December 1, 2006
Jackson County legislators play taxpayers
Since the August Democratic primary, the Jackson County Legislature has lived up to its reputation as one of the most inept and corrupt governments in the Midwest.
Scarcely had the legislators settled in when they went about securing a fat retirement for Henry Rizzo, the second district at-large representative. That Rizzo was left out of the county’s pension plan had less to do with Rizzo’s tenure than with fact that the legislators had ample chance to reward one of their own.
There was no effective opposition to the move. Bob Stringfield, aside from his faults, had repeatedly exposed the legislators’ behind-door deals and shenanigans with repeated appeals to local media, which then treated him as a backward, pesky boob. After sinking Stringfield for his attention to the sordid details of their dirty laundry, the legislators rejoiced that his lame-duck status would insulate them from controversy and contempt.
Fortunately, it didn’t take Stringfield to uncover how the legislature botched the stadium deal voters approved in April. Threats of loss of an amorphous “major-league status” activated the Kansas City inferiority complex and cloaked yet another Chamber of Commerce move for the public’s wallet. Nearly half understood that making renovations to county property was reasonable, but using county funds to build profit centers for the teams with little or no financial return to the taxpayer was giving corporations a free sog at the public trough.
The legislators soon found the contract they signed with the sports teams didn’t include the National Football League. The dollar-a-ticket fee that was supposed to help pay for renovations wasn’t negotiated with the NFL. The legislators, excluding Stringfield, assumed that the NFL would be on board. But the NFL didn’t like being assumed and told the legislators they would have to soak the taxpayer some other way.
There’s nothing like getting caught with his or her pants down to get politicians spinning. Fred Arbanas, the legislature’s 36-year veteran, and Rizzo came forward, along with Dan Tarwater and Denis Waits to say that they had no idea what had happened. With the help of the Kansas City Star’s booster spirit, they made that lame excuse stick.
Even if the Star failed to report it, the botch showed the legislators aren’t much on governing. They spend a lot of time attending the weddings and funerals of their valued friends, and making sure that their public sees them out mowing the public right-of-way and moving old ladies’ refrigerators. Bob Spence constantly parades a stream of suburban students before the public to give them certificates for good grades to charity work.
Not that young people shouldn’t be recognized for good deeds or that legislators shouldn’t do things any decent person would do. But all that hypocritical public good will seems to distract a legislator from being good public servants. Only one legislator, now known as “Crazy” Bob Stringfield, had read the stadium deal. The rest relied on hearsay and contract summaries before patting themselves on the back for keeping the teams in Kansas City.
The third instance of the legislators’ spendthrift and negligent practice is the long-known extravagance of County Executive Kathryn Shields. In October, the Star began to publish a series of articles about Shields excesses with her personal service contracts. Unfortunately, those articles should have been done two years ago, while Shields was arranging to paint her face on the county courthouse walls, misspend hundreds of thousands of dollars of county money, and put on wondrous parties for herself. Legislators feigned disgust. But since over half them, including Rizzo, Waits, Bob Spence, and Scott Burnett are in love with the grease Shields still has in her pot, they overlooked Shields’ decadence and could only say they didn’t know what was going on. But, they knew about the corruption and condoned it, approving of Shields’ personal service contracts one after the other.
The legislators’ complicity in the corruption is one thing. The insult is that they can deny their part in Shields’ mess and get away with it. The scope of negligence for people in charge of $300 million of public funds is astounding.
In part, the Star carries part of the blame. The lackluster county reporter spends more time socializing and laughing through legislative sessions than making sure the legislators’ double-dealing and corrupt practices find the light of day. After all, that same reporter reproduced in toto in the Star’s pages a press release I sent to the media when I was running for the legislature earlier this year when the ethics complaint filed against Scott Burnett was taken up by the Missouri Ethics Commission (which the attorney general still has on his desk). I was infuriated at such journalistic laziness although some my supporters congratulated me for having a sure public relations machine in the daily paper.
There’s a whole lot more the Star has failed to investigate: Members of the Jackson County Democratic Committee and the legislators’ powerful supporters have made and continue to make fortunes from shady patronage deals. Influential nonprofits promise their constituencies’ votes for county funds and legislator’s personal contributions. Legislators contribute thousands of dollars of their campaign funds to allegedly august political clubs who endorse them. Legislators support neighborhood groups with promises of increased crime suppression, personal contributions, and threats of pulling that support if endorsements and word-of-mouth don’t increase the public standing of their benefactors.
Meanwhile, county employees — those people who interact with the public — go without raises, while the legislators give themselves fat raises and cushy retirements. At the same time, county support for indigent care, mental health care and people with disabilities continue to shrink while corporate welfare and legislators’ wealth — and their political supporters in nonprofits and political clubs — increase.
The end result of this tangled corruption illuminates the role of county legislators as buttons power and money push to get benefits from the machine. It works against the taxpayers, particularly those who are most vulnerable — working people who pay increasing property taxes and have the most to lose.
The solution: The daily paper has to start doing its job. The taxpayers can’t penetrate the web of hypocrisy, stand up and demand decent stewardship of their money without decent journalism. The public, as well, has to make a distinction between shows of legislators’ largess and good governance. In the end, we, the taxpayers play a roll in consenting to the legislators’ profligacy.
For full disclosure, Patrick Dobson ran for the county legislature in the August Democratic primary and lost his race. For over ten years as a journalist, he covered county government. Since the election, he returned to journalism while a student at UMKC. He continues to cover the county for eKC online. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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