Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 5:40PM
Council retreat reveals contention
By Russ Pulley
The Lee’s Summit City Council planned a retreat for goal setting last weekend, but mostly accomplished clearing the air on council relationships.
At a Dec. 13 work session, the City Council went through some exercises to learn about their individual management styles, a staple kind of activity offered by facilitators conducting these kinds of retreats. On Dec. 15, council members began a day-long review, in City Hall, of their high-level view of what they want the city to look like.
They agreed the city’s mission includes being a fiscally sound, diverse city known for being a leader in providing a quality services, and for conservation of natural resources. They also agreed Lee’s Summit should be a city that goes beyond basic services of fire, police and water.
But the council didn’t get far in setting specific priorities for the next year. It spent much of the day discussing results of interviews facilitator Ron Holifield conducted with council members and city staff. He posted a list of responses from council members that indicated a sometimes contentious climate.
The gist of the interviews of council members indicated they thought they were sometimes beating up each other and city department heads. Some council members felt staff was driving the agenda, while staff thinks it gets contradictory directions from council members.
“It’s kind of like you’re in front of a firing squad,” Councilmember Brian Whitley said.
The council had frank discussion with sometimes tough comments that were generally handled with good nature.
Frequently council members Bob Johnson and Ed Cockrell laughed and poked one another at how often they were agreeing, although they’ve been sparring for months over various issues.
Cockrell said that after soul-searching he concluded, “I don’t think we’re dysfunctional, but we’ve got some rough edges and we’ve got some rough feelings.”
Johnson said he had tried twice to talk with Cockrell to “bury the hatchet” and Cockrell didn’t return his calls.
“I don’t trust you,” Cockrell replied.
Johnson said Councilmember Kathy Hofmann had resigned from the Rules Committee in an attempt to embarrass him. Cockrell took issue with Johnson and other council members having private discussions outside council meetings. He said from votes there’s a perception those discussions have happened. Cockrell said that when two council members get together, then meet with two others, “You’ve got four votes and you only need one more.”
Johnson defended individual meetings, noting Missouri’s Sunshine Law only forbids a “quorum” of council members getting together to talk city business.
Hofmann said she doesn’t object to council members discussing issues, but if they hold private discussions there’s no practical way to exclude them from lining up votes. Or least it can have that appearance.
“That is what I’m afraid of,” Hofmann said.
Other council members differed.
Councilmember Allan Gray and Whitley said they meet together with there homeowners association and that they’re not hearing that is a concern. Councilmember David Mosby said that when he gets 500 pages of city documents on Friday for the council packet, he might call on other council members understanding when he has questions.
“It’s not wrong, it’s not evil, and it’s not against the Sunshine Law,” Mosby said.
The discussion ran into whether staff listens to council’s desires.
City Manager Steve Arbo used an analogy to explain the staff’s dilemma.
“You ask us to get a rock out of the pile, and when we bring you the rock, you tell us to get a different rock,” he said.
Arbo noted Lee’s Summit is still a great place to work and department heads had good morale working as a team.
“If you tell us where you want to go, they can get you there,” he said.
He said that as city manager when council members were newly elected, he had shown them the fire stations and how the city works, but hadn’t shared with them the history of prior council goals.
Staff has been working on a set of goals developed several years ago. For example, city staff, until recently, was working on a new landfill, although political support for that effort had eroded. The council hadn’t taken a new official position.
Council members said that was one source of friction.
Mosby said that with the new mix of members, this council hasn’t worked out a common vision.
Holland commented that issues like branding and cultural arts were initiatives he had “inherited.”
Cockrell said there were “two elephants in the room.” He said the city needs to decide who should have the leadership role to see that incoming council members have history of past decisions. He added that term limits may have been a mistake, because of the loss of “institutional knowledge.”
Johnson said term limits was one item he wanted to reconsider.
Holifield said he recommends that councils have goal setting sessions soon after each time there is turnover of members.
“A mistake I made two years ago, when we were in economic freefall, I had us focus on budget and protecting the city,” Mayor Randy Rhoads said. “I didn’t open it up to discussions like this. Two years later we don’t have a common vision.”
The council agreed to continue its retreat into January work sessions to discuss other issues.
One was whether the city is preparing for succession, with several of its department heads closing on retirement age. Or if it is giving city staff enough resources. Gray asked whether the council is making more demands than past councils. Holifield said there is a trend in government for councils to be more questioning.
Gray and Johnson mentioned a need to look at what kind of housing stock the city should encourage in the future.
And council members agreed they needed to review the city’s economic development strategy.
Cockrell ventured that it might be time for the city to look at pulling that function back into city government. Holland said the city should consider whether it’s “getting its money’s worth.”
The city cooperates with the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council and gives that non-profit substantial funding. Other funding for the EDC comes from investors.