A result of good process, Charter amendments should be approved

On Tuesday, April 4, Lee’s Summit voters will head to the polls (hopefully in significant numbers) to make a number of decisions. There has been significant discussion of the issues involved in voting for Lee's Summit R-7 School Board, the community improvement sales tax renewal, the District 4 recall question, and the proposed amendments to the City Charter (and some chatter about the chatter).

The discussion on the Charter amendments has focused on the mechanics of the changes, and how they might impact Lee’s Summit going forward. But are the changes good or bad for us? While I lack a strong opinion on some of the more “controversial” changes, the process used to determine the suggested changes was open, well-vetted and done in good faith by a broad group of dedicated volunteers from all over Lee’s Summit. That process should be respected, and the amendments approved.

Commentary  |  Jason Norbury

To review, the proposed Charter amendments were arrived at through the following process:

  • A commission was appointed by the City Council, consisting of 12 members, 3 from each Council district in Lee’s Summit;
  • They met twice a month for nearly a full year at public meetings noticed as required by Missouri’s Sunshine Law, with many of those meeting televised;
  • They held public votes on each and every proposed amendment, and presented the suggested slate to be put on the ballot by City Council.

This process was open and transparent, and there has been no actual evidence of any particular agenda or unseen motive in the creation and recommendation of these amendments. When decisions are made in such a manner, some deference to the results is owed, and absent any specific evidence that the change will lead to bad outcomes or poor governance, it is my opinion that the amendments should be approved.

To the specific questions:

Question 1 amends the Preamble to the Charter. This will have no impact on actual city governance, and aligns the Charter language with the City’s Mission and Vision Statements.

Question 2 makes a number of changes to the powers and requirements for City Councilmembers, including clarifying the requirements for holding office, and limiting their ability to hold any incompatible public office. The most consequential changes are moving the appointment of Mayor Pro Tem from a vote of Council to a Mayoral appointment, and setting rules to eliminate “slam” motions (motions raised on matters not on the Council agenda).

The elimination of slam motions is a strong move towards transparency and good, open government. Those motions eliminate the ability of the public to view and comment on matters of public interest, and have been used, especially over the last year, to push political agendas not associated with the general benefit of the voters. The actions of the Council should be subject to public criticism and comment, and this amendment moves the city in that direction.

Opinions can differ on the wisdom of changing the process for appointing the Mayor Pro Tempore, but consider that in the past two years, the Mayor has had to break a tied vote and essentially appoint the Pro Tem himself. Giving the Mayor this power does strengthen his position relative to the Council, but these concerns are outweighed by the clear increase in transparency and responsiveness created by the other portions of this question. Therefore, this amendment should be approved.

Question 3 requires Council to create and enact a code of ethics, and explicitly allows for Council to discipline its own members. A publicly available code of ethics is another move towards good governance, and concerns about the Council pressing political grudges through self-discipline is addressed by the supermajority vote requirement. This amendment should be approved.

Question 4 makes changes to the Mayor’s powers and duties, and are perhaps the most substantive changes proposed. If approved, the Mayor would lose the veto power, and instead be required to register a vote on every ordinance and resolution. That vote would always be the last vote cast. Other changes set similar limitations on holding incompatible public office, and subject the Mayor to discipline for violations of the Charter.

According to the Charter Commission, the Mayor has only used his veto power twice in seven years. The Commission determined it would rather have the Mayor’s stance on issues a matter of record than given a larger power to override 5-3 Council votes. This, effectively, makes the Mayor a more active, but less powerful position. It would, in theory, make the Mayor more responsive to the will of the voters by requiring they take a stance on all matters. I think the difference in the impact on day-to-day governance will be minimal, since the veto was so rarely used, and the Mayor already breaks 4-4 tie votes. Giving due respect to the process, this amendment should be approved.

Questions 5 - 12 deal with a large variety of administrative changes, correcting typographical errors, clarifying some language that left small loopholes that impact technical operations, providing clearer language and structure for recall, initiative and referendum (while not changing the substantive process), changing language to remain in compliance with state and federal laws, and removing some no longer relevant sections of the Charter.

None of these proposed amendments have any substantive impact on city governance, nor do they change any relative powers of city officials or the public. Many of the changes were responses to concerns raised by the City Clerk in her administration of the city rules.  These amendments should be approved.

Lee’s Summit is a city that has continued to grow and thrive through regular and significant citizen involvement in governance. These Charter Amendments are a good example of a good process that has led to an outcome that should promote good governance and a stronger city moving forward. Please vote, and vote to approve these amendments.

About Jason Norbury: Jason Norbury is a Lee's Summit attorney and guest contributor to Link 2 Lee's Summit. Mr. Norbury is also co-host of Lee's Summit Town Hall — a weekly podcast produced by Link 2 Lee's Summit discussing local issues and highlighting community volunteers and activists.