In Praise of So-Called Leaderless Drift
Dave Helling of the Kansas City Star writes in a column on the upcoming elections titled, “Springtime KC Voters Still Stuck in a Drift,”
the lack of a serious mayoral campaign also illustrates an ongoing issue in Kansas City politics. Voters are uninterested in the mayor’s race because the mayor’s job is, essentially, uninteresting.
For all the changes to the city’s charter over the years, the mayor remains primarily a 13th vote on the council. He or she makes some appointments and gets his or her name in the news, but day-to-day operations remain in the hands of the city manager.
More importantly, though, the council itself is relatively powerless. It doesn’t have the power to tax. And much of the city’s spending is off-limits, leading to fierce disputes over relatively small amounts of money.
Helling concludes, “More fundamentally, though, Kansas City seems locked in a leaderless drift—not because it lacks leaders, but because its government is built that way.”
Indeed, the government here was built that way with protections such as term limits and the Hancock Amendment. “Leaderless drift” suggests that without a strong leader cities are doomed. Often the opposite is true; take Chicago, where for 22 years Mayor Richard M. Daley spent and spent and spent on fruitless economic development schemes. Taxpayers in Kansas City are already on the hook for the ill-considered whims of self-styled geniuses. Do they want a government where the people are not a check on new airports, streetcars, convention hotels, and the like?
Kansas City still manages to excel at crony capitalism for the benefit of big business and developers, but at a much smaller scale than its leaders would prefer. And that is a good thing.