'Ten years to save the planet': Kansas City metro's small-town mayors take up the climate fight
Mayors and local officials founded Climate Action KC, and are taking measurable steps to reduce emissions and create healthier communities throughout the Kansas City metro.
The mayor of Smithville, Missouri, walks nearly everywhere.
To the nearby elementary school with his daughter. To City Hall. To the new downtown coffee shop that doubles as a community theater at night. To the downtown food coop that serves seniors and school kids, and also operates as Smithville’s first farmer’s market.
Before last summer, Damien Boley lived in a Northland subdivision with his wife and daughter and lived a commuter lifestyle. Then a brick building downtown that had been built in the 1880s gained a new landlord.
Spotting an opportunity to invest in Smithville and “reduce our carbon footprint,” Boley rented a corner space and opened a bike coop, where he sells bikes and rents other sports equipment and tools. Then he eyed some upstairs rooms. They were rough, but habitable. After some work, Boley and his family became downtown dwellers.
Smithville, with a population of about 10,000, sits in the northwest corner of Clay County, where voters lean conservative and helped Donald Trump beat Joe Biden countywide by more than four points in 2020. It seems like a risky terrain for a mayor to go all in on climate action.
But Boley says his goals for a walkable community with abundant green space aren’t much different from the wishes of people who live close to Smithville Lake for its hunting and fishing opportunities.
“Is it focusing on climate change or is it focusing on keeping our natural surroundings?” he says. “However you want to phrase it, it’s keeping the beauty that we have and wanting to not destroy things.”
“A thousand people” touched Kansas City region’s new climate plan
Boley hadn’t been in office long when he learned about something called Climate Action KC, a group that started in 2018 with two newly elected officials, like him, and was growing by the week.
“Some of us got together to discuss what more we could be doing,” says Mike Kelly, the mayor of Roeland Park, Kansas (he is now running for chair of the Johnson County Commission). “One of the things we heard on the doorsteps during our campaigns is this existential dread. Like, we have 10 years to save the planet, and nobody’s doing anything about it.”
Kelly and Lindsey Constance, a councilwoman from Shawnee, Kansas, got the ball rolling. “We shared the same level of urgency,” Constance says. “It has a lot to do with the fact that we’re parents. We started talking to a lot of other elected officials, dozens and dozens. And each person was saying that they want to do something. They want to act, but they don’t know what to do.”
By the end of 2018, Constance and Kelly thought they detected enough interest to invite elected officials to a small meeting in the basement of Village Presbyterian Church. About 135 people showed up. They represented city councils, school boards, water boards, county commissions, even the offices of a governor and local Congressional representatives.
In the three years since, Climate Action KC has evolved into a broad coalition of elected officials and community groups. At the end of 2019, its stakeholders produced a “Climate Action Playbook,” listing dozens of steps that local governments could take if they wanted to, say, ramp up their composting operation. Or save energy costs on their buildings. Or protect urban and suburban forests. None of the prescriptions require approval from the federal or state governments.
Kelly asked the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) to apply for help from the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy — an initiative started by the European Union. It seemed an unlikely benefactor for a Midwestern effort, but Kansas City became one of four regions in the U.S. to receive financial and technical assistance for a blueprint to reduce carbon emissions.
A year ago, MARC unveiled a voluminous Regional Climate Action Plan that proposes to lower net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. It is the product of dozens of conversations and outreach campaigns -- many of them accomplished during the pandemic.
“A thousand people touched the climate action plan in some way,” Kelly says.
Those hands belong to students, gardeners, transit planners, community organizers, recyclers, architects, “climate moms,” physicians and bureaucrats.
“There’s a lot of people who have worked on this for decades,” Kelly says. “We were naive to think that nobody was running with this.”
The constituency around climate action was visible on a Saturday in early April, when about 700 people attended Climate Action KC’s “summit” at Johnson County Community College.
Bill Peduto, who was acclaimed for his ambitious steps to reduce carbon emissions as the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, capped off a lineup of local, national and international speakers.
“Don’t look at world governments to solve this problem,” Peduto told a full auditorium. “The capacity to solve this exists at the local level.”
As a step toward meeting its 2050 goal, Climate Action KC has created the Building Energy Exchange KC and hired architect and planner Ashley Sadowski as its executive director. The exchange, known as BEEx-KC, will act as a resource for governments, businesses and anyone seeking better energy efficiency in their buildings.
Climate-friendly moves in Smithville
Boley’s mayoral run came about rather suddenly. He stopped by Smithville City Hall one day in 2018 to pay his water bill and spotted a notice about an upcoming city election. Boley always had the idea that he’d like to run for office someday. He put his name on the ballot.
