Councilmembers discuss ideas for more effective decision making

rpulley@lsjournal.comDecember 18, 2013 

Lee’s Summit Councilmember Derek Holland last week said City Council needs to improve its “process” for public hearings and deciding issues.

Holland’s idea provoked a jumble of remarks underscoring some tensions between council members.

District 3 Councilman Ed Cockrell chided other members for not doing their “homework.”

Kathy Hofmann and Cockrell suggested Allan Gray, in his role as mayor pro tem, was overstepping his role as outlined in the charter, which he denied.

The topic came up after the council reversed directions on a special-use permit for a used-car lot proposed at 516 SW Third Street.

At its Dec. 5 meeting, the council held a public hearing, then voted against a motion to “draft an ordinance” to give the business a special use permit. Some members objected to another car dealership at a “gateway” to the city.

However, the council didn’t make a final decision to deny the application, according to Deputy City Attorney John Mautino, because there was no motion to effect.

It was in limbo, so in a special session Dec. 12 Council member Brian Whitley asked to reconsider the issue, changed his vote, and the special-use permit was approved at that meeting.

After the vote Holland asked the council to consider revamping its procedure of holding a public hearing and then immediately beginning to discuss a proposal and vote. Holland said he didn’t want to come off as impertinent, being a newer council member, but said the council’s decisions, while all out in the open, are messy and puts applicants who want to do business in this city into difficult situations.

He said he thinks the problem stems from the council not having opportunity to mull over the facts.

“We make decisions on the fly, I think it has caused us some problems...I know it has,” Holland said.

Several times this year the council has had the same difficulty crop up with the Walmart Supercenter, Price Chopper, and other controversial votes, he said.

He suggested two changes. One would be to assign a council member who supports a project “run the traps” on its behalf.

“Sort of shepherd it to the next stage, before we vote.” Holland said.

He said a more obvious change is to use a “cooling off period of a week” after the hearing before voting. In the interim, he said, members of the community could contact the council with their opinions, or council members could talk to applicants about their concerns.

“I just wanted to throw that out as something to think about,” Holland said.

Mayor Randy Rhoads said he thinks Holland’s idea merits discussion, but sometimes applicants are from out of town and the idea is to work with their schedules.

Cockrell blamed the wheel-spinning on council members not reading their packets with information on applications, failing to drive by locations, and not asking questions prior to council meetings.

“If we don’t do our homework, we do look a little silly,” Cockrell said.

He also said that the council is guilty of flip-flopping on policy. He said those combined make the council “look baffled.”

Cockrell also criticized the reasoning against the car lot.

He made a swipe at Gray, who had opposed it because he wants higher quality of development at “gateways.”

Cockrell said the council has not yet adopted a redevelopment plan for Third Street, and there’s “no legislative record” that justified denying the permit.

He groused about the role he said Gray sometimes takes upon himself. Cockrell said the mayor pro tem is “not speaker of the house” or the “leader of the council” according to the City Charter.

“He’s a good man, and he can lead us where he wants to lead, but that’s not what the charter calls for,” Cockrell said. “I’m not sure we don’t know what form of government we’ve got here.”

Councilman Bob Johnson said he also wants the process changed.

He said the applicants rely on what they’ve been told by city staff, when staff honestly believe they’ve gotten wrinkles ironed out of applications, but it isn’t always along lines council members agree on.

“Our applicants need to be encouraged to talk to the policy makers,” Johnson said.

He said he is not opposed to the idea of sponsorship or waiting until the next council meeting after a public hearing on applications.

Hofmann objected to Holland’s suggestion, saying that once a project is on the council agenda, she feels that would violate Missouri’s Sunshine Law. She said she is OK with applicants meeting with council members before filing applications to get feedback on their ideas.

She disagreed with Gray, saying she thinks he believes he has more power as mayor pro tem than the charter expresses. She scoffed at the idea that the council is always open in its decisions.

“I’d like to know where the transparency is, because I don’t get any,” Hofmann said.

She complained that issues she wants addressed get set side by Gray, who calmly responded to the attacks and denied Hofmann’s charge.

Gray said his concerns about improving aesthetics of the city’s gateways have been an ongoing principle of the council as a whole as it revised the city’s Unified Development Code.

He said he thinks it is time the council set out its ideas for gateways in a more formal policy.

He also noted Hofmann was mistaken if she thinks he has a lot of power as mayor pro tem. He differed with Cockrell on establishing a “record” for their legislative action.

“I don’t recall there being a requirement under the charter that a city council person step forward and give a reason for that vote,” Gray said.

Gray said that he and the previous mayor pro tem (Cockrell) had conducted their responsibilities within the guidelines of the charter. He said the focus of the discussion should be on improving the process.

“I don’t think I have to defend my record at all, it speaks for itself,” Gray said.

(The mayor pro tem, according to the city charter, is substitute for the mayor if the mayor is absent and also appoints city council members to committees. The council, through its adopted rules under the charter, extended the mayor pro tem’s responsibilities to include assigning ordinances or issues to committees for preliminary work.)

Holland said perhaps at times members were ill-prepared, but that inexperience contributes to the situation.

He said that’s another reason the council might want to adjust its procedures, because after April there would could be three new members without any experience on the council.

Holland said the city is losing valuable experience of members like Cockrell who cannot run because of term limits.

“He’s taking a wealth of knowledge off the council,” Holland said.

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