t f r
^

Around Town

Property Maintenance Issues

Since being elected to the City Council in 2012, property maintenance issues and code compliance have accounted for the lion’s share of complaints I receive from citizens.  As the representative for the 4th District in southwestern Independence I became aware of the impact of dilapidated buildings and poorly maintained property and public infrastructure in the older neighborhoods, and it was no surprise to me.  I continue to receive multiple calls and emails from citizens every week regarding property maintenance and realize that the issue is widespread across all four corners of our city.

Property code inspection and enforcement is administered by the city’s Health Department, but is a concern for all departments in the organization.  Lack of code compliance impacts public health, economic development, tourism, police and fire, and our law department and municipal court.  For citizens it also impacts public education, property value, and community pride.  Code Compliance is primarily complaint-driven, requiring residents to report problems to our Health Department who will then inspect and, if necessary, abate the problem.  A recent evaluation of the Code Compliance process performed by the Council’s management analyst revealed that nearly 90% of property owners cited for violations voluntarily comply and correct the issues.

Code officers do not patrol neighborhoods looking for code violations because of funding and staffing limitations.  I object in principle to the system of ”neighbor turning in neighbor” because it conflicts with my ideas of how to build a sense of community in a city.  Until we find a creative alternative, or more funding, however, this is the system that exists.

The council takes these citizen concerns seriously and has developed some strategies to help reduce the number of violations and expedite resolution of the issues.  Recently, our IT department created a mobile application for code officers to utilize out in the field.  This speeds up the process of documenting violations, reduces paperwork, and cuts back on man hours.  The council has also discussed prosecution of cases with the law department and municipal court to boost voluntary compliance.  The council designated funding for additional neighborhood clean-up events this year and is working to develop several more “mini clean-ups” to help elderly and disabled residents with property maintenance issues.

This week I have participated in interviews with candidates who have applied for our Community Development Director position and have asked them specific questions about property and infrastructure maintenance.  There were some good ideas shared that can be implemented in Independence.  Each candidate has emphasized the need to inform adequately the public on the property code so unintended violations don’t occur.

A year ago Kansas City Mayor Sly James launched an ambitious initiative to demolish 1,000 dangerous buildings.  These dangerous buildings — primarily single family residences — are a blight to urban neighborhoods and a deterrent to redevelopment of the urban core.  At an average cost of $10,000 per building, the project has struggled to reach its goals due to funding shortfalls.  Moreover, Kansas City found a certain amount of neighborhood resistance to demolishing homes rather than rehabilitating and marketing them.

Property maintenance and code compliance are difficult and sensitive issues for any city, and Independence is no exception.  I believe it is an issue that deserves the attention and commitment of the City Council and the residents and business owners in our city.

Welcoming Remarks – Bike for Peace

Today I was asked to offer a welcome for the 4 Bike for Peace riders from Norway who are riding to promote world peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.  Here are my remarks:

On behalf of the Independence City Council and the citizens of Independence, I welcome our Norwegian visitors to our city.  We are honored to have you here with us today, and commend you on your important mission for peace. On this day, our country’s National Day of Prayer, officially established by President Harry S Truman in 1952, Americans of many religions join in one voice, united in prayer.  This tradition predates the founding of the country, when in 1775 the Continental Congress called for prayer for the founding of a new nation.  This national observance calls on the best of the men, women, and children of the United States to unite in gratitude for the goodness that has been done and through prayer and meditation, seek a more peaceful and just future.  It is a pleasure to have you here today when you can meet us at our very best. To strive for world peace may seem like an unachievable goal, but strive we must.  In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy he writes “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peacefully and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”  I ask all of you here today for your support for all the leaders of our city, our nation and our world that we will together consider peace not as an achievement but as a responsibility.

Inter-City News

A new publication, Inter-City News, posed me the following question:

“With all the development and improvements along the 39th Street and I-70 corridor, citizens in the northwest area of Independence (Fairmount, Mt. Washington, Maywood,  and Englewood) tend to feel left out and neglected.  If you are elected mayor, what is your vision for improving the “Inter-City” district with respect to economic development, public safety, social services, and historic preservation?”

