Schulte talks about the city’s bid for Amazon
The candidates for mayor and City Council in Kansas City have lots to talk about in the weeks before the June 18 election — crime, housing, economic incentives, transportation.
All are important topics. None, though, is more significant to the future of Kansas City than the service of City Manager Troy Schulte.
During the campaign, voters should insist on a public discussion of Schulte’s tenure and a full examination of his plans for the next four years. Ducking these question won’t do.
On Tuesday, Schulte said he welcomes just such a debate. His current contract expires in March.
“If I can serve a role for whoever is elected mayor, I’m happy to consider it,” he said. “I will say this: Whoever the mayor is has got to have a city manager that they can work with.” He’s right.
Schulte’s retention may be a clear line of distinction between mayoral candidates Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas.
“There have been several areas in which I have disagreed mightily with Mayor James, and by default, I have disagreed on those topics with what the city manager has been directed to do,” Lucas said Tuesday. He pointed to concerns about city services and transparency.
Justus was more supportive. “I happen to think Troy has been a strong city manager for Kansas City,” she said Tuesday, while insisting the position isn’t hers to offer one way or another.
Schulte has been the city’s top administrator for almost a decade. That’s longer than average, although not outrageously so: Typically, city managers last between seven and eight years.
He has shown an impressive working knowledge of the city’s budget practices. He is candid with the press and the public. He managed the city through the worst of the Great Recession with relatively good results.
Voters approved a massive, $800 million infrastructure bond program in part because they trusted the city manager to manage the money efficiently. In 2017, we said firing Schulte would be a mistake.
Yet Schulte’s record deserves scrutiny this election season. The Kansas City International Airport procurement debacle was at least partly his fault — Schulte was in the discussion that led to the initial confusion surrounding the deal. He can be too fond of secrecy.
Critics worry Schulte is less focused on neighborhood concerns than he should be. Problems with trash service, potholes and snow removal are serious issues for neighborhoods, and the city manager is the one person most responsible for execution of those basic services.
There are concerns Schulte is too comfortable with borrowing and with handing out incentives to private developers. His relationships with city employee unions is also on the table.
None of this disqualifies Schulte from a contract extension from the new mayor and council. But forward progress on affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization will depend on an energetic city manager focused on those issues. The candidates must acknowledge this and discuss it.
Same with incentives, pensions and city worker contracts. You can’t run Kansas City without a quality city manager.
Schulte has shown some dissatisfaction with his job in the past. If he plans to leave, he should say so before Election Day, so voters can judge the candidates accordingly.
The outgoing City Council should avoid repeating the mistake made by the outgoing Kansas City School Board, which renewed the superintendent’s contract moments before walking out the door. Ultimately, the new mayor and City Council should decide Schulte’s future.
One way or another, Schulte’s fate should not be a surprise later this year. Kansas Citians deserve to know what the candidates think about the city’s most powerful public figure before they walk into the voting booth.