Dave Helling

In Brandon Ellington vs. Kansas City Council colleagues, there are no winners

On Oct.17, Kansas City Councilman Brandon Ellington stood in council chambers, defending his proposal to penalize city contractors who discriminate.

“I came to cook today,” the 3rd District councilman said.

During most of the next hour, Ellington held the floor, arguing furiously against a motion to send his anti-discrimination ordinance back to committee for more study. He argued, complained, cajoled. He implied his colleagues had been bought by builders and unions. He suggested some opponents were motivated by racism.

“If I have to go to war for the people, I have no problem getting my boots bloody,” Ellington said. “I hope we can have a good council that works together. Or let’s blow it up.”

The councilman had already put a match to the fuse. At least twice, after colleagues spoke on the issue, Ellington claimed an additional 20 minutes of debate time, a move guaranteed to anger and frustrate others in the chamber.

“My greatest ally is these TV cameras,” he said, as others wandered in and out of their seats.

Did it work? No. Ten City Council members, all but Ellington, eventually voted to send the ordinance back to a committee, where it now sits, off the city’s agenda.

But there’s more. Ellington’s colleagues were so upset with his behavior that they amended their rules the very next week. Now, floor speeches on an ordinance or resolution are broadly limited to 10 minutes, a change clearly aimed at preventing another fumbling filibuster.

The council pushed the rules change through without debate, and without any comment from Ellington.

Council members, it seems, aren’t interested in blowing anything up, and they have little taste for Ellington’s hectoring insinuations about their behavior.

The councilman isn’t worried. He says the dispute is about “culture,” not personalities, and he has no plans to tone it down.

“I haven’t done anything not to get along with people,” Ellington said. “I’ve had no negative conversations with anybody.”

Gadflies, rebels, iconoclasts — elected government is filled with people who would rather make a point than make a law. The Kansas City Council is no different, and Brandon Ellington is filling that role to perfection, which is his right.

But the outsider pays a price: He or she won’t accomplish much. It’s hard to ask a colleague for help when you’ve whined for an hour, or hinted everyone else is on the take, or intimidated them into remaining silent lest they extend a debate.

Ellington’s behavior should be worrisome to his 3rd District constituents. A handful of residents may support his take-no-prisoners style, but others in the district — the most impoverished in the city — would probably like a more collaborative person to work on their concerns.

If the City Council can ignore him, it can ignore them. That’s the risk Ellington has taken.

No politician should be asked to abandon his or her principles, or to go along just to get along. But compromise is almost always the best option at City Hall. All votes are equal, and there are only 13 of them to go around.

In the first weeks of the new City Council, that message seems to be lost on Brandon Ellington. He has come to cook, but his colleagues aren’t eating. Sadly, his constituents will go hungry.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.