“My wife asked me if I paid the water bill,” he remembers. “And I said, ‘Yes, and I'm running for mayor.’ And she said, ‘OK, glad you paid the water bill.’”
Boley defeated an incumbent who was running for his fifth two-year term. All of a sudden, along with his day job as a tech engineer and his side gigs teaching adjunct college classes and organizing gravel grinder bike races, he was interviewing city administrator candidates, thinking about affordable housing and wondering how to make Smithville the kind of place where kids could walk to school.
He was not too busy, though, to sign up as one of Climate Action KC’s first executive board members. And when MARC came out with the Regional Climate Action Plan, Smithville was one of the first cities to adopt it with a council resolution.
Boley says the city was moving in a climate-friendly direction before his election, even if its leaders didn’t frame it quite that way.
The same ballot that included Boley’s name for mayor also asked residents to approve a 20-year, half-cent sales tax increase to finance $5.6 million worth of bonds for road and sidewalk improvements, including safety features for pedestrians and a mile- and a half long bike and walking trail connecting downtown Smithville to Smithville Lake.
“I campaigned harder for the sales tax than I did for mayor,” Boley says.
That measure just cleared the two-thirds number of votes required for passage. The new mayor saw it as a good omen.
Mayors are “fundamental” to climate action progress
Many of the elected officials who kicked off the Kansas City region’s coordinated effort to reduce emissions and protect its air, waters and green spaces are like Boley. They are younger mayors and council members from fairly small cities who fit public service into busy lives.
“Everything city-related is pretty much my only extracurricular activity,” says Mission, Kansas, Mayor Sollie Flora.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that we’re parents. We started talking to a lot of other elected officials, dozens and dozens. And each person was saying that they want to do something. They want to act, but they don’t know what to do.”Shawnee Councilwoman Lindsey Constance
Flora works as an in-house lawyer for an international company and fosters rescue dogs.
Kelly is a lawyer for one of Kansas City’s largest firms. Constance, who chose not to run for re-election to her council seat in order to focus on Climate Action KC activities, teaches at an elementary school. Melissa Cheatham, an Overland Park councilwoman who drafted the Climate Action Playbook, brought experience working for a national environmental group as well as the dedication of a parent raising young children.
Tom Jacobs, MARC’s environmental program director, says the elected officials brought a unified focus to environmental issues that the region had been lacking.
“They are fundamental to our success,” he says.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and his predecessor, Sly James, are on Climate Action KC’s roster of elected leaders, but their focus has mostly been on crafting sustainability strategies for the region’s largest city.
Elsewhere around the region, efforts had been mostly piecemeal, Jacobs says.
“There’s a constituency around this stuff in Kansas City that is supportive,” he says. “I’ll call it our choir. And we work on things, and we make progress where we can. Without the mayors, we would not have even begun the climate planning process. And we wouldn't have gotten it adopted.”
In their respective cities, the climate action mayors are creating infrastructures and mindsets that will outlast their terms in office.
“Where the rubber hits the road is really with the staff,” says Kelly.
Since his election in 2018, he’s regarded Roeland Park, with a population of about 6,700, as a testing ground for climate action measures.
The city was one of the first customers of a service, Dynamhex, that enables cities and their residents and businesses to measure their carbon footprints. It has installed solar panels atop City Hall and three other city buildings and offers dashboards to track the CO2 emissions that they save. So far it amounts to more than 300,000 pounds – or the equivalent of planting more than 2,400 trees, according to the dashboards.
“Sometimes a small community like Roeland Park can be a laboratory for democracy and best practices, so that people can recognize that the processes have a good return on investment,” Kelly says.
Flora, in Mission, came by her interest in sustainability early. Her father worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“It was part of the dinner table conversation to talk about these things,” she says.
Flora was elected to the Mission City Council in 2017 and successfully ran for mayor in November. Climate action was a big plank in her campaign platform.
As mayor of a city of about 10,000 residents, Flora is trying to make climate sustainability a part of everything the city does.
As an example, she points to a vote the city took in 2020, when she was on the council. In the process of negotiating with the developers of a new apartment complex that will replace the fire-damaged Mission Bowl bowling alley, the city exacted a pledge that, in exchange for tax incentives, the project would be built to LEED silver certification standards — close to the highest level of energy efficiency. Now other cities are contacting Mission about how to accomplish the same thing.
“You have some people who are happy making the change because of the environmental impact and you have some people who are happier making the change because it’s going to save money over time,” Flora says. “It doesn’t really matter. You’re getting to the same end goal and you’re getting benefits in multiple areas.”
