Does this kind of public meeting sound familiar? It drones on and on as bureaucrats roll out complex financial details about projects, elected officials chime in with questions and the public eventually speaks its peace.
Katheryn Shields sat through tons of those sessions while serving as the Jackson County Executive for 12 years and as a Kansas City Council member for almost eight years before that.
Now Shields is back at City Hall as part of a crop of nine new council members. And at an informal gathering of Mayor Sly James and the council earlier this week, Shields made it clear she’s not enamored of one part of the job.
The council’s committee meetings, she told colleagues, are too darn long. The city staff speaks too much, she added, implying they go over details that aren’t really too important.
While Shields has a point — elected officials often make fun of Health Director Rex Archer for his lengthy presentations at City Hall, for instance — James quickly noted that brevity might not always be best. After all, council members have contended they want to hear the real concerns and questions from Kansas Citians.
Which brings us to a crucial question: Will this City Council carry out the mission that some members campaigned on, such as being more transparent in how activities are carried out at 12th and Oak streets?
Some of the members who seemed most earnest on having more open conversations included Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Quinton Lucas, Jolie Justus, Lee Barnes Jr. and Alissia Canady.
Shields’ brief comments won’t change how public meetings occur, partly because James didn’t give her a leadership role on a major council panel. Plus, she chose to run for office, so extra-lengthy hearings now are simply part of the job description.
But Shields helped bring up a valid point that all council members — especially the majority that took office a few months ago — should be focused on. They need to get the best possible information from city staff and give the public the proper amount of time to learn about issues, and then discuss them at public meetings.
One big benefit to truly listening to the public is that it might help rally public support behind big projects, including the huge one coming sometime to the council about how to renovate Kansas City International Airport.
A more open and welcoming council also might help avoid future initiative petitions and a referendum or two.
People who don’t like what they see going on at City Hall have a pretty low bar to clear as they pursue petitions. The number of signatures required to get something on the ballot is controlled by how many people voted in the last mayoral race, and turnout in 2015 was poor. That apathy comes with a price.
But sometimes Kansas City residents just need to get better or more information on an issue to prevent a petition effort from gathering steam. Sometimes citizens simply need face-to-face time with a council member — like the face-to-face time that council members recently gave supporters of the downtown hotel deal and the face-to-face time elected officials often provide to development lawyers seeking tax breaks for their clients.
The people whose job it is to get public subsidies or to advance projects through the city bureaucracy can make time for these meetings. That’s their job.
However, regular citizens often have regular jobs. They have to carve out time away to get to a public hearing or talk to a council member.
Committee meetings are supposed to be where the public gets a chance to raise questions about what’s going or or to alert council members that not everyone thinks the same way on an issue.
Democracy is messy, of course, and simply letting someone speak out doesn’t mean opposition melts away.
In recent months, some critics have made it clear they don’t want to support a new KCI terminal despite some evidence that may be the best way to go. Detractors of the downtown hotel deal are fixated on taxpayers’ costs for it — even though leaders of a petition against the hotel financing plan did not take full advantage of public meetings to raise those concerns.
The council swiftly passed tax breaks to renovate a building that will house the BNIM architectural firm in the Crossroads Arts District even though some members knew taxing jurisdictions disliked key parts of the deal. But the company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen helped pave the way for public incentives.
Looking forward, it would be great to see council members junk business as usual and be more willing to shake the boat in asking questions of the city staff and getting the public more involved about what’s being discussed at City Hall.