December 5, 2020
The decision on whether to change the name of Todd George Parkway and Todd George Road will continue into the next year.
The city council this week reviewed 79 comments received by email and heard a brief presentation from city staff in consideration of a proposal to change the street names. The conversation first came to the city council in September, when the city’s Human Relation Commission presented a recommendation to rename the streets in light of George’s white supremacist beliefs.
George, who served as the mayor of Lee’s Summit in the 1910s and 1920s, was a businessman, developer and activist who named the road after himself.
After an online petition calling for a change garnered approximately 140,000 signatures from Lee’s Summit residents and outsiders alike, the HRC began researching George’s writing and history.
Since then, the question of whether to rename the streets has sparked heated debate on social media and beyond.
Those who support changing the name point to George’s outdated and now-offensive rhetoric related to race and equality, arguing that the name does not represent the values that the city holds and is a “blemish” on the reputation of Lee’s Summit.
Those who are opposed to a name change argue that the city has bigger issues to deal with, not to mention the financial burden to the city that the change would require. Others say this could lead to a “slippery slope” of making other changes.
The cost to the city is an estimated $50,000 to change both city-owned and MODoT-owned signage.
“There’s probably a long list of names of people whose names grace our streets in our town that very well had similar views – whether they expressed them in writing that we can pull up or not, I don’t know,” said Councilmember Andrew Felker.
Mayor Bill Baird said he didn’t subscribe to the idea of a slippery slope, saying that the council should be able to discern based on the circumstances when a discussion like this one would be appropriate.
“I hope that we are not afraid to have conversations about diversity and inclusion,” Baird said.
The council agreed at both their Dec. 1 meeting and their Sept. 22 meetings that getting public input would be essential in determining whether and how to proceed. But that is harder than it might seem, since the city’s existing process for assessing street name change requests is designed with a developer in mind – not with the city itself as an applicant.
Councilmember Bob Johnson asked whether it was possible to move forward with getting public comments without putting the city in the position of being the applicant – and the possible appearance that taking such a step meant the council was in support of the change.
Brian Head, city attorney, said that they could absolutely move forward without suggesting they were supportive of a specific outcome.
“In reality,” Head said, “the city council is just saying ‘We want to initiate the process so that we can make a determination whether we want to go forward with a name change – and if we do, what is the name.’”
To that end, the council was supportive of having city staff draft an ordinance to amend the city’s unified development ordinance to create a new process. That process will preserve the notification requirement to alert area residents of a public hearing, but without the need for separate hearings in front of both the planning commission and the city council.
The council will consider and vote on the UDO process amendment at a future meeting. Once that is in place, they will work to begin the public hearing process to get input on whether or not to change the street names. Johnson suggested that, if possible, that hearing should take place in person to allow better citizen engagement.
All councilmembers were present for the Dec. 1 meeting via teleconference.