At the end of its last meeting of 2022, the Board of Commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas voted in favor of a rule change that, while seemingly innocuous, has rocked the county government.
The change, which was approved 9 to 1, requires that all items passed by the commission’s standing committees be placed on the agenda for full commission meetings. Commissioner Tom Burroughs was the lone vote against.
To the public, it seems like a minor procedural matter. To insiders, it is anything but minor. The vote ignited a tense two-month-long feud involving the commissioners and Tyrone Garner, the mayor and CEO of the Unified Government.
Framing the change as an attack on his authority as the Unified Government’s first Black mayor, Garner promptly vetoed the change and stripped Commissioner Andrew Davis, who helped draft the rule change, of his committee assignments. Davis has since been reinstated in his committees.
The acrimony was evident in a raucous hearing on Feb. 2, with dozens of residents giving public comment. Amid cheers and boos, Davis asked Garner repeatedly to call the meeting to order, while several audience members chastised Davis for disrespecting the mayor.
Since then, the discussion has culminated in a compromise resolution that passed unanimously on Feb. 16. It allows the mayor to send items back to committee no more than one time before they must be placed on the commission agenda.
While Garner continues to contend that the move will strip one of the most important powers from his office, the commissioners say that it will balance power in the Unified Government and bring much-needed reform.
So why did this bureaucratic rule change cause so much commotion? And what does it mean for the Unified Government’s power structure?
Breaking it down: What exactly changed?
Unlike Kansas City, Missouri, where Mayor Quinton Lucas sits as a voting member of the City Council, the mayor of the Unified Government does not have a vote on the Board of Commissioners.
Instead, the mayor’s duties are primarily administrative. The mayor is responsible for nominating a county administrator, overseeing the commission meetings, setting the agenda and voting in the case of ties.
This rule change narrows the mayor’s power in Board of Commissioners meetings.
Garner will still oversee the meetings, he can vote to break a tie, and he can place items on the agenda. But if an item is recommended for action by a standing committee, he can only send it back to committee for reconsideration once. After that, the item must come to discussion in the full commission, which can then decide whether to take action or hold a vote.
“You’ve changed the mayor to being relegated to pretty much a ceremonial figure that comes in, runs a commission meeting and only votes if necessary,” Garner told The Beacon. “This really diminishes the standing and relevance of even having a mayor in our government because now, the mayor is not pushing forth a platform or a visionary agenda.”
Even with this change, Garner maintains some power over the agenda of both the full commission as well as the standing committees. For example, he will still be able to place his own items on the full commission agenda, bypassing the standing committees. The mayor also traditionally sets the standing committee agendas.
Growing tension between the Board of Commissioners and the mayor
Commissioner Angela Markley, who drafted the rule change with Davis and Commissioner Christian Ramirez, said this issue arose because many of the commissioners were growing frustrated that items would not be brought to the full commission, even if they had the strong support of standing committee members.
Traditionally, she said, any items that pass through standing committees are placed on the agenda for the full commission. This was the case for most previous mayors, but not necessarily under Garner.
“The issue that we were having under Mayor Garner is the things were coming out of the standing committee, and he wouldn’t put them on the full commission agenda,” Markley said. “He was able to block anything that he personally disagreed with, even if it had the support of a majority, or in this case, a supermajority of the commission. Which isn’t really how we think about democracy working, right?”
Markley said that the mayor’s ability to preemptively veto legislation by not placing it on the agenda is unique to the Unified Government. She said that no other nearby municipalities function in this way.
Garner believes the rule change strips him of an important power
Garner has only held four agenda items from the full commission since he was sworn in on Dec. 13, 2021, becoming the Unified Government’s first Black mayor. The items include a work-from-home policy, a $100 million wastewater facility and a historic downtown initiative.
He believes this ability to hold items from the full commission agenda is an important power for the mayor to have, so that he can make sure agenda items are as polished as possible before they come to the commission for discussion.
“I’m a second set of eyes,” Garner said. “My goal is to make sure that all the i’s have been dotted and all the t’s have been crossed…There were only four things that I held back for further review or consideration or for public input, and then they were allowed to move forward.”
But some commission members find it frustrating that Garner has sent items back without allowing the full commission to provide input, and they believe the mayor’s use of this power limits the commission members’ ability to represent their constituents.
“From the commission’s perspective, it’s a broader issue of a lack of respect for the commission’s work,” she said. “If he wanted to ask questions about it, he could have asked those questions at the full commission meeting.”
When the compromise legislation came to a vote at the Feb. 16 meeting, the rule change passed unanimously without discussion, bringing the tense debate to a quiet end — for now.
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