New information about the travel habits of Mayor Sly James and the Kansas City Council reveals an urgent need at City Hall: Real ethics reform must be enacted before a the next mayor and council take office next year.
In the last two years, city records show, James and his colleagues have spent more than $155,000 to hop-scotch across the country, and the globe — Cuba, Hawaii, Washington D.C., China, Canada. City Councilman Jermaine Reed led the pack, with more than $31,000 in travel expenses.
But other council members wore traveling shoes, too. Councilman Dan Fowler visited Havana, Cuba, at the behest of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. The mayor traveled to Washington, D.C., where he attended the annual Washington, D.C., dinner of the Alfalfa Club, an organization founded to celebrate the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Former senator Kit Bond invited him to the gala.
Sometimes council members and the mayor actually learn from other cities’ ideas and best practices, or from meeting with counterparts elsewhere. No one can reasonably object to that.
But voters should expect elected representatives to use judgment and caution before asking taxpayers to provide airfare and lodging for far-flung conferences and meetings. Was it really necessary for five members of the City Council to attend a conference on airports that was held in Montreal? Would four members have done the job? Three?
Yes, Kansas City benefits from council members’ relationships with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities, and other national groups. But members who sign up for national work must balance that responsibility against the need to represent local concerns and spend local money wisely.
That’s why the council’s July decision to reject a watered-down ethics reform package that included changes to travel policy was such a disappointment. Even timely reporting of travel expenses was apparently too much for the seven members who voted it down.
This November, Missouri voters will consider an ambitious plan to improve the ethics standards for state legislators. Kansas Citians deserve similar reforms before the next mayor and council take office in 2019.
An acceptable ethics package would include a limit on gifts for council members; a reasonable delay before former members can lobby the council; transparency and limits on taxpayer-funded travel; and immediate disclosure of campaign contributions.
It would also give the city ethics commission real authority to enforce such provisions.
There may be other ideas. If so, residents should contact their representatives to add them to an ethics reform package.
Kansas Citians deserve a government that is transparent and prudent with taxpayer dollars. Service on the council is a public trust, not just a job, and it’s not a way to see the country on someone else’s dime.