Vote last year gave Kansas City a fresh council

November 03, 1991|By J. Duncan Moore Jr. | J. Duncan Moore Jr.,Special to The Sun

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This city, one of only a handful of jurisdictions to pass term limitation laws, took the plunge in November 1990.

By a majority of 57 percent, voters pulled the lever for term limits, and in so doing pulled the plug on a stuck-in-a-rut City Council. Unlike some jurisdictions, Kansas City didn't "grandfather" in the sitting politicians.

By setting a deadline of eight years in office, the people effectively terminated nine of the council's 13 members. The quadrennial councilmanic election fell on March 26, 1991, and thus only those who had won their first terms in 1987 could file for re-election.

"I think Kansas City is a better place for it," said longtime political activist Steve Glorioso.

Political scientist Dale Neuman calls term limitation "a bad idea whose time has come" but concedes that the new Kansas City Council seems to function better than the old one.

Henry E. Lyons, the guiding light behind the two-term referendum, said, "When I compare newspaper reports from before to what I read now, it's a world of difference: no scandals, no one going to jail. It's just tremendous."

The strongest opposition to Mr. Lyons' campaign came from those who argued that term limitation was a ploy to reduce representation of the minority community. Those fears proved unfounded.

The old council had three women, one Hispanic and four blacks. All four blacks and the Hispanic had served two terms. In March the voters elected five women, one Hispanic and five blacks, including Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who holds the 13th council seat.

Referendum backers hoped that by reducing the power of incumbents, more citizens would be encouraged to run for office. They got their wish: More candidates filed for council seats than ever before.

Former Councilman Mark Bryant opposed term limitation when it was proposed and hasn't changed his mind.

"No one who has not been a city employee is capable of understanding the intricacies of City Hall in a major metro area on the day he is elected," he said. "And it takes anywhere from six months to two years just to learn your way around."

On the other hand, former Councilman Bob Lewellen at first resented being forced to give up his seat but now thinks that the principle is just.

"Politicians lose their drive and enthusiasm for new ideas," Mr. Lewellen said. Once the political system starts to adapt to the idea that there is a limit on all terms, including state and federal offices, he said, it will grow more hospitable to change.

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