Here is my response:

The historic neighborhoods and business districts of northwestern Independence are the foundation of our city.  This was the first area of industrial growth, providing livelihoods for generations of families. Strong neighborhoods, good schools, and thriving retail and services developed to meet the needs of the families that set down their roots in Independence.   For more than a decade, I have been personally involved in supporting the neighborhoods and commercial districts of northwestern Independence.  This has been an important crusade for me because I have a strong desire to preserve the unique, authentic character of western Independence, and I believe this area of town provides great opportunities for the type of “new urbanism” that I envision.   This vision, which has been fostered through my years of involvement with residents and business owners, includes neighborhoods that are diverse in use and population, designed for pedestrian and transit as well as cars, and aesthetically defined as a place that celebrates local history through architecture and landscaping.  To recapture the vibrancy that once existed in the city’s northwest, balanced development of jobs and housing must be planned.  This plan should include a supply of affordable housing, increase in home ownership, historic preservation, safe streets, and the redevelopment of brownfield land.   As a citizen of Independence I have volunteered with organizations including the NorthWest CDC, Englewood Business Association, Maywood Merchants Association, and Truman Gateway to support appropriate residential and commercial growth.  I have participated in fundraising, publicity, strategic planning, and public policy.  I was very involved in the school district boundary change, allowing the annexation of Kansas City schools into Independence, working directly with Sen. Callahan on this initiative.   Northwestern Independence has benefitted from a great deal of support from the community, school district, City of Independence, and other organizations.  The City contracts with the NWCDC to provide services which is supported through the City Council goals fund with $20,000 annually.  Through community development efforts, the City has obtained Community Development Block Grants and Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants, among others, which have been almost exclusively dedicated to northwestern Independence over the past several years.    The City has also helped to secure grants through the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) to support planning and construction needs such as the new sidewalks in Englewood, traffic studies in Englewood, and green gateway planning for Truman Road.  The City has worked with Truman Medical Center and Swope Health Services to develop two new health care clinics in the northwest.    City staff and elected officials continue to work closely with the NWCDC and 12 Blocks West to address housing rehabilitation and home ownership.  Prior to my election to the City Council in 2012, the city staff and elected officials also helped pave the way for the preservation and reuse of Mt. Washington School.  Incentives for private investment in homes and businesses have long existed in the northwest through multiple 353 tax abatement programs.  The Independence Police Department has a presence in northwestern Independence by committing to staffing the Englewood “Cops Shop”.   Many areas of the city face similar challenges as northwest Independence, particularly in the southwest and northeast parts of town.  These areas have not received the same level of support and attention as the northwest, and I credit this to the residents and business owners in the northwest for being organized, focused, and proactive in advocating for their neighborhoods.  Much progress has been made in northwestern Independence, and much more is needed.   As Mayor, I will continue the work I have begun in northwestern Independence, engage the community in clearly defining the vision and goals, and execute strategies to meet these goals.  I will also utilize the knowledge and experience I have gained through my volunteer efforts in the northwest to encourage investment in the other areas of the city that are also worthy of preservation and redevelopment.     

 

Testimonial from Margaret Normile

A few words from my aunt Peggy:

I was just reading Eileen’s website: www.eileenweir.com which I highly recommend to you! Her writing is clear, factual and inspirational.

She is indeed a credit to her parents and grandparents. I have just finished reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg who gives advice to the younger generation about how to lean in…and succeed. Eileen personifies exactly what Sandberg is talking about. She has focused on what she wants and has worked hard to achieve it. I’m sure she will win.

Let us begin

Closing remarks from League of Women Voters Candidate forum, March 13, 2014

There is a great temptation to continue business as usual, and to say that things are pretty good in our city.  Our citizens are generally satisfied with the way things are, and we share a deep pride in our community.  But I believe we can do much better and Independence deserves the very best.

To be our best, citizens cannot be passive consumers of government services.  Authentic citizen engagement is essential and that is the type of leadership I believe in.  Our city faces significant challenges and those tough issues call for a Mayor who will start conversations, facilitate problem-solving, and mobilize action.  As your Mayor, I will continue to encourage citizen engagement and together we will create a clear vision for our city and strategies for achieving our shared goals.

