Q&A with Mayor Randy Rhoads

jbeaudoin@lsjournal.comMay 12, 2014 

Lee’s Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads (center), seen here at a recent retirement party for outgoing Lee's Summit Economic Development Council President Jim Devine, will have been in public office for 20 years by the time his second term expires in 2018. Rhoads was previously on city council representing District 2 before unseating long-time Mayor Karen Messerli in 2010.

<MODIFY>JOHN BEAUDOIN</MODIFY><219,4,200>/THE JOURNAL — /the Journal

Lee’s Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads is beginning his second term leading Lee’s Summit.

While he didn’t have an opponent for this election, Rhoads still acknowledges there is much work to be done at City Hall and in the council chambers during these next four years.

Economic development, incentives, tax base, housing and long-term goals and budgets are all topics that will cross his desk in the coming months.

I sat down with Rhoads for more than hour on May 2 to talk to the retired engineer about what his role on council has been and will be moving forward, challenges and opportunities ahead for city government and what his leadership role will be as city staff and his council move ahead on projects in a city with a budget of $184 million.

Q. What leadership qualities do you expect out of your council members and out of yourself?

A. The word I would use would be "respect." Respect for others on the council, respect for staff, respect for the residents, respect for presenters – a developer or an applicant. And that sounds like a simplistic answer, but it has a lot of complex to it. To fully respect somebody, that carries with it the responsibility to be prepared to address the issues that come before the council. That would be the quality I would like to see out of everybody.

Q. So, respect. Have we gotten there?

A. Too early to tell.

Q. Were we there in your first term?

A. Not consistently.

Q. Why were we short of that?

A. You’re starting to hear some information that we may not be comfortable hearing. You may be in the process of formulating an opinion. And you may be receiving some information that is causing you to question that. And that could be causing you some discomfort. This is speculation on my part. That could be part of it.

Q. If you could tell the newest three members of the city council, Trish Carlyle, Diane Forte and Diane Seif, just one thing, what would it be?

A. Try to keep an open mind. That’s easier said than done. But, if you can allow yourself to keep and digest information, sometimes light bulbs go off that you didn’t even realize were there. You have to be willing to let the presenter complete his thought or his presentation. That’s why when we have a public hearing section, that’s for you to ask questions to get information that are helping you form your opinion. Not to state your opinion. Because if there is any follow up hearing, you’ve tainted yourself.

Q. And what do you wish someone would have told you before you took office as mayor?

A. How many spinning plates the mayor has to keep going. There is so much that goes on in this office. That’s what makes it fun. I come in every day, it’s different. I know what’s planned for the day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s going to happen that day. Some people think I know everything that’s going on in the city. When a person comes in, or calls, they assume I am right on top of what they want to talk about. Not always.

Q. In what ways was it important to you to distinguish yourself from Karen Messerli? Where she may have liked to break a tie vote, you would prefer the council make a decision. Where she may have spoken up on issues, you would like your colleagues to work it out on the council level. You have been visible in the community, however, so does that play to your advantage?

A. First of all, being out and about, you see this on the Presidential level. The President, no matter who it is, becomes very insular. They have security details, you can’t get to them. I could never be President because of that. My getting out, that allows me to do a reality check or a gut check on what’s going on around town. And people will let you know. They may not articulate an opinion, but they sometimes give you eye rolls, shoulder shrugs. If you’re open to these things, you soon develop a sense of, this is an issue that is not very well received or very well received. But you don’t get that if you just camp out at your office. I prefer to be out and about. If I have to break a tie, I am confident I can make a decision that is supported by what wants to be done in the community.

Q. You would prefer that your council members make those decisions, though, correct?

A. Yes. Because if you get down where you are breaking a tie, there is a clear lack of a majority. When I have to break the tie, I am trying to make my decision based on what is best for the community.

Q. How did you view the role of the mayor when you were a councilman and how do you view it today?

A. I had an edge, because I was pro tem, not that it necessarily in and of itself makes a difference. I was in the chair quite a bit the last two years (Messerli was in office). So I possibly went into the office a little better prepared then others. Not all pro tems have that luxury. A prime example, the way things are going now, I’m retired, and I don’t miss many meetings. So if a guy is a pro tem, or gal, and thinks they’re going to run, I’m not helping them. And I’m not doing it on purpose.

Q. How do you view the mayoral role now? Whether it’s behind the scenes, in closed session, or in other ways we don’t see.

A. Going back to my original comment about respect, I try to treat all council members equally. In effect, in my opinion, council members are all the same height. There are eight council members representing four districts. I react to the lights that are turned on. There are times when I have called on people and then had to bite my tongue because I anticipate what’s going to be said. But I can’t stop them. My job is to maintain some decorum and some civility. Some times, I will do some one-on-ones, here, and I can express some concerns that way. I actually have a lot of tools; you may not see them on the dais.

Q. Tell us what those are.

A. There are times they will confide in me with the expectation that it’s not going anywhere. I think I’ve earned their respect.

Q. You’ve brought up pro tem, so let’s walk down that road. May 1, we saw two different people running (current pro tem Allan Gray and Councilman Rob Binney). If you could have done that process differently, how would you have done it?

A. I’m OK with the way it went down. That is probably a more honest approach. When I first got on to council, there were times, not often, but there were times where a couple people wanted to be pro tem, but the person who appeared to not have support of the council would back down. We would have unanimous votes. That was not necessarily an honest read, but it came across they got an 8-0 vote.

Q. If you could set the role yourself for pro tem, how would that look? And how do you feel that job has been done the last few years in regards to committee assignments and liaisons?

