By Tyler Schneider
Kevin O’Neill is the current At-Large representative for the First District at-Large is challenged by Ronda Smith. The First District encompasses Kansas City north of Barry Road. “At-large” means voters throughout the city vote for the position.
Kevin O’Neill, 66, is one of the best known incumbents. Prior to being elected to his first City Council term in 2019, he was editor of The Labor Beacon, a locally syndicated union newspaper. He is a lifelong resident of Kansas City.
“In the short-term, let’s leverage the opportunity to work with this new police chief who has signaled a willingness to be communicative, efficient and creative. She deserves the time to orient the department towards her vision,” O’Neill says. “In the long-term, we have to recognize that a good-paying job is a great crime prevention strategy.”
O’Neill sees “pitting mental services against cops on the ground” as a false choice. “I support both, and our community needs both,” he says.
“Here is another harsh truth: We actually have money in the budget to add cops on the ground. The problem is we can’t find men and women who want those jobs.”
As far as local control of the KCPD, O’Neill raises a potent point: “If it worked so well, then cities would be clamoring to change their system to ours.”
The homelessness issue is much more multifaceted than many assume, says O’Neill, who identifies three key forms: criminal homelessness, addiction-related and underemployed. These categories can help the city match the needs of its people to solutions that are already available.
“I was on the Special Committee on Housing Policy that created the Zero KC plan to end homelessness. One long-term way to curb homelessness is to ensure that good jobs are available to all Kansas Citians. That’s why I worked so hard on the prevailing wage ordinance and enforcement mechanism,” he says.
Spending and finance
O’Neill has a four-point plan for how he will prioritize spending in the next iteration of the city budget: compliance/ordinance enforcement, infrastructure, public safety, and tourism.
Another way to look at how the city uses its funding is how it can grow into its significantly higher-than-average size on a per capita basis.
“Kansas City has the landmass of eight San Franciscos and not nearly the population density. That creates some real challenges when it comes to paying for all the infrastructure our city needs,” says O’Neill. “We need to focus on strategies—like tourism and placemaking—that make people want to move to a particular city and build our density.”
Ronda Smith, 57, is the wife of a KCPD police officer who served the city for 26 years and has been a real estate agent since 2005. She’s lived in the Northland with her family for over three decades.
One of the reasons Smith decided to run for office was her belief that the police and other first responders have not been getting fair treatment from existing city officials and council members. Morale is low, and the shortage of recruits puts added pressure on the department. Smith wants the city to back them “100 percent.”
“We have seen votes to defund our police and take local laws off the books that tied the hands of our police officers, allowing crime to escalate throughout our city,” Smith says.
She also wants to see criminals held to a greater level of accountability than she believes they are used to. As far as the City Council’s reach is concerned, this would tie directly into the city’s long standing need for a new municipal jail project.
“I believe that abandoned and unused property should be given back to the community. This would allow for the community and its nonprofits (like churches) to work together to resolve issues surrounding them,” Smith says. “There should be codes, but not unreasonable nonsense holding the community back from what they need to do.”
Smith has considered putting a panhandling ordinance back in the books or otherwise installing a permit process that would add some restrictions to the practice. From there, “I would find the programs with a proven record of working in the city and make sure those are the programs that get funded.”
She continues, “This is something that the city government has no expertise in, and they should leave it to the experts. From these measures, some of the homeless would return to the cities they came from.”
Spending and finance
Accountability and transparency go hand in hand with the city’s financial efforts, says Smith, who would like to see each department’s budget be made more accessible for all citizens to review online. She has stated her desire to call for a state-led external audit of the city’s budget.
While curbing government overreach is indeed a central focus of her campaign, she does note that some areas of city spending, like improving infrastructure in areas of need, as well as bolstering basic city services, must continue. She also would like to see existing funds, like those used towards TIFs, distributed more equitably across all regions of KCMO’s large reach.
“These incentives, if used properly, can be beneficial,” Smith says. But she stresses, “In order to see our city prosper we have to take a hard look at what we have been doing wrong and correct those things now before we bankrupt our city.”