To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes from President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, “this will  not be finished in the first 100 days, nor the first 1,000 days, or maybe not during the next four years, but let us begin.”  I assure you, we will begin.

 

 

Personal Background

I have been a resident of Independence since August, 2000 and was elected to the Independence City Council in April, 2012.  In many ways I am perhaps one of the most unlikely people ever to be elected to the City Council.  I did not grow up here.  I do not attend church here.  My children do not go to school here.  Yet, 67% of the voters in the 4th District elected me to represent them and encouraged me to run for Mayor.  Let me tell you how I got here.

I was born and raised in Binghamton, NY which is in the area known as the I-81 snow belt in central New York just about an hour’s drive south of Syracuse.  My dad grew up in Binghamton and is one of six children.  My grandfather, John, was a prominent and respected attorney in town and my grandmother, Kay, was a social worker and homemaker.  My mother is from Spring Lake, NJ and the oldest girl in a family of seven children.  Her father, Robert (known as Chick) was a salesman and her mother, Jean, was primarily a homemaker but once her children were grown she worked as a secretary and bookkeeper.

My parents met in the summer of 1965 at my grandparent’s summer cottage in Silver Lake, PA near Binghamton.  My dad had finished college and graduate school and was working in Arlington, VA.  My mother had just graduated from Marymount College where she had roomed with one of my father’s sisters.  Mom was visiting her college roommate and Dad was home for the weekend.  By November that year my parents were engaged, and were married on April 16, 1966.  My sister Laura was born in 1967, followed by me in 1968, and my sister Sheila in 1975.  We all grew up as part of my parents’ two large Irish Catholic families and spent most of our youth in Binghamton, at Silver Lake, and at the Jersey shore with our extended family.

I graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse and earned my B.A. in English and Communications.  Following graduation I lived for a year in Gettysburg, PA working for one of my aunts in the bed & breakfast that she and her husband owned.  During that time I prepared to apply to graduate school and in 1991 I moved to Albany, NY to study at the University of Albany.  My plan was a career in education.

In August of 1992 I received a call from a friend, Bob Moore, who I had met in Gettysburg.  Bob was the Public Relations Director for the Kansas City Chiefs and called to offer me a job.  I accepted the job and moved to Kansas City.  I was hired as the PR Assistant and eventually became the Manager of Public Information and Media Services for the team.  I left the Chiefs in 2000 but continued to do freelance writing for the Chiefs website and team publications.  After locating to Independence, I wrote a weekly column for The Examiner on social, civic and charitable events in Eastern Jackson County, founded a non-profit organization, Progress Independence, to promote citizen engagement, and founded my own public relations consulting firm, Impress.  From 2007 through 2013 I coordinated the annual Chiefs Charity Game for local charities.

My husband, Tom, was born and raised in Independence and attended Independence public schools.  His parents, Bob and Carolyn, are lifelong residents, raising their family and establishing their careers in Independence.

Tom and I met in 1994 when I was working for the Chiefs and he was selling real estate in Kansas City for KC One.  We were married at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City on May 11, 1996.  Our church, friends, and careers were in Kansas City and we enjoyed living in the Brookside area.  Tom began his career at Blue Ridge Bank & Trust in 1995 and we participated in many activities and events in Independence with the bank.  In 2000, Tom’s grandparent’s home on Blue Ridge Blvd. became available following the death of his grandfather, Bill Reich, in 1998 and grandmother Marcie Reich in 2000.  We purchased the house and it is where we plan to live the rest of our lives.  Tom’s parents live right next door.

Our twins John Robert and Nora Eileen were born April 9, 2002.  They attend St. Peter’s Catholic School in Kansas City, which is our parish school.  Tom and I are actively involved at St. Peter’s, attending church every week with our children, serving on various committees, and volunteering for church and school activities.