Climate action framed as cost efficiency
In northeast Johnson County cities like Roeland Park, Mission and Prairie Village, voters lean toward progressive candidates and mayors can brag openly about their climate sustainability platforms.
Even in Shawnee, Kansas, where voters elected a state senator who falsely insists that climate change is a natural phenomenon, the city’s mayor, Michelle Distler, has signed on to the Regional Climate Plan. (Lindsey Constance ran against the senator, former TV meteorologist Mike Thompson, in 2020 and lost by about four percentage points.)
But leaders in more conservative turf have to walk a finer line on climate change.
For example, Olathe’s longtime mayor, Michael Copeland, was an early supporter of Climate Action KC’s work, Kelly says. But Copeland rarely, if ever, used language like sustainability or even climate change. Instead, he talked about efficiency, return on investment and quality of life.
“Mayor Mike,” as Copeland was known, died suddenly in August 2020 after holding the office for 19 years. During his tenure, he oversaw the creation of 18 parks, 29 miles of trails and one of the nation’s most efficient and “green” municipal vehicle fleets. Olathe has about 140,000 residents and is the fourth largest city in both the region and in Kansas.
Olathe has been converting its trash trucks and street sweeping vehicles to run on compressed natural gas instead of diesel fuel. Right now, with diesel costing more than $4 a gallon, an equivalent measure of natural gas is about $1.70, says Josh Wood, the fleet manager.
The city has calculated that it recoups its costs within two and a half years of converting a vehicle to natural gas. The trucks stay on the road for about seven years, meaning Olathe gets four and a half years’ worth of savings from each conversion.
“Sometimes talking about climate change can be an impediment to the process because of the unfortunate polarization of our politics and the partisan rhetoric,” Kelly says.
“I think Mike (Copeland) chose not to have the conversation be about climate change, but it would be about high-performing buildings. It wouldn’t be about fossil fuels, but it would be about savings in the fleet,” Kelly adds. “I think he recognized the benefits of language that was going to appeal to the decision makers in the community.”
Once a community realizes the benefits of cost-effective climate action, it’s hard to reverse course, Jacobs says.
“Success begets success,” he says. “Communities may or may not frame it around resilience or climate or sustainability, but they’re already doing a lot of this stuff. From a regional perspective, we’re just trying to connect the dots, collaborate where it makes sense, celebrate the successes and figure out how we can use all that to take another step.”
John Bacon, Copeland’s successor as Olathe mayor, hasn’t connected with Climate Action KC. He declined KCUR’s request to talk about it. But last year, under his leadership, Olathe became the first city in Kansas to install solar-powered changing stations for electric vehicles. Bacon presided over the dedication ceremony. As mayors do.
Climate sustainability is “not a tough sell” in Smithville
Jamie and Brian Dodrill met with Boley a little over a year ago to talk about their idea for a new nonprofit in downtown Smithville. They wanted to prepare meals for older people and schoolchildren who might not have access to enough healthy food. And they wanted to use local ingredients.
Boley raised the stakes. Since the Dodrill’s would be working with local farmers, he said, why not also open a year-round farmers market in their space?
“He thought I was just going to give him a closet, but I ended up giving him an entire store,” Jamie Dodrill says.
Her business, A Meal That Counts (AMTC), now provides regular meals for more than 35 families from the Smithville School District and 20 senior citizens. Thirty-five local farmers provide produce for the meals, and for customers who visit the market.
“We absolutely love what Mayor Boley is doing in Smithville,” Dodrill says. “His initiative is amazing.”
Boley says he has achieved some of his goals over his four years as mayor. He wanted a farmer’s market in Smithville, and now it has three. Smithville now has a 4-H club, so youths no longer have to travel to Platte City for that activity.
The biking and walking trail from downtown to Smithville Lake is complete. And MARC recently awarded the city grants to build more sidewalks and streetscapes and make it easier for kids to walk to their schools.
Mayors in Smithville serve two-year terms. This year Boley faced two challengers on the April 5 ballot. Campaigns were low key, with some of the conversation centering on whether change was happening too quickly. Boley also heard rumors that his participation in Climate Action KC was responsible for higher gas bills (it wasn’t) and that he was somehow aligned with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. congresswoman from New York City who promotes a “green new deal” (he isn’t).
When the votes were counted, Boley won with 815 – 186 more than has closest challenger and the highest total of any winning mayor in the city’s recent history.
He says he’ll keep working to attract businesses and improve Smithville’s quality of life, which in part means more parks, trails and walking paths.
“Climate change gets negative press because of some of the things that people push on it,” he says. “Most of us want the same things. We want healthy trees and healthy plants and healthy citizens. It’s not a tough sell for us.”
This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.