When new mayors of Kansas City first enter office on the 29th floor of City Hall, they find a piece of advice taped to the front door.
It reads: “When in doubt, form a commission. PS: Even when not in doubt, name one, too.”
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OK, fine, there’s really nothing attached to the mayor’s door. But in the last quarter century, Kansas City’s top elected officials sure have been playing out of the same book in following that advice.
Count me among the fans of this general approach. It gets citizens involved and often leads to ideas that elected officials haven’t thought of. Also, a panel’s findings can smooth the way for voters to approve big projects that are good for the city.
Skeptics say real leaders don’t need others telling them what to do and panels just do whatever the politicians want.
While those criticisms have had some validity over the years, citizens groups overall have contributed to a stronger Kansas City under the last five mayors.
Richard Berkley named so many commissions and task forces during his 12 years in office that he gained a reputation for being a wishy-washy leader. Still, as Berkley told me upon leaving office in 1991, the groups he appointed — such as on AIDS, hunger and drugs — focused attention on real issues and problems.
Emanuel Cleaver’s most notable commission recommended many needed cuts and changes to the city’s budget in the 1990s.
Kay Barnes reached Berkley-like levels in naming various task forces from 1999-2007, though to her credit she often had strong viewpoints on how she wanted to establish the city government’s priorities.
Mark Funkhouser didn’t roll out special committees every few months or so. However, a panel he appointed near the end of his single term — to deal with city pension costs — was one of the most essential named in recent years at City Hall.
And now along comes Sly James.
In his first two years, James shows signs he read the memo and is committed to the practice. He has named four major panels, with the first being the Citizens Budget Review Commission. It recommended tax changes that voters approved in 2012.
• The 13-member Charter Review Commission hopes to make its recommendations to the City Council later this year.
The panel will investigate whether to change the charter to allow the mayor to select the city manager. Another alteration would ditch the current way council districts are split up. These could be the most important charter moves in more than two decades — if they get through the council and onto voters’ ballots.
• The Local Control Commission of 30 members is looking into whether Kansas City should try to get rid of state control of its Police Department.
If the panel this fall recommends giving elected officials and Kansas Citians control of the agency for the first time in more than 70 years — as it definitely should — James and others could lobby Missouri General Assembly members to endorse the change during their 2014 session.
• A 24-member advisory committee is reviewing the pros and cons of building a single terminal at the Kansas City International Airport.
This has become an emotionally charged topic, with many Kansas Citians intent on keeping the current three-terminal arrangement. However, the group properly is reviewing an extensive list of questions about what to do next. This week members discussed airport revenues and expenses. Other topics such has capital maintenance needs and aeronautical issues of building a single terminal are pending.
All three of these citizens groups are evaluating crucial matters. The task forces need to take the time needed to independently do their jobs, then produce well-researched proposals that could boost Kansas City’s future.