When we moved to Independence, Tom and I made a conscious commitment to be involved in the community and make a positive impact.  We wanted to have a family, and we wanted to live in a place that would offer us and our future children educational, cultural, and career opportunities and that would be a place that our children would be proud to call their hometown.  I was invited to join the Junior Service League of Independence and have been an active member, elected as president of my provisional class and serving on the board and executive board.  I was drawn to the heritage and unique history of Independence.  I joined the Jackson County Historical Society and served as board president in 2008 and 2009, and I have been on the “Wild About Harry” fundraising committee for the Truman Library Institute for 15 consecutive years, serving as event chair twice.  Tom has been active with the Independence Chamber of Commerce since joining Blue Ridge Bank and currently serves on the executive board.  He also serves on the Board of Directors for Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.

I am proud to call Independence home, and I believe that because I have lived and worked in other places around the country, I appreciate things about Independence that those who have resided here their whole lives often overlook.  There is something very unique about Independence.  Its citizens have tremendous pride in their heritage and the character of their community.  The leadership of the city is more accessible than in any place I have ever been, including the city council and staff, the school superintendents and board members, business owners, the faith community, and the non-profit and philanthropic agencies.  Independence is not just a friendly city, it is one where true friendship exists.  There is a sense that everyone is important and everyone counts.  The average person has the ability to be heard and impact decisions made in government, education, business, and social services.  That is why I choose to live here, raise my family here, and serve the people of Independence on the city council.

“Fracking” is Short for Fracturing

Recently a public forum was held to initiate a community discussion about energy in Independence and the master plan of Independence Power & Light.  The subject of converting from coal to natural gas continues to be a topic of local, national and international discussion.  Fracking operations necessary to access natural gas reserves come with their own set of concerns and environmental impacts.  I asked my father, Marty Normile, to write about the impact of fracking on our summer residence at Silver Lake, PA. Since 1948 our family has gathered at a quiet summer retreat on a small spring-fed lake in the “Endless Mountain” region of northeast Pennsylvania. The cottage, built in the 1920s as the dining hall for a girls’ camp, remains a family gathering place for generations of Normile relatives and lifelong friends. While the lake area has secured protection under a land conservancy and our cottage has miraculously retained its feel of the old dining hall, Susquehanna County has struggled to survive its dairy farm economy, rocky soil and all. Until recently. That rocky soil was found to be rich in natural gas reserves, which can be extracted only by “fracking” – blasting through the layers of shale with high pressure water and chemicals and setting drill rigs to capture the gas. Susquehanna County will never be the same. Controversy erupted faster than you can say, “Eureka!” Dairy farmers sold off drilling rights under their hay fields and made room in their barns for new Cadillacs. They took way-overdue vacations in Florida. Workers flooded in to fill jobs. Little village shops sprang to life, expecting a windfall from the new wealth and thousands of jobs to be created. More farmers’ gas rights were sold at higher prices as production got underway. Susquehanna County had struck it rich. “Not so fast,” cried the environmentalists. How would fracking and chemical intrusion affect our wells? What about the purity of our streams and spring-fed lakes? What about the cost of rebuilding the roads, sure to be ruined by the monstrous tanker trucks that haul water and chemicals? Drill rigs and their operations will despoil the pristine landscape.  The drone of helicopters is constant over our peaceful retreat, surveying land from the air. What’s to become of our little lake and our summertime enjoyment of the cottage? The nearby town of Dimock, PA became an early poster child for the opponents of fracking. Ground water aquifers were proved to be polluted. “You Tube” videos were made to show flames spewing from kitchen faucets. Lawyers multiplied like bunnies. All hell was breaking loose. “Fracking” is short for fracturing, and there has been a lot of it around Susquehanna County. Neighbor against neighbor. Citizen against government. Brother against brother. Lawyer against lawyer. Even conversation among non-residents on the dock at the cottage gets into it. It’s hard for this seasonal visitor to assess the overall change that has come to the area. Lots of good people have made good money, but it doesn’t appear to be spent locally. Apparently motels and cheap apartments do well by housing temporary workers, but they don’t appear to be supporting the deserted shops and galleries that geared up for the boom. We’re getting used to the incessant rumbling of tanker trucks along the country roads. Dimock is still a disaster.

