Many Kansas Citians love it when Mayor Sly James blasts “idiots with guns” and others who don’t have the city’s best interests in mind.
“He is a big, loud leader,” says new City Council member Jolie Justus.
But last week James engaged in a brief shouting match in a closed council session with Teresa Loar, another new member, while discussing how to handle a citizens petition on the downtown hotel plan.
The flareup immediately focused attention on key questions that have circulated since the popular James coasted to re-election in June, accompanied by nine newcomers on the 12-person City Council.
Can he lead/sway/control this group as easily as he did the past council during his largely successful first term?
Or will some newcomers engage in contentious discussions that stall or kill James’ priorities? Do they have enough power to lead City Hall in another direction?
The answers right now: It’s too early to know, but some warning storm clouds exist.
In interviews, several new members said they are going to keep asking questions that they think matter to their constituents. That’s a reasonable approach for them, even if it does mean they butt heads with the mayor. Conflict handled well can lead to better-designed plans for improving the city.
The tipping point comes if the council and mayor go into the ditch, and Kansas City is left with a dysfunctional local government as it had during Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s term.
Loar said she was upset last week because it appeared James, City Manager Troy Schulte and a few others at City Hall were pressuring new council members not to dig too deeply into the hotel deal approved by the last council.
“We’re treated like the hired help,” Loar told me at one point. At the private meeting, she said, James brought up a failed redevelopment that had occurred during her previous council service, implying that elected bodies were always living with the decisions past officials had made and she should, too.
That example offended Loar, and she left the meeting because, she said, “I might have said something I regretted.”
This week, Loar said the mayor had texted her an apology. Also, the council now will discuss the hotel deal at next Thursday’s business session.
“We’ll be fine,” Loar said.
Katheryn Shields is a new member who has served before on the council and as Jackson County executive. But James this summer bypassed her when it came to leading crucial council committees.
In measured tones, Shields appropriately said it was important that the nine new members completely understand the hotel deal, especially if they have to discuss it with residents.
Shields said, “I think the mayor needs to be more open to people asking questions.”
New council member Heather Hall also said she and others should be able to get answers in a civil manner.
On Wednesday, James said council members were getting to know each other “while we simultaneously get up to speed on a number of high-profile projects.... Sometimes in this or any circumstance, tempers may flare.” He said he and Loar will work together to move forward.
Justus, a former state legislator, had a spot-on take about recent developments.
“We will start to learn how to function as a group,” she said, adding, “We are a different group of people than the last council.” My translation: James will have to deal with that fact.
As for James’ often-lauded outspokenness, Justus matter-of-factly noted, “sometimes the same thing that is one of your attributes is going to bite you in the rear end.”
The mayor is smart enough to understand that, especially as he tries to advance a positive agenda for Kansas City.