Mayor Tyrone Garner’s supporters were quick to blast the commission’s recent vote took away some of the popular mayor’s power. However, a vote of nine to one, including supporting votes from all three African-American members of the commission, showed near-unanimous support, and possible frustration, with the way the city’s power structure was divided.
In case you missed it: at their last meeting of the year, Wyandotte County commissioners surprised the Mayor, used their power to suspend the rules, and brought to the floor a proposal to change the process for getting items on the commission’s agenda.
When the discussion got underway, it quickly became obvious the move was a total surprise to the Mayor and that the majority of the Commissioners were aware of, and on board with, the impending vote.
“This right here is some political backstabbing,” Garner said during the meeting. He went on to call the action “an unacceptable, unknown, backdoor and, to me, shady way to do business.”
While the issue came up under Garner’s administration, it’s an issue that’s been a thorn in the side of commissioners under previous Unified Government Mayors. However, as seven-year Commission member Mike Kane said, he has never seen a mayor use his power over the agenda so often, to circumvent the will of the majority of the Commission.
Since taking office, Gardner, who was elected in 2021 and is the Unified Government’s first Black Mayor, has had a contentious relationship with Commissioners. since taking office.
Let’s dig into the Unified government’s structure and what exactly the commission’s vote changes.
The Power of the Mayor
When the City of Kansas City and Wyandotte County merged 25 years ago to form the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, the government was structured with an elected mayor, but not in the true sense of a strong mayor type of government, where the mayor is the chief administrative leader of the government. Like most cities in the Kansas City metro area, a city manager appointed by the city’s elected body is charged with running the day-to-day operations of the city.
However, the mayor has a small staff he is responsible for hiring, firing and directing, and a budget he’s allowed to use to run his office. That’s something other members of the Wyandotte Commission don’t have. He has no other power to make any independent business decisions for the County.
The mayor could best be described as the political leader of the County. In that position, he presides over commission meetings. These meetings are where guiding policy decisions for the County are made, the city’s budget is set and tax levies are determined.
At these meetings, the mayor only votes in case of a tie, but he has the power of the veto. If he/she doesn’t like the outcome of any vote of the commission, the mayor can veto the vote. Overriding the mayor’s veto requires a vote by a super majority (seven) members of the Commission.
However, the biggest power of the mayor has proven to be the power over deciding what is and is not added to the Commission agenda for consideration. If the mayor doesn’t like an item someone wants to bring before the commission, he/she can single-handedly kill an item by keeping it off the agenda.
What the Commission Changed
The mayor’s power over the agenda also included power over the agenda of the city’s standing committees. Before most items come to the commission for a vote, they are first heard in one of the city’s four standing committees: Neighborhood and Community Development; Economic Development and Finance; Public Works and Safety, and Administration and Human Services.
Under the committee’s rules of procedures, the Mayor could keep items off standing meeting agendas and if an item made it onto a standing committee agenda, and was voted out favorably by the committee to be heard by the full commission, the mayor could still keep the item off the full commission agenda.
Here’s what the Commission changed. The mayor can no longer add or take an item off a standing meeting agenda without the approval of the standing committee chair. In addition, if the committee votes to advance an item to the full commission for consideration, the mayor can no longer keep the item off the full-commission agenda.
The rest of the mayor’s powers remain the same. He still has the power to put items on the agenda, something other individual members of the Commission don’t have, but he doesn’t have the power to keep things off the agenda that were voted out of the standing committee for full-Commission consideration.
For his part, the Mayor says the vote makes a weak mayor, weaker.
While Wyandotte’s form of government did have a weak mayor format, when compared to powerful mayors like the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York City, the UG mayor’s position was one of the most powerful in the Kansas City Metro area and in the State of Kansas. No other mayor in the metro area has the power to keep items off the agenda. That’s a power even Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas doesn’t have.
Weaker mayors, versus strong mayors, have become the overwhelming norm across the country. It’s a model that’s been accepted because having a weaker mayor diffuses the power of special interests to influence a single elected official and because giving each member of the governing body an equal voice in policy development gives neighborhoods and diverse groups a greater opportunity to influence policy.
Members of the Commission said the move was about more than increasing their power, it was also about giving more power to the citizens.
“We wanted to see some change because we’d like to be able to better advocate for our constituents,” said Commissioner Andrew Davis. “Under the former system, one elected official could decide if my ideas were even worthy. Now I can work with the mayor or I can work with one of the standing committee chairs. I still have to do some lobbying. It’s politics. it’s about negotiation.”
Under the old procedure, the mayor had no reason to collaborate and the result, Davis feels, was detrimental to Wyandotte County.
Mayor Garner campaigned on a platform of bringing major change and improvement to a County that has lagged behind in growth and development. For decades, the focus was on developing Kansas City’s Western edge with the county’s poorer east and largely Black side receiving little investment. Garner promised to change that focus and because of it, he has a large and supportive following who are disturbed by the commission’s action.
Commissioner Davis asks the mayor’s supporters to look at the impact this mayoral power structure has had on their community in the past and could possibly have in the future if Garner isn’t reelected. Dividing the power more equitably, Davis said, gives more citizens more power now, and particularly when they don’t have a supportive person as mayor.