The future of energy and IPL

On Saturday, January 11th more than 100 citizens of Independence attended a public discussion hosted by IndyEnergy.  The purpose of the meeting was to engage the public in a conversation about the current and future policies and operation of Independence Power & Light (IPL) and the impact of the city’s two coal-fired plants on rate payers and the global environment.  The meeting featured presentations from Dr. Karl Zobrist, an energy attorney, Jason White, former Independence City Councilman and one of the members of the IndyEnergy group, and Leon Daggett, Director of IPL.  Following the presentation was a panel discussion that allowed citizens to engage in a dialogue with various experts including Daggett, Bruce VanCompernolle, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union #53, Roger Hershey, local attorney and IndyEnergy member, and Andy Knott, representing the Sierra Club.

According to White the discussion of the viability of the city’s Missouri City and Little Blue Valley plants prompted the discussion.  Citing a report from the Union of  Concerned Scientists, White reported that the city’s two coal-fired plants have been tagged as “ripe for retirement.”  The Union of Concerned Scientists is a non-profit organization that utilizes independent science to “solve our planet’s most pressing problems.”  The UCS experts “work on some of the world’s most complex and daunting problems: stemming the tide of global warming, finding sustainable ways to feed, power and transport ourselves, and reducing the threat of catastrophic war.” ( www.ucsusa.org )

Presentations and discussion included a variety of perspectives on utility rates, environmental and health impact, reliability of power, alternative energy sources, and jobs.  Currently IPL has a diverse portfolio of energy sources to provide power to customers including coal, natural gas, and renewables.  The mater plan for IPL calls for the Missouri City plant to be retired in 2016 and to convert Little Blue Valley from coal to natural gas the same year.  The Little Blue Valley plant was constructed as a dual-fuel plant capable of burning either natural gas or coal for power generation.  Natural gas prices are at a historic low but are unstable.  Coal prices are low, but the environmental regulations required by the Environmental Protection Agency are costly and those costs are absorbed by rate payers.

IndyEnergy representatives presented information found in the city budget reflecting the existing residential, commercial, and industrial rates.  IPL has a higher rate than KCP&L and BPU in most categories.  These higher rates are a result of increased EPA compliance regulations and necessary capital investments in the power plants over the past several years to make them more efficient and safe workplaces.  Daggett indicated that while rates have increased over the past five years he expects that rates will stay stable for a while.  KCP&L and BPU are likely to implement rate increases in the near future to meet the EPA regulations and make needed upgrades to their facilities according to Daggett.

IBEW Local #53 represents a large number of employees at IPL, and VanCompernolle emphasized the union’s interest in maintaining independent ownership of the utility allowing the power company to provide service to the city and sell energy on the open market while maintaining the ability for citizens to determine how the utility is operated and how rates are set.  VanCompernolle stated the IBEW is “pro-coal” because it believes that coal is still the most economical, stable, and reliable energy source available.  IBEW is also supportive of continued research and utilization of renewable energy sources.  IPL provides quality jobs in the City of Independence and the conversion from coal to natural gas will impact employment in the city.  Moreover, the natural gas market has proven to be very volatile and accessing natural gas resources through fracking may have negative environmental impacts.  The concern of the IBEW is that natural gas prices are likely to skyrocket causing unavoidable major increases to rate payers.

Knott was complimentary of IPL for its investment in alternative energy sources and its plans to cease burning coal by 2016.  He advocated for the environmental and health benefits of continuing to invest in renewable energy sources, particularly wind.  As a spokesperson for the Sierra Club Knott also shared information about the health risks associated with emissions created by burning coal stating that the health impacts cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  The Sierra Club sponsors the Beyond Coal campaign with the objective ”to replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built.” ( http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/about-the-campaign )

The IndyEnergy organizers represented by Hershey are seeking to inform and engage the Independence community in this important and complex issue.  He encouraged those present to stay involved and educated about the policy decisions that are made regarding the city’s power plants and share ideas with elected and appointed officials.

Presenters and panelists agreed that the goal is to provide safe and reliable service at a fair and just price and this is best achieved by diversifying the energy sources utilized to meet the community’s power demands.

