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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Lansing's 'accidental mayor': Gene Kirby adjusting to new role on heels of friend/colleague's passing

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  • All of this is surreal for Gene Kirby — the sign in front of Lansing City Hall bearing his name, his door marked "mayor," and the office chair that's now his, but not long ago belonged to a colleague and dear friend.
    "He wanted this job, he worked hard to get this job," Kirby said of his predecessor, the late Billy Blackwell. "He had a vision for what he wanted to do. Besides the loss to his family and friends, I'm sorry he's not going to get the chance to finish it."
    It's part of the unusual and abrupt turn of events that transpired earlier this summer in Lansing's city government, the tragedy of losing the mayor who wanted the job and the irony of plugging in a replacement who never did, circumstances that have prompted Kirby to refer to himself more than once as the "accidental mayor."
    Kirby, 58, describes himself as laid-back, someone who appreciates a slower pace and time to think and reflect.
    He's most at ease being the guy behind the scenes and flying under the radar, perhaps explaining some of what seems at times like reluctance about being the city's top leader.
    "I'm not running from (being mayor)," he said. "I would have been fine obviously not to have done it. It's not something I craved, desired or would have ever thought about going after."
    But, "I lost a good friend, I really did. And then just not filling this seat, but filling his seat. … The timing is never good for anything like this, but I'm getting more comfortable, I'm getting a better understanding of the nuts and bolts about it, but it's going to take a little more time."
    Kirby was elected to the Lansing City Council three years ago, his first foray into public office. On May 1, he was named council president.
    Nine days later, on May 10, his life, work and world changed.
    Blackwell, who was 61, was at the Lansing Fishing Derby when he suddenly fell ill and was transported to the hospital.
    Kirby, a 16-year Lansing resident and Mount Muncie Cemetery manager, was at work when he got the call that Blackwell's health had taken a turn. He learned through a second phone call later that morning that Blackwell had passed.
    "May 10 was one of those days where you'll always remember where you were at, what you were doing, when you got hit with really bad news," Kirby said.
    "When I first got the call, it was, 'Let's hope he'll be alright.' When the second call came in, when I was notified, then it was kind of a two-track deal: first for his family and friends, and then the realization of what I was going to have to do.
    Page 2 of 3 - "You are now the mayor and your responsibilities are going to change. Your family life is going to change. It didn't just affect me, it affected the city, it affected my family."
    It's been two months since Kirby became mayor, and he said life has been hectic.
    City staffers have had to adjust to his leadership rather than Blackwell's, he's at the center of a lot more discussions, and the council has been working through one of its primary duties — developing a budget — on the heels of updating the comprehensive plan.
    For Kirby, with new responsibilities have come increased time commitments.
    Although there are differences in approaches between him and Blackwell, Kirby said he sees city operations today as largely an extension of the late mayor's agenda.
    "Billy had set a course and we're going to follow that and we're going to see where that takes us," Kirby said.
    "In my mind, we haven't changed that. We're still moving forward, we still have things we have to get done. Him and I were pretty much in agreement on what we saw as things we needed to get done and how we needed to get there.
    "In general terms, they're all similar, and they're similar with the council. We all want to do what's best for the city. … That's never changed. At the end of the day, that's what we have to do — put aside our differences, move forward and keep going."
    Dave Trinkle, a 14-year council member, was also a close friend of Blackwell's, and is a close friend and colleague of Kirby.
    Trinkle said Kirby has done well in his limited time as mayor.
    "He's really done a fine job for us," he said. "He's a thinker, a good listener. He's not going to make spur-of-the-moment decisions. … He could have walked away from it, said, 'No, I don't want it,' and walked off, but he's grabbed the reins and moved forward with it."
    Trinkle agrees there are differences between the current and former mayor, though he sees one shared trait.
    "He's like Billy — they both take the city really to heart, they both try to do the best they can for the citizens," he said.
    The longtime council member isn't surprised Kirby stepped in to replace Blackwell in what were trying circumstances for many in municipal government.
    "It was dumped in his lap," Trinkle said. "But, Gene felt that this was his duty, and if he said he's going to do something, he's going to do it."
    As mayor, Kirby said he's attempted to foster an atmosphere of consensus, or compromise when necessary.
    "It takes compromise from everybody," the mayor said. "I know in the grand scheme of politics nowadays that compromise is a dirty, nasty word, but as national politics show us, the unwillingness to compromise gets us nowhere. All the council members certainly say their peace, but at the end of the day we still come to a vote and we take it and move on."
    Page 3 of 3 - Still, as much as he appreciates compromise, there's a position Kirby said he's unlikely to budge from — running for mayor as he nears finishing Blackwell's term.
    His top priorities are his wife and 14-year-old daughter at home, and his job at Mount Muncie. Those priorities are never going to change.
    "People say, 'Well, you might want to run when this term expires,'" Kirby said. "That's not going to happen. They say, 'Never say never,' but I'll say with 99.99 percent (certainty) I won't do it."
    That doesn't mean Lansing has a mayor who doesn't care, however.
    Kirby, originally from Kansas City, Kan., considers himself a pro-growth mayor who wants to see the city prosper and the tax base expand while retaining what makes it an ideal place to live and run a business.
    "We have to keep our services where they're at, if not better," he said. "We have to do more work on infrastructure. … When people come into this town, we want them to see good roads, sidewalks in good shape. Those are the first things people notice — what's the city in general look like?"
    Kirby said city staffers and the public have been wholly supportive of him in the aftermath of Blackwell's passing and him taking over as mayor. He's not in this alone. Many have offered to help whenever and wherever needed, he said.
    Kirby embraces the collective approach.
    "This isn't my city, I don't own this place, I don't call all the shots," he said. "This is where we live, this is where we work, and hopefully we all want to work together to make it the town we're all proud to call home."
    "We just need to be willing and able to do what we have to do to keep it that way. I'm going to give all I got, all I can give, but at the end of the day, it's going to take all of us. I'm quite confident that there are people who are willing to do that."

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