By Tyler Schneider
The 5th District’s at-large seat is open with current office holder, Lee Barnes Jr., unable to run again due to term limits. The field to replace Barnes includes Michael Kelley, a community activist making his first run at elective office, and Darrell Curls, part of a well-known political family. Kansas City’s new council map means Hickman Mills and Ruskin areas will now be voting as part of the 5th district. “At-large” means voters throughout the city vote for the position.
Michael Kelley, 31, is perhaps best known as the BikeWalk KC Director and a first time aspirant for political office with a background in activism.
He is a resident of the Gregory Hills neighborhood of South Kansas City and attended Kansas State University before earning a master’s degree in public administration from UMKC.
Blight and Housing
Kelley recognizes that the blighted portions of neighborhoods like Hickman Mills are often exacerbated by property owners with no physical presence in the area.
“We see many out of town landlords that are not interested in the vitality of the community. I really want to focus efforts on strengthening our healthy homes programs, penalties for actors who are behaving badly. I also think we need to look at vacancy taxes, for those landlords who aren’t renting their properties out intentionally. That contributes to the blight that we see,” Kelley said.
If elected, Kelley’s initial priorities here would be to “redefine ‘affordability’” in regards to rent rates, and to change the zoning code to make better use of what is already available. The goal would be to move towards creating a system in which the city creates housing “which everyone can access, and ensure that what we’re building can be maintained.”
As the director for BikeWalkKC, Kelley is particularly knowledgeable on the close ties between infrastructure and transportation offerings.
“A big challenge is not just the crumbling infrastructure we have but also the lack of transportation options for people who don’t have access to a car,” Kelley said.
This connection can be repaired in several ways. In many cases, like that of the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot, the funding can be at least partially sourced from above. Kelley said that this has already been utilized to help repair parts of the city’s west side.
“The RCP was created to help remediate the harm caused by projects such as highways. Knowing that parts of South Kansas City and its communities have been split, torn pretty far apart by these highways, we should be looking to not only reconnect these communities, but reconnect neighbors with each other from the bottom-up,” Kelley said.
Infrastructure and Health
“What we’re building in Kansas City is important, but we need to think more about who we’re building our community for. That means keeping basic services going, like road maintenance and public utilities. It also means improving our city services to reach our neighbors who are consistently left behind,” Kelley said.
In tying many issues to infrastructure, Kelley also lists public health as an important factor in strengthening and connecting communities.
While countless people did perish from COVID-19, “there are thousands of ppl in KC and throughout our region who had COVID, survived it, and are living with significantly diminished physical and mental abilities. We need to build to accommodate their care.”
Darrell Curls, 64, hails from a family is a mainstay in regional and state level politics. In his bid for city council, Curls cites his activity as a board member of Freedom, Inc., and his former seat as a director of the Hickman Mills School Board, as examples of his ability to bolster communities.
Curls earned his undergraduate degree from Park College, and his MBA from Central Michigan University. He has lived in South Kansas City with his wife for over forty years, and recently retired from Ford Motor Company.
Curls says his plan to reduce crime would focus on providing more resources for neighborhood crime prevention. He also says more job creation and support is needed to fight drugs and substance abuse, as poverty is typically tied to these issues. He looks to form a collaborative effort between neighborhood groups, law enforcement and school districts.
In the long term, Curls also supports local control of the KCPD, stating that the “perception of the police department is poor, in part, due to not having local control.”
“We control the budget, but not the department. That’s not a good workable proposition for the city or its residents,” Curls said. “The city controls the fire department and has done so pretty well. I believe the city can also control the police department.”
Infrastructure and City Services
Curls wants to facilitate “more investment in curbs, sidewalks, street repair, repaving, and bridge replacement.
“We have to use all available resources, state as well as federal grants, and increase the amount from the general fund for our infrastructure needs,” he said.
This ties in with some of the more minute aspects of services provided by the city. Curls wants to deliver more reliable and improved trash pick up, snow removal, and maintenance on potholes, streets, and sidewalks.
Blight and Housing
Like Kelley, Curls supports the People’s Housing Trust Fund, but he sees the need for additional funds to be added towards that cause. He would also like to leverage state and federal grants and begin working more closely with developers and the city’s real estate community to maximize dollars spent on affordable housing.
Relatedly, Curls would like to “provide more affordable housing choices for renters and buyers through rehab, renovation and construction,” which would include blight removal.