Kansas City’s Charter Change
Last week, the Kansas City City Council decided against two charter changes that the mayor had proposed and political groups had backed. The proposed changes that will not go to the voters would have given the mayor the ability to fire the city manager and would have changed the structure of the City Council so that there would be 12 in-district seats.
The Show-Me Institute testified before the Charter Commission last year stating that calling Kansas City’s mayor a weak mayor is a misnomer. While the mayor of Kansas City is more a member of the City Council than his own executive branch, mayors can veto legislation. According to Reza Baqir in his 2002 study in the Journal of Political Economy:
The only indicator of mayor powers that was consistent with statistically significant results was the overall mayor veto indicator.
Kansas City City Councilmember Ed Ford made the correct argument that the power to fire is the power to hire, as any mayor could simply threaten to fire a candidate for city manager while they are under consideration by the City Council. While the Show-Me Institute does not advocate for or against a strong mayoral system of government — in fact, there are benefits of a strong mayoral system — it would be best to build a new governing system from the ground up rather than tinker with one item at a time.
Regarding in-district seats versus at-large City Council seats, our position was more concrete. Research indicates that at-large seats serve as a break on government spending. Lawrence Southwick surveyed 2,000 cities across the country for his 1997 study in Economics and Politics and found that at-large municipal officials:
. . . act so as to reduce both spending and taxes as compared to what ward representatives do. The ward representatives act in a more “pork barrel” framework which results in more spending.
Some on the Charter Commission seemed bewildered about the conclusion that in-district seats can increase per-capita spending, but we find that taxpayers understand the matter clearly. In general, at-large City Council members are more likely to mind the whole store, while in-district City Council members more likely are concerned about earning votes from a small local community.