Another city of Independence Power and Light leader has separated employment, and Independence citizens should ask city leadership including the mayor, members of the City Council and the city management executive team why this is happening.
Brenda Hampton was recently released and is now the second top Power & Light Department executive to leave the organization in less than one year. I resigned from the top position on June 29, 2018. Both Ms. Hampton and I were nationally recruited through executive search firms and moved from several states away to Independence – all at substantial City expense – to lead the Power & Light department. I left the city of Independence on my own terms because the leadership culture at the City Council and city management levels did not align with my own. I venture to guess that this was the overarching reason for Ms. Hampton's departure as well.
The leadership culture at the city of Independence has historically been a case study in how not to lead an organization of well over 1,000 employees responsible for an area of 78 square miles with a population of 117,000. Strong leadership involves thinking and acting strategically, and this attribute has likely eluded city leadership for quite some time.
I recall a former city of Independence executive who surmised that the City Council has always liked things that are "shiny and new." The inference is that city leadership's focus is to acquire "stuff" with little to no consideration given to the associated lifecycle costs. The root question that needs to be answered before another shiny and new asset is procured using public funds is "How can the city of Independence become THE place that attracts visitors from near and far, and families who want to live and work a vibrant safe, walkable, bike rideable, community?” It likely does not involve buying that shiny and new asset.
Getting at the answer to this question alone requires city leadership to think strategically – looking through a long-term lens with an eye toward the long-term sustainability of the city. Because if city leaders were to think and act strategically, they might find over time a reciprocal response in the form of much-needed industrial development, growth in population, and, ultimately, strong and sustainable city general fund revenues. A strategic thinking city leadership culture would not have allowed the city to accumulate nearly $1 billion in deferred infrastructure maintenance because renewals and replacements would have been anticipated and planned accordingly.
The current posture of City Council and the city manager in regard to the Power & Light Department is also not strategic in nature. City leadership behaves as if the Power & Light Department is organizationally disconnected from the city of Independence. In actuality, the Power & Light Department exists but for the city of Independence. The City Council is the only body that can take the credit for good and the blame for bad policymaking and rules. If you believe the electric rates are high, you must blame the council and no one else. The City Council can and should do everything within is authority to be a team player with the Power & Light Department because as the Power & Light Department goes, so goes the city of Independence.
One has to ask why the council and manager deem their current approach an effective way to manage a $150 million enterprise – that being the Power & Light Department. Instead of laying the groundwork for long-term financial sustainability, they are making knee-jerk decisions in a vacuum that give the appearance of wanting nothing more than to sell the enterprise to the highest bidder for the sake of a short-term and unsustainable benefit of balancing the city’s general fund budget. If this is what Power & Light customers want, that's one thing. Lest we be reminded that the Power & Light Department is the best thing the city has going for it in that:
• It is completely self-sufficient. In other words, does not rely on funding from any source other than revenues generated from sales of electricity.
• It provides highly reliable electric service.
• It provides excellent customer service.
• It has competitive retail rates (contrary to popular belief) that could be even better if City Council and city management would allow the recommendations of rate studies, past and present, to be implemented.
• Last but not least, it pumps millions of dollars annually to the city's general fund in the form of a 10 percent gross receipts tax.
Before you as citizen-owners of this enterprise allow your elected City Council members and appointed city manager to make further decisions that are detrimental to the long-term viability of the Power & Light Department, thus the vitality of the city of Independence, you need to get engaged, take a stand, and push back when you observe actions that don't quite pass the "sniff test."
Let's look at the City Council's track record when making significant money decisions concerning the Power & Light Department while keeping in-mind that every $2 million in expenditures (approximately) equates to a 1 percent rate increase:
• Use of Power & Light Department funds to pay for the new Independence Utilities Center building ($11 million).
• Contract award for demolition of Missouri City Generating Station to the highest bidder ($10 million).
• Payment of $220,000 to the former Power & Light Department director for "economic development consulting" with nothing so much as one written report to show for it
• Allowing a City Council member attend conferences including hotel and meal expenses before and/or after the core event at substantial city expense with no accountability to the public in reporting conference take-aways.
• Approval of an impromptu motion from the City Council dais to eliminate nine Power & Light Department professional positions. (This would have cut personnel expenses but generated much more in additional consulting service expenses.)
• Consulting services for the now banished advanced metering infrastructure initiative ($500,000).
• Consulting services for the electric generation master plan that currently remains in limbo ($100,000).
• Consulting services for the electric cost-of-service and rate study that currently remains in limbo ($100,000).
All I am suggesting is that you, the citizens of Independence, who are also part-owners of the Power & Light Department, need to pay attention to what's going on at City Council meetings. When you see headlines that department heads are leaving at an inordinate pace, pay attention! When you see newspaper accounts that the City Council approved an impromptu motion out of left field concerning a significant financial decision, pay attention! When you observe standing-room-only crowds at City Council meetings, pay attention!
Folks, these are not attributes of good city governance and most certainly do not portray a positive image for the community. Trust me when I say that news about the goings-on with the leadership of the city of Independence, Missouri do not remain confined only to Independence, Missouri.
Decisions made at the City Council can and will affect your pocketbook and a long list of other quality of life issues in the city. Do not let the City Council and city management get away with poor management of the city. More importantly, don't let poor leadership decisions take Independence down an irreversible path to fiscal crisis. Independence, Missouri deserves much better.
Now is the time to be thinking about the next City Council election. Get engaged by attending weekly City Council meetings and study sessions, or watching the City Council and other Board and Commission meeting video recordings on the city's website. Review City Council agendas and consider speaking during the citizen comments portion of the meeting on issues that impact you. In April 2020, all four district City Council positions are on the ballot. Get engaged, pay attention, and when you go to the polls in April, think about what's best for the long-term vitality of the city of Independence.