IndyEnergy is seeking feedback from citizens on this topic as well as ideas and suggestions for future community discussions ( www.IndyEnergy.org )

Innovative Crime Reporting Program to Launch on 40 Hwy

Crime prevention and prosecution has long been a top priority for business owners in southwestern Independence.  During my time working and living in the 4th district, I have heard from several business owners about issues with vandalism, break-ins, theft, and disturbances in their buildings and parking lots.  Many of these crimes take place on 40 Hwy which serves as a main thoroughfare through the area and is heavily travelled by pedestrians as well as car and bus traffic.

This fall I organized a meeting to discuss how the Independence community can better support small business owners along 40 Hwy.  I invited business owners, members of the Independence Police Department, Jackson County prosecuting attorneys, and members of the city staff.  The discussion revealed that although many of the business owners had invested in the proper environmental deterrents like lights, alarms, and cameras, the crimes continued to occur.  Ultimately the idea of a type of “neighborhood watch” for businesses emerged.  Business owners wanted a way to alert each other when crime happens.

Working with the IPD, city staff, and the Independence Economic Development Council, a pilot program for crime watch in business districts is developing.  Retaining business and making Independence safer for businesses is a critical component of economic development, which allowed us to partner with the Economic Development Corporation.  The city’s tech services department investigated some web based applications that could be used for business networking.  It had to be instantaneous and private.

Nextdoor.com emerged as an effective communications tool that is widely used by neighborhood groups across the  nation.  The private network allows neighbors to post information and have conversations about happenings and concerns within their defined geographic boundaries.  The web site and smart phone application are user friendly and met the desires of the 40 Hwy business owners to receive instant updates about suspicious activity and/or crime in the area.

Tom Leznak, President of the Economic Development Council, contacted Nextdoor.com to discuss implementation.  Used strictly as a neighborhood tool, Nextdoor was intrigued at the idea of using their platform in a commercial area.  40 Hwy will be the first commercial district in the country to utilize the Nextdoor technology.

The system is simple.  First, a defined geographic area is created using an on-line mapping feature.  Then business owners within that area are invited to join the community.  Once a business has joined, they area able to participate in the conversations and receive alerts of new messages by email or text.  Businesses can be proactive in crime prevention and reporting by notifying each other about issues as they happen.  The Independence Police Department is able to monitor the activity on the 40 Hwy site to spot trends in crime and delegate resources to the area.  With more accurate reporting, crimes are more likely to be solved and offenders prosecuted.

Currently I am continuing to work with the business owners and Economic Development Council staff to build the network and promote participation to business owners on 40 Hwy and integrate with law enforcement to catch and prosecute more offenders.  It is our hope that this system can be implemented city-wide in additional commercial districts.

 

Citizen Engagement: Public Safety

In 2004 Independence voters approved two 12-year public safety sales taxes dedicated to the capital needs of our police and fire departments.  The decision by the Independence City Council to put these taxes before voters was the result of the recommendation of a citizens’ committee that was formed in 2003 to examine the capital needs of the Independence police and fire departments.  I served on the 11-member citizens’ public safety committee and worked on the campaign to successfully pass both sales taxes.

The sunset for the public safety sales taxes is 2016.

Through the experience of serving on the public safety committee ten years ago, I learned the value of citizen engagement.  I was new to Independence, had never served on a city board or commission, and had very little knowledge about the police and fire departments or the operations of the city.  I was recommended to the committee by my city councilman Charlie Rich because I called him often with concerns about issues in my neighborhood, and he recognized that I was a person who was interested in improving my community.  Essentially Charlie told me “Put up, or shut up.”  He challenged me to become involved in an issue that was important to me, and despite my lack of experience or understanding, I accepted.

Involving citizens in decision making works.  I believe that elected officials and city staff must continually and persistently seek citizen input and expertise in order to effectively meet the needs and priorities of the community.  This is a proven model that has been successful in Independence for a variety of issues including parks, streets, storm water, and education.

I have recommended to the Mayor and City Council that the council form a new citizens’ public safety committee to once again evaluate the current and future needs of the police and fire departments.  With the consensus of the council, I am currently developing a resolution to create the committee and define the scope of work with which it will be tasked.  I have requested that the resolution to create the committee be presented in January so that the committee may start meeting in February.  This committee will advise the council on the potential renewal of the public safety sales taxes for police and fire.