Dave Helling

Who holds all the power in Kansas City? No one person, and that’s causing problems

“Boss” Tom Pendergast (left) speaks to Lloyd Crow Stark at the funeral of Francis M. Wilson in Platte City in 1932.
“Boss” Tom Pendergast (left) speaks to Lloyd Crow Stark at the funeral of Francis M. Wilson in Platte City in 1932. File photo

Kansas City’s mayoral and City Council campaigns will begin in earnest in a few weeks after the holidays are over. After spending the fall fundraising and plotting strategy, candidates soon will be seriously discussing actual issues.

What will those issues be? The airport, certainly. Affordable housing and incentives for businesses. Water rates. Gun violence. Taxes. Schools. All will be on the table.

Unfortunately, the candidates probably won’t talk about a less obvious concern: the city’s irrational fear of concentrated political power and the lack of accountability that comes with that.

Most Kansas Citians know the history by heart. Tom Pendergast amassed power in the 1920s and 1930s; that power terrified Kansas City’s elites. Pendergast’s corruption led to his downfall, and a “Clean Sweep” movement restructured city politics, bringing professional management to City Hall by scattering power across the community.

We have lived in that world ever since. That’s the good news because Kansas City has avoided a Pendergast-like scandal for decades, despite the occasional outbreak of petty corruption.

But it’s also the bad news because Kansas City’s diffusion of political power makes agenda-setting and problem-solving much more difficult.

The police department is the most obvious example. It’s hard for a city politician to address crime when the governor controls the police board.

But it’s also evident in the airport debacle, as the mayor, the council, the city manager, the Aviation Department, the airlines and the developer all jostle for space and influence.

Don’t blame Mayor Sly James for this, or City Manager Troy Schulte or any one person. The problem is systemic: Kansas City’s political structure spreads power so thinly that no one person in local government is truly responsible for addressing problems.

The mayor’s powers are limited to a few appointments, a seldom-used veto, advice on the budget and the megaphone that the office affords. His or her influence is largely situational: A Kansas City mayor must constantly juggle shifting alliances, viewpoints and approaches to get anything done.

Progress is hard when your only job is herding cats, particularly when those cats can tell you to get stuffed, which they often do.

Normally, the city manager would step into the power breach. Yet city managers in Kansas City are notoriously reluctant to lead: Their job depends on deference to the council and mayor. Indeed, Schulte’s performance will be an issue next year.

There are other structural problems. Electing six at-large candidates diffuses power — half the council can plausibly claim a citywide mandate. Term limits and nonpartisan elections make cooperation optional.

Kansas Citians can easily make laws, or rescind them, by petition and plebiscite. That really diffuses power. Neighborhood groups and civic organizations add to the cacophony, without any one person or group in charge.

The result of all this scattered power? Behold the airport terminal project, where a dozen politicians surround a boulder and push. Everyone works hard, but the rock doesn’t budge.

The lack of progress leads to the spread of serious misinformation and conspiracy-mongering, which cause more problems.

I’m not suggesting a return to Pendergast-level power for the mayor or anyone else. That would be impossible. No mayor or manager can or should rule by fiat.

But systems matter. A government with a chief executive mayor, more in-district council members, tougher petition rules and a fixed-term manager would better equip the city to deal with its 21st-century challenges.

Kansas City’s obsession with machine politics in the 1920s will slow progress in the 2020s. The mayor and City Council candidates should talk about that, too.

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