Lee’s Summit gets glimpse of council candidates at public forum

rpulley@lsjournal.comMarch 7, 2014 

Races for Lee’s Summit City Council are speeding up.

Candidates for contested seats took part in a March 4 forum sponsored by the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce and Lee’s Summit Journal.

They are in District 1 Robert Dye and Diane Forte; District 2, Craig Faith, Timothy Denker and Trish Carlyle; District 3 Joseph Spallo and Diane Seif.

Mayor Randy Rhoads and District 4 Councilman Dave Mosby are unopposed.

Rhoads and several other current council also watched the forum at the Gamber Center, where candidates made brief statements and answered questions from moderator Carl Chinnery, chairman of the Chamber’s Governmental Relations Committee.

Chinnery, who can’t resist an opportunity to joke, asked Rhoads if he ruled Lee’s Summit with an iron fist, and quickly moved on.

There were a few gaffes, and while the tone was serious, candidates were courteous and focused on questions, without attacking rivals.

Forte stumbled slightly at a question regarding council goals, admitting she didn’t really know what they were. Faith referred to the Lee’s Summit Journal as a different newspaper, then corrected himself. Spallo confused a bond issue for U.S. 50 highway interchange to be voted on in April with supplying sanitary sewers to that area.

Questions ranged from possible charter amendment to civility on the council.

Voters might find it difficult to decide between candidates based on stances they took this week, because often they agreed on priorities.

Chinnery asked candidates which of three possible realignments for council districts they’d prefer: keeping the current system with four districts with two representatives from each, or eight individual districts or four at-large districts and four seats for a section of the city.

Faith said he likes the idea of four at large districts, to insure interests of the entire city were watched, as well as those of individual districts.

Forte said she undecided. She said thought the four current districts cover large, diverse areas so council members still are concerned about the city overall, but said she could also see eight districts working.

Denker said he thought the four at-large districts idea had merit because council members would have less concern about recall effort by a small number of voters. He added the current system was working well.

Seif and Carlyle also said they liked at-large proposal, with Carlyle adding that it might be a better idea to have fewer at large districts, maybe splitting it six districts with two at-large. Spallo agreed the current system works well, but added a possible advantage of eight districts is that with fewer people in each, council members might find it easier to communicate with them individually. Dye said he liked the present system.

“Everyone representing people should look at the entire city, not just their district,” Dye said.

Asked about goals that City Council adopted after its last retreat, the candidates agreed the highest priorities are economic development and basic services.

Forte said a priority is improving the balance between commercial and residential tax bases and maintaining city services. Denker added city infrastructure. Seif and Carlyle agreed, with Seif noting that business development would help finance good schools, necessary for the city’s future.

Dye said the city should work to continue its current programs, saying city could use a “line of credit” to add revenue if necessary.

Faith said the problem is the “... strategic goals and concepts are forgotten as soon as the doors were closed (after the retreat).”

Chinnery asked what approaches they’d use to build consensus.

The candidates generally took his question to mean communicating with constituents, and said email, social media and community forums were important.

Spallo said he goes back to advice he got from former Mayor Al Johnson, who told him when a constituent emails or calls a council member, that’s the most important thing going on in their life at that time, so pay attention.

“That’s the philosophy I live by,” Spallo said.

All the candidates said the believed the role of the city council is to set policy, using city staff ‘s expertise to get professional advice on issues they’ll decide. They said the council members should be civil to each other, even while disagreeing and accord staff the same treatment.

“If I agree or disagree, I would treat everyone with respect,” Forte said.

Denker said the council needs to set policy to maintain the city “... making sure it is working best, with all the changes the city is making going forward.”

They agreed council members should be open-minded and listen, presenting their ideas without disparaging others.

“I believe in cooperation, not confrontation,” Seif said.

Each candidate supports term limits, with Forte saying she recognizes those limits come with a loss of institutional knowledge.

One issue where candidates’ ideas diverged was private/public partnerships, such as incentives or privatization.

Dye said the city shouldn’t be choosing which enterprises would be successful, so such arrangements should be rare.

Faith said the city needs to consider its return on the investment, then decide if the proposal is worthwhile.

Forte said such partnerships can elevate city services. She used the example of the parks department and youth sports organizations that use city fields, but provide much support for that privilege.

Denker said that using private/public partnerships allows the city to use the expertise and efficiencies of private companies in areas they do well.

Seif said the city should make sure private/public partnerships would have “sustainability” with measurable objectives.

Spallo said the city needs to be cautious, because it has had some successes, but also failures, citing Lee’s Summit’s buying land for the company Exergonix, which so far hasn’t resulted in a manufacturing plant or new jobs.

Carlyle said the community should look at opportunities case by case.

“Everything should be considered, nothing should be thrown away before it’s brought to the table,” Carlyle said.

They said core city services must be maintained, not cutting police, fire and public works departments.

Dye said the city could use short-term loans to balance its budget. Faith said the city should look at individual line items where it can cut or enhance revenues. Carlyle and Forte said the city needs to grow itself out of the tight budget. Spallo said the city might need to cut employees in non-essential areas.

A second forum for council races on March 25 is on cover specific topics such as economic development, city support for the arts and Arnold Hall.

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