Yesterday, Sly James officially became the mayor of Kansas City -- effectively ending the four year run of Mayor Mark Funkhouser.
And while legacies are usually determined years after someone leaves office, I think it's only appropriate to look back at the past four years -- because you can't determine where you're going if you don't recognize where you've been.
Four years ago, Kansas City was a very different place.
The Sprint Center -- now a staple in Kansas City - -was still under construction. As was the neighboring Power and Light District. The voters had just passed a vote to approve an unworkable light rail plan. The voters also approved a tax to renovate both stadiums at the Truman Sports Complex. The economy was good, new development was rampant.
That seems so long ago.
Funkhouser took over in may of 2007 -- as a political outsider in a vote that showed Kansas Cities wanted someone outside the political insiders to run the city. Soon after, the Sprint Center was completed. And way too long after that, the Power and Light District was complete. Then, not long after that, the economy tanked. Housing prices dropped. Jobs were lost. Tax revenue declined. The city was also on the hook for millions of dollars of TIF that had been levied by the previous administration.
When Funkhouser was elected, most were very concerned that his anti-TIF mindset would stall development. As it turns out, much of it would have stalled regardless because of the economy. However, the financial mindset of Funkhouser probably played out perfectly in terms of timing. Had the city continued to dole out TIF money at the same pace during this recession, we'd be so far upside down financially it would be ugly -- or even uglier than it is now. We're probably lucky that Funk's 4 years coincided with the economic downturn. Funk's largest success is that he brought an era of the city being more fiscally responsible to city hall.
Development didn't end. The new Kaufman Performing Arts Center is set to open soon. Other modest developments have also taken place....although obviously at a much slower pace than the 4 years preceeding Funk's term of office.
A new Soccer Stadium -- Livestrong Park -- is set to open in KCK. The plan was originally to put this in the Banister Mall area (which has been destroyed but nothing ever happens to the area) but after major tax credits offered by Kansas and KCK, jumped out to the legends area. The plan at Banister was a financial boon doggle, but losing jobs and revenu to the west still hurts.
And this is the story of where Funk fell short.
He never did much to encourage jobs in KCMO. He never bult relationships across city or state lines. Under his administration, the city council voted out the voter-approved light rail plan -- but he was never able to get enough regional (or even local) support to get a replacement regional plan, or local plan, passed to replace it. And four years later, we're paying for yet another study about how to introduce permanent rail to the city's transit structure.
This of course doesn't all weigh on Funk's shoulders. Kansas City has a weak-mayored form of government -- and many of these failings relfect on the city council as a whole just as much as the mayor's office.
One time I talked to Funkhouser about some of the struggles in city hall. He described our city as having Cul-de-Sacs of power -- ie, everyone had enough power to dead end any improvements, but no one had enough power to make things go anywhere.
This is probably largely true....but also shows the importance of playing politics in a weak-mayored system. If you have little "real" power, then the power you have is what you're able to earn through politics and relationships. When I talked to Funk, his vision for the city what we needed to do to move into the next generation of the city was right on track -- but unfortunately, Funk didn't earn enough political credibility to really make inroads to get us there.
Much of this was his own doing. Early decisions involving Parks Board appointments proved to be very controversial, as was his agreement to accept a car (but keep his car stipend). His wife's exploits at city hall, including a lawsuit and an unfortunate Christmas letter also led to him hurting his credibility -- which weakened his ability to influence others.
And thus, maybe more than anything, Funk showed us the strength and weakness of our form of government in a weak-mayored system.
In response, Kansas Citians voted for Sly James. Sly is also a political outsider -- Kansas Citians still want that. But where Funkhouser brought a more dower attitude, James comes with a positive, charismatic demeanor that voters seem to think will lend him more political clout at city hall.
And I wish him, and us, the best.