In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned of the future influence of a “military-industrial complex”; the nexus of special interests and bureaucracy that, if unchecked, could threaten representative government. The Kansan’s words echo today for a pair of Overland Park city councilmen, who issue a clarion call against what they see as a “shadow government” operating in the city of nearly 200,000.
Dr. Faris Farassati of Ward 5 and Scott Hamblin in Ward 6 are leading voices on the council calling for transparency and criticizing first-year Mayor Curt Skoog’s close relationship with development interests.
Farassati defines the term:
“Formation of an entity within a government that intervenes with policy-making while possessing a level of conflict of interest within its structure. We see this when appointees to the advisory groups include individuals with conflicts of interest instead of unbiased members representing constituents from different walks of life.
“The interest, goals, and methodological approach by such a conflicted group may not act in the best interest of constituents, yet their recommendations can be used to form policies that affect the quality of life in the short and long term.”
The pair were two of three votes against the recently-passed 2023 budget, denouncing the $374 million spending plan that raises property tax by 10%, despite a $36 million surplus and $53 million in cash reserves, according to Farassati.
“We offered a modest spending reduction of $6 million in a $374 million budget but were totally ignored”, he lamented.
Mayor uses advisory committees as a shadow government
The makeup of advisory committees, ostensibly to advise council members on various issues, are top-heavy with development interests, the two councilmen maintain.
Hamblin recounts an experience with the Infrastructure Advisory Group (IAG) seeking a solution to the controversial chip and seal pavement surface treatment last year.
“I was denied the opportunity to present what I felt was a great way to begin handling infrastructure. I had a presentation to show the committee and staff and had the owner of the company that handles residential road maintenance for surrounding cities with me to answer questions and explain a 10-year program they offer where they can take care of making sure residential roads are paved with UBAS (Ultrathin Bonded Asphalt Service) using a specialized machine they invented that’s gained national attention. Instead, our presentation was replaced by (Skoog contributors) to present their IAG plan. Matter of fact, the IAG was never given the opportunity to learn about this new technology the other cities were using.”
The Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee, which will direct future land development in the city, is also a matter of concern, according to Farassati and Hamblin. Although members of the community were invited to apply for membership, Mayor Skoog named the steering committee members, including as Chair former council member Stacie Gram, who was defeated last year.
“We don’t need a former politician, appointed by the mayor, leading a comprehensive plan for the entire city,” claims Farassati. The committee should elect its own leader. Plus, there is no consultation at all with we elected members of the city council.”
Hamblin is concerned about the shadow government role the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce plays in development decisions and its political influence on the council.
“We contract with the extraordinarily conflicted Chamber of Commerce. We pay somewhere around $650,000 a year for their expertise in providing development advice to the council, which they turn around and sell to developers.
“It’s said you can’t win (a council seat) without the Chamber. I think I was the first, and now we have several independently elected members. Hence the reason almost all control has been removed from the council and put in the hands of selected representatives to handle. I’d say around 75% of the work on the future of Overland Park is done outside of council chambers, which should say a TON about our political machine.”
Farassati, who was born in Iran and grew up under the domination of the Shah, has a warning for Overland Park residents wanting to preserve representative government:
“As someone who has lived in many countries, I can tell you (that) conflict of interests and democracy cannot co-exist in a governmental system. Democracy must purge itself of the conflicts and constantly be on the watch to eliminate them in the future. Any system that cannot overcome these conflicts can’t be considered fully democratic.”