Monday, February 7, 2011

City Government Part 2

In City Government Part 1, I looked at the different ways that cities govern themselves--who holds the power and by implication, how things get done. Here I want to take some time to consider how the structure of the government influences the political dialog and concerns of the people living in the city. Let's start with the current KCMO mayor for example.

Mark Funkhouser has a problem. He would like to be reelected mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, but he is a long shot to survive the primary. The problem? His "people" missteps! A lot of them involve his wife's presence at City Hall as the unpaid assistant mayor or adviser to the mayor or whatever. She has been absent in body from 12th and Oak the past couple of years, but still remains a presence in the mayor's political life. It's not just her presence, which inspired the council to pass rules concerning volunteers related to the mayor, but she did things, like call a Black city employee "mammy" or something like that, that actually cost the city money.

People remember this stuff, and in my opinion, they remember it even more vividly because of the weak mayor form of government in Kansas City. Mr. Funkhouser cannot blow away memories of his wife wandering around City Hall with incense with some incredible plan he was able to execute through the auspices of his office. Any plan he comes up with has to go through the council and/or the City Manager. So it's far harder for him to make a big splash and deflect attention from these types of issues.

Despite that reality, when things don't go right, Mr. Funkhouser gets hammered just as hard as a "strong mayor." After the 3 day, 12 inch snowfall of Christmas season 2009, Kansas City's snow removal work was sharply criticized, and so was the mayor. This despite the fact that this really is the bailiwick of the city manager, in concert with the street department. Mr. Funkhouser was treated as roughly as New York mayors past and present--just ask the ghost of John Lindsay or Michael Bloomberg about screwing up snow removal.

I was listening to his radio ad today. He does rightly point out that at this time, Kansas City is not in terrible financial shape. However, as a FB commenter pointed out, the various lawsuits related to the way the mayor's office was run cost the city $600,000 in legal settlements and such. That's hard to get out of your head. It's harder for a weak mayor to overcome this kind of blundering. Funkhouser may have been smart with some money, but he was not smart with people, and this really hurt--and hurts--him. A weak mayor has a different situation than a strong mayor.

Many people have found the politics of Kansas City overly focused on personalities and who said what to whom--find it immature and rather like grade school. I think that some of that is because of the weak mayor form of government. We find ourselves looking at the mayor for vision and coherence and if we don't find it, we do two things: we look at the others in government and we pick at them and of course, we pick at the mayor. And everyone at City Hall is doing the same thing--picking at each other and the mayor.

Some have wanted to go back to a stronger mayor form of government, rolling back some of the reforms of the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps, it is time. Either that, or we need better city mangers. Both the one in the office labelled such, and one in the mayor's office. The one in the mayor's office has to remember to get the "optics" right, be a mission minded vision caster and someone who is not just "good with money" but "good with people." That is how a "weak mayor" who wants to leave a positive mark does it.


Bob G. said...

That was VERY well said.

I like the idea you mention about a return to past leaders that have succeeded.
Today, it's all about "showmanship" (and the huge election coffers), and maybe toss in some policy along the way to make it all look nice.

Better to be a REAL "people person" (first), and then the money WILL follow.

Meaning what you say and saying what you mean goes a LONG way when it comes to ETHICS, especially with those who "pay the freight" for the city aka the taxpayers.

Love this series you have.

Keep those hits coming.

Stay safe & warm out there.

the observer said...

Bob G:
I am still not completely satisfied with this post but it will have to do.

There's an irony in that the fact that "weak mayors" have more difficulty in overcoming mistakes than "strong mayors" in many ways. They have no control, yet end up taking a lot of blame. Then it's harder for them to dig there way out of a hole.
Thanks for stopping by today--I hope you all get some of this warm up they have forecasted for KC this weekend!

The Observer