rather looks like systemic changes that come with money.”
On issues like revitalizing the East Side, Councilman-elect Eric Bunch, 4th District, who was elected to the seat Justus vacated, said he thought there was consensus. In the wake of voters’ rejection of Question One, which would have capped incentives, he said there was an interesting discussion to be had over reforming the way the city gives tax breaks for development.
“I think we’re going to be in alignment on a lot of the policies. I think there may be some diversity in how we get there,” Bunch said. “And I think that’s a good thing because it’s a complex challenge that we face.”
Councilwoman-elect Ryana Parks-Shaw, 5th District, agreed.
“In many ways we’ll compliment each other.”
How will Lucas grapple with the council?
One of Lucas’ biggest early tests will be to find $75 million for a housing trust fund to help build and preserve 5,000 affordable units by 2023. In a city constantly looking for creative ways to come up with funds for various priorities, that will be a challenge.
Following an election that centered, in part, on affordable housing, it’s an important issue to incoming council members, including Parks-Shaw.
O’Neill said housing was an important priority for the council to tackle, but he said it would be tough to come up with the money.
“When you’re looking for money, there’s just only so many pots you can look in.”
Bunch, an advocate of public transit, said he hoped to work toward passage of a proposed bike master plan that generated some controversy during the mayoral and council campaign.
As a candidate, Lucas cast doubt on the idea of spending $400 million on bike lanes around the city. City staff put together the proposed plan to guide building of bike lanes over the coming years, but council members would have to allocate the funds.
Bunch said the idea the city was planning to spend that amount was a campaign season “red herring” The figure represented the top end of an estimated range of costs and was applicable only if the city decided to do expensive, protected bike lanes everywhere.
He said he also believed the number to be incorrect and that city could work toward a different figure.
Getting that plan passed will be a key priority for Bunch, who said Lucas had been supportive of active transportation.
“It’s going to be more than just getting Mayor-elect Lucas on board,” Lucas said. “It’s going to be working with my 11 other colleagues as well.”
Cleaver said the incoming group of council members would have strong ideas but have pledged a great deal, some of which won’t get done.
“And the reason is it’s infinitely easier to declare that you want something to happen,” Cleaver said. “It is painfully difficult to locate the funding source.”