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Kansas City, Kansas, mayor accuses government of ‘shady’ effort to weaken his power

A man wearing a brown leather jacket talks in front of a microphone outdoors. There are out of focus people standing in the foreground, framing him.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Tyrone Garner talks Thursday, Nov. 17 about allegations that the city and Wyandotte County haven't done enough to investigate or help victims of police corruption.

Unified Government Commissioners approved a measure that will let them have more say in what ordinances make it to a vote. Mayor Tyrone Garner said the move amounted to "political backstabbing."

A majority of Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas commissioners voted Thursday night to undercut the mayor’s power to determine the government’s agenda.

It’s the latest salvo in a tense relationship between the commissioners and the mayor’s office that began when mayor Tyrone Garner took office a year ago.

Tensions roiled as a majority of Unified Government Commissioners approved a change to rules that spell out how ordinances and other measures make their way onto meeting agendas for a vote.

Garner said the vote amounted to a backdoor maneuver to strip him of his mayoral power.

“This right here is some political backstabbing,” Garner said during a meeting of the Unified Government Commission on Thursday. “No other mayor has had to deal with this.”

Commissioners who supported the change said it equalizes power between the 10-member elected commission and the mayor.

“This is not taking anything away,” said 3rd District Commissioner Christian Ramirez. “It’s equalizing the playing field so everyone has a chance to put something on the agenda and so that it doesn’t become political.”

A 9-1 majority of Unified Government Commissioners voted to require any measure passed by standing committees — the four regular committees of Unified Government Commissioners where most ordinances are first brought up and discussed publicly — appear on a subsequent agenda for the full commission to vote upon unless the committee chair and mayor agree to remove it.

"This right here is some political backstabbing. No other mayor has had to deal with this."
Unified Government Mayor Tyrone Garner

Prior to Thursday’s vote, the Unified Government’s mayor chose what ordinances came before the commission. The mayor’s power to determine the commission agendas was a hallmark of the unification of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County governments in 1997.

The ability to place items on commission agendas — or remove them — amounts to one of the Unified Government mayor’s office’s most significant ways to leverage political power. The Unified Government mayor otherwise doesn’t vote on most ordinances except as a tie-breaker.

Commissioners became fed up with Garner’s practice of not placing some measures passed out of standing committees on full commission agendas. The Unified Government’s four standing committees are economic and development finance, public works and safety, neighborhood and community development and administration and human services.

Mike Kane, who has served on the commission since 2005, said he had never seen items approved in standing committee yanked from the agenda before they could go to a vote. He said it happened twice recently.

“I’m like, oh my god, we had the public hearing, we had people there, we are elected to work as a commission, we sit on those boards,” Kane said. “And because you, mayor, you didn’t like something and you pulled it, what does it tell that standing committee? It says you’re better than us and it’s frustrating and we are supposed to be equal.”

The vote appeared to infuriate Garner, who called it “an unacceptable, unknown, backdoor and, to me, shady way to do business.”

“If this action passes tonight, every commissioner and everyone in this community needs to know that this mayor will be the first mayor since unification to not have the powers afforded to the mayor/CEO since consolidation,” Garner said. “I just hope that the public’s paying attention.”

“This is not taking anything away. It’s equalizing the playing field so everyone has a chance to put something on the agenda and so that it doesn’t become political.”
3rd District Commissioner Christian Ramirez

Garner defeated incumbent David Alvey in 2021 to become the Unified Government’s first Black mayor. Since then, Garner faced a difficult relationship with Unified Government Commissioners.

Garner positioned himself as a change agent, a departure from the status quo in a county stained with a reputation of cronyism, backdoor deals and patronage. He said he would serve the public first and look to improve the quality of life for residents in Wyandotte County.

“I believe if things would have been a little bit different over the years, we wouldn’t be $1.1 billion in debt and on a path to bankruptcy with very little to show for the people who call Wyandotte County home,” Garner said.

Commissioners took issue with the interim county administrator Garner selected when former administrator Doug Bach resigned shortly after Garner took office. Several longtime and prominent Unified Government employees have quit in the last year.

Some commissioners have said they frequently struggle to understand Garner’s agenda and intentions as mayor.

Garner said Thursday that commissioners have resisted his agenda since he became mayor.

“Every proposal I brought forward, you all rejected it,” Garner said.

He complained that commissioners usurped his power.

“If you have an adversarial commission that doesn’t agree with the agenda that any mayor runs on, now they have the ability to silo the mayor into a position of irrelevance in the decision making,” Garner said.

Tom Burroughs, 2nd District at-large Commissioner, sided with Garner. He said the commission should have discussed the move behind closed doors.

“I think it does none of us any good to air our differences publicly. We could have asked for a special executive session and had these differences in private,” Burroughs said. “I think that would have been the fair way to handle this situation.”

A visibly annoyed Garner called for voters to pay attention to the goings on at City Hall and encouraged them to vote in response.

“I hope everyone in this community that is a voter — and if you’re not a voter, get registered to vote — if you want better for Wyandotte County,” Garner said. “The power is in your hands.”

Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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