I was privileged to serve as an elected member of the original Lee’s Summit Charter Commission (one of three members who were attorneys), who drafted the original city charter adopted in 1996. The Charter Commission met and deliberated for an entire year to craft a document which achieved home rule for the city, initiated several constructive innovations, including initiative, referendum and recall, two-year instead of one-year intervals between municipal elections and – most essentially – carefully designed a separation of powers among the components of city government, including city council, mayor, city administrator and departments, law department, prosecutors, municipal court and park board.
I am particularly troubled by two of the changes proposed by the 2016-2017 Charter Review Commission appearing on the April 4 municipal election ballot: Questions 3 and 4. I’ll take them in reverse order: (1) Question 4 weakens the office of the mayor, effectively transforming the chief executive of the city into a “first among equals” member of the city council. The original charter set the mayor apart from the council, although the mayor presides over council meetings and casts a vote in the case of a tie, and gave the mayor a veto, by which he or she can force a super-majority vote to pass an ordinance or a resolution. Although the current mayor has used the veto only 3 times to date, the threat of the veto gives the mayor additional leverage on any issue. And the mayor is the only city official (other than the judges of the municipal court) who is elected by the entire city, making every citizen of Lee’s Summit a constituent of the mayor.
The 2006-2007 Charter Review Commission recommended, and the voters approved, several beneficial changes, including term limits for mayor and council and changing the title of the city administrator to city manager, but did little to disturb the balance of power established by the original charter. However, though term limits were adopted to limit the entrenched power of incumbent council members, term limits also had the incidental effect of shifting power to potentially longer-term unelected officials. The current city manager is a dedicated and ethical public servant, but it cannot be assumed that every future occupant of the office will be equally committed. The balance of power in the current charter serves as a check against entrenched power of both elected and unelected city officials. Shifting power away from the mayor will move the needle further in the direction of the city manager, and we should question whether such a change is either necessary or desirable.
Further, requiring the mayor to vote on all ordinances could indeed lead to litigation challenging any ordinances adopted in the mayor’s absence, notwithstanding any interpretation to the contrary, and I am unaware of any other city which imposes such a requirement. The proposal could have allowed the mayor to vote without requiring it and left the mayor’s veto alone (as does Blue Springs), but it fails to do that.
(2) Question 3 proposes a method for the council to remove one of its members, despite provision in the charter for recall election, which has already been utilized more than once by the citizens. Reliance on a code of ethics, to be developed by the council in the future, along with interpretation of the charter and intervention by unelected city officials, invites abuse by a council majority against a dissident member justified on grounds which have yet to be defined. The procedure also puts unelected officials who answer to the mayor and council in the uncomfortable position of initiating disciplinary measures against their bosses. The availability of recall and currently existing laws have not been shown to be incapable of dealing with misbehavior on the part of elected officials.
I commend the citizen volunteers on the 2016-2017 Charter Review Commission who spent countless hours reviewing the current city charter and doing their best to improve it. However, Questions 3 and 4 are definitely not completely thought through and should be voted down in their present form.
[Note: if Question 4 is voted down, the power to appoint the mayor pro-tem would remain with the council instead of the mayor, notwithstanding one part of Question 2 (dealing with miscellaneous subjects), according to the draft charter on the city’s website.]
David E. Elliott