by Murrel Bland
The Unified Government recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the merger of city and county governments in Wyandotte County. A group of Unified Government officials along with community leaders marked the occasion with a dinner at the recently remodeled Memorial Hall.
It was a “feel-good event” celebrating the merger and the accomplishments that followed including the development in the Village West Area. For me, it was an opportunity to look back at the history of the county and to trace the roots of the consolidated government.
In the fall of 1961 and the spring of 1962, I was a junior at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. I lived in the second story of a house just north of campus with two housemates — Jed Hurley, a law student, and Joe McKenna, a political science graduate student.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but McKenna was working on a study of the consolidation of city-county governments in Wyandotte County. His report, published by the Governmental Research Center at KU, showed that these governmental units were both inefficient and expensive.
Consolidation of city and county governments in Wyandotte County was first proposed in 1937 — some 60 years before it happened. There were various studies and proposals along the way.
A major factor of why it finally happened was geography with the city of Kansas City, Kansas, covering most of county. When it finally did occur, the cities of Bonner Springs and Edwardsville were protected — they would be able to keep their municipal governments. Instead of dealing with county government, these smaller cities would deal with a Unified Government.
The word at the celebration was that Village West development — particularly the luring of the Kansas Speedway — happened because of a consolidated government. I’m not for certain that is entirely correct. The case can be made that it was easier because developers had to deal with only one set of officials.
However, the site was chosen primarily because of access at the intersection of I-70 and I-435. It is reasonably easy for race fans to get in and out of the track complex. And I believe any project that big would have had support from county commissioners if they would have been in power. The city and county commissioners supported the General Motors plant during the 1980s.
In looking at the history of consolidation, it is important to note what happened in the early 1980s. For many years, city and county governments were racked with patronage and corruption. In the 1950s, all three city commissioners were indicted, although none was convicted. Unfortunately, the damage was done and severely damaged the city’s reputation. Although there weren’t any indictments in subsequent years, wrangling among the commissioners led to public embarrassment.
The City Commission appointed a special study committee that spent most of 1981 studying city government and what could be done to improve it. I served on that committee. The recommendation was to change from a commission form to a mayor-council form with a professional administrator. In 1982, by a slim margin, voters approved this change.
Leading the effort to change the form of government was O.L. Plucker, the superintendent of Kansas City, Kansas, School District and Bill Little, the president of the Kansas City, Kansas, Area Chamber of Commerce. Voters in that election rejected the stranglehold that patronage politicians had on city and county government. Had that reform not occurred, I seriously doubt that consolidation could have followed some 15 years later.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.