A. The charter defines that, and the charter is really pretty loose. It basically says, you’re the mayor if the mayor is gone. But you don’t get to veto. And it says you assign boards and commissions, subject to the consent of the council. Now if someone wants to take that and embellish that, there’s really nothing to keep them from doing that.

Q. How has the pro tem job been under Gray?

A. I would say he’s done OK. There are a few times I think he’s pushed the envelope a little bit.

Q. Anything specific?

A. Yes, there was one where he named five council members to a committee. That caused me some angst because that’s a majority of the council and I articulated my concerns to him. And we respectfully disagreed. As luck would have it, one of those members stepped off, giving us four again.

Q. What are your feelings on policy governance and an expectation that council comes to meetings ready to make decisions?

A. When I was first on council, we had books and we had all this material handed to you and it was yours to digest. I worked with the city manager and I came up with the idea, let’s have a single sheet at the front that is somewhat of a summary. And it’s broken down…8 ½ x 11, front and back. We still get the supportive material. That has helped us to become prepared, I think. We still have a few that never crack the book. But we can’t control that.

Q. You said there are a few that do not come prepared, but you cannot do much about that. Have you let your expectations of preparedness be known to your council?

A. No. I have not sat there and said, ‘You must be prepared.’ I would think some of this was self-regulated since it is on TV.

Q. With budget concerns looming, when is the time to make more of a legal move toward the $900,000 owed to the city of Lee’s Summit due to misdirected utility funds to Cass County?

A. There is a lot of behind the scenes activity. I think, subject to council’s approval, we are close to doing something. We’ve been chasing a lot of avenues and you don’t want to go to quick because there may be an avenue that’s successful. I know there is a lot of money involved. We’re chasing all these rabbits and I think we are just about down to the last rabbit or two.

Q. Have they made an offer that we have rejected, or have we made an offer that they have rejected, to your knowledge?

A. Not that I’m comfortable talking about. There are discussions.

Q. Financially, what gets us back to even? Is this Summit Place? Wal-Mart? Other retail? Buyouts and other cuts at city hall?

A. Something I think would help would be for the city to establish some sort of incentive policy. I was of the school of thought that every project ought to stand on its own. I’ve had some private meetings with big developers in the Kansas City area. I met with three of them, and each one recommended we have some sort of incentive policy. It’s not rigid, because every project still has to stand on its own. You have to somehow dangle the bait out there to get developers interested. Liberty has had some great success. They have an incentive policy. The city needs to seriously consider some sort of policy that at least we can show to a developer and see if we can pique their interest in Lee’s Summit. We’re in a competitive situation. Every city is going through this.

Q. Will that happen in your second term?

A. I kind of think it might. But that’s just my reading of the tea leaves. I think there’s a recognition that something has to be done.

Q. What are your thoughts on incentives (TIF, TDD, Chapter 100) as it relates to projects moving forward?

A. I think we have to be prepared that it’s going to be asked for. A lot of it has to do with the type of project and the nature of the incentive and what it will pay for. We had a big gap. We approved Summit Woods, and that helped our tax base and stopped a lot of the sales tax leakage that was going to Independence and Bannister Mall. Summit Fair came in, and that got us even closer. Now, Summit Place is here and they’re saying there is going to be "x" new tax dollars and that’s raising a question, because, is it? Or is it stealing from Summit Woods or Summit Fair? These are questions that council has to resolve. These are retail projects. If some small manufacturer came in here and wanted incentives, and were willing to improve roads, I don’t think there would be any heartburn on incentives.

Q. If you were on the council, Mayor Rhoads, how would you vote on Summit Place?

A. I would want to look at their numbers pretty hard. And, they’re claiming "x" number of new tax dollars. Is that a real number?

Q. Do you believe that’s a real number?

A. I’m not sure. Because it may be that some of those taxes are coming from Summit Woods, and that’s not helping us.

Q. Do you feel like there is a gun to the collective heads of you and the council from the unnamed retailer regarding incentives at Summit Place?

A. That perception is out there, yes.

Q. Would a project like Park Place moving to downtown with mixed housing and retail excite you as the mayor of Lee’s Summit?

A. It does. We’ve had studies done and we need more density in downtown. That could help the downtown businesses. There’s tremendous demand for downtown housing.

Q. Has it been difficult to be the mayor living in that area of the rock reclamation project at 470 and View High?

A. Well, they’re not going to blast, from what I understand. Will there be some construction-related activity? Maybe some dust, maybe some noise. There might be.

Q. What is special about Lee’s Summit?

A. There is genuineness about Lee’s Summit. We have some very interesting, unique, well-rounded people in Lee’s Summit – doctors, lawyers, judges, factory workers, laborers. But you come down here when they have these concerts and you see who is sitting together – multi-cultural, multi-racial – and I don’t know how recent that is. This used to be a small town. People can come in and be involved as soon as they hit the city limits.

Q. What don’t the residents of Lee’s Summit know about you that they should know?

A. Without sounding schmaltzy, this is it for me. When I finish this term, I will have been in elected office 20 years. But I’ve done it because I enjoy and really do love Lee’s Summit and I feel like I am leaving my fingerprints on the community. When I am through with this term, that’s it. I am not going to the county or going to Jefferson City. I feel like I have been effective for my community and that is extremely satisfying to me.

Q. Is it imperative that every mayor have a legacy when they’re gone? And if so, what do you hope yours will be?

A. I am going to say no, because, not all legacies are good. I’m just hoping as people look back on my term in office, they can say, ‘There was an individual that treated the residents and the office with respect and did what he felt was best for the city without hopes or any dreams or any aspirations for personal aggrandizement.

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