Charter commission hears from former mayor Wheeler

The charter review commission wanted input from Kansas City mayors, and former mayor Charles Wheeler told them why a mayor’s power matters.

Wheeler, 86, served as mayor for two terms after his 1971 election and said he clashed with a city manager he could not fire.

He stood with the current mayor and former mayors Kay Barnes and Mark Funkhouser in support of  a charter change giving the mayor alone power to fire the city manager.

Critics say that would make for a manager who in effect works for the mayor and is far less concerned about desires of councilmembers.

Wheeler said he wanted to fire city manager Jack Taylor but for a long time did not have the council votes.

“When I took over, Jack Taylor had his little cadre of bureaucrats who had gathered around him over the years and it was hard for me to find out what was going on,” Wheeler said.

It was so bad that he once learned of a strike by city workers by reading of it in the newspaper, he said.

But Wheeler spoke against going to a strong mayor form of government in which the mayor serves as an administrator  apart from the city council, as in the federal system with the president and congress.

The mayor should have a vote on the council, he said.

Commissioners also asked him about proposals to add council districts and have most or all council members elected from within the districts, a change that minorities say could give them more representation.

The current system is 13 council members, which includes the mayor, six members elected from geographic districts and six members who live in the districts but are elected citywide.

Wheeler said: “It seems to me to do it any other way you ignore the two forces that are balanced, which are local forces and citywide forces. It seems to me we can elect good councils year after year so why change.”

Wheeler also said the city should do away with its system of nonpartisan government, which cuts its power in the statehouse.

“The nonpartisan label immediately leaves you all alone in a group of Democrats and Republicans,” he said.

UMKC Professor Jered Carr, with the Cookingham Institute of Public Affairs, provided the 13-member commission with more data on governing structures and election turnout of comparable cities.

But data on strong mayor or not and district or citywide council members does not define good or bad or efficient or inefficient government, he said. The matter is too complicated.

Commissioner Rodney Knott said of politics, “I think the job is still driven by personality, I don’t think it is driven by form.”

Commissioners said they will have a fact gathering meeting Aug. 19, when former mayors Emanuel Cleaver and Richard Berkley may speak. Then they hope to start considering what they will recommend to the city council in the way of charter changes.

There will be a meeting Monday, Aug. 5, to hear from the public in Midtown, they said. It will be at the Southeast Community Center at 4201 E. 63rd St. from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Another public meeting will be Aug. 19 in the northland, at 4420 Northeast Chateau Trafficway.

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