Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte have been good partners the last four years, pushing a forward-looking agenda for Kansas City. Both are enthusiastic and positive influences on the city’s future.
Residents and businesses have benefited from the alliance. Citizen satisfaction scores on annual surveys are up. The city has boosted spending on basic services, such as park upgrades and road resurfacing. Major city investments, like the new downtown streetcar line, are moving ahead.
This is no time for the new City Council to break up the team, create uncertainty at City Hall and in the business community, and try to move in a different direction. That’s especially true now that the election to renew the 1 percent earnings tax is barely four months away; the tax contributes more than $220 million to the city’s $1.4 billion budget.
James has excellent reasons to pursue signing Schulte to a new, three-year agreement.
But a handful of members on the council — which has nine new people who took office on Aug. 1 — reportedly objected at a recent private meeting. The council needs more time to evaluate whether it can work well with Schulte, went the argument.
This viewpoint ignores reality. New members spent months running for office and talking to people about the job Schulte has done since James and a previous council appointed him in mid-2011. And council members have had four months at City Hall to get to know Schulte.
While some new council members have good reasons to make sure they aren’t pushovers for James on every issue, this is not the right battle to draw that line in the sand.
By now the new council members have heard plenty about some of Schulte’s weaknesses, especially his much-too-cautious approach in dealing with city employees who aren’t good managers or have angered citizens and endangered key city projects. Aviation Director Mark VanLoh and his handling of the new Kansas City International Airport terminal come right to mind.
But the council members also have had time to evaluate the far more positive sides of Schulte’s leadership.
He is often blunt in providing information — whether about union demands, pension costs or other matters. He’s not one to simply count to seven votes to get a majority for any issue that goes before the 13-member council, as some managers have done.
Strong city managers want clear directives from the council and mayor, and then they will try to carry them out. Generally, that’s what Schulte has done.
Citizens back the job done by Schulte and his staff, as the last few years of satisfaction surveys indicate. Along with James, City Hall is putting much more emphasis on tracking data that show whether city workers are providing more efficient public services.
The general conclusions: The Water Services Department has made great strides during the Schulte years in repairing water and sewer line breaks; parks are cleaner; public safety scores are still high; and the city’s trash and recycling services are embraced by the public.
“Troy Schulte is a professional administrator and not a politician,” says Jim Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Heeter says Schulte has “tremendous support in the business community,” in large part because he and his staff finally put in place a five-year budget plan that helps with long-term city spending.
The most influential person inside Kansas City Hall is almost always the city manager, whose major roles are to hire department leaders and put together the annual budget. The city charter gives the mayor big roles in hiring —and keeping or firing — the city manager.
Given James’ deserved strong support for the job Schulte is doing, a new three-year contract needs to be signed soon. That would be a positive move for Kansas City.