Funkhouser the Provocateur, Funkhouser
Nearly nine months into his term, about the only consistency Mayor Mark Funkhouser has shown is his propensity to create confusion and recoil, and to defend his wife Gloria Squitiro against every sword-swipe the media takes. A connection between those two ongoing endeavors plays out like a lame romantic comedy grounded in Funkhouser’s repeating claim how “Gloria” is his most trusted advisor with the added refrain, “And she doesn’t cost the taxpayers a thing,” all to parry any hint of poor advice coming his way.
Barely a few weeks doesn’t go by where the former bureaucrat doesn’t take a position or say something that causes some level of disharmony at city hall, giving way to local journalists poking each other in a silent exclamation of “Can you believe this guy?”
As if he’s rediscovered the ‘60s rebelliousness he never allowed himself to have, Funkhouser has become THE MAN trying to stick it to THE MAN. But Abbie Hoffman he ain’t.
Funkhouser was elected because the majority of people saw change in him. And change still resides within him; he just doesn’t know how to pull it off. At first Funkhouser thought he did, ‘cause after all, he’s the mayor. The position, itself — with Funk at the helm — would create the energy needed that would bring change, so the Funk thought. But in the public arena, no amount of electoral status can overcome political inexperience giving birth to the making of poor decisions.
Kansas Citians have endured the free car controversy, the Frances Semler decision, the passage of tepid TIF reform, a Jack-in-Box collection of light rail proposals that continues onward; now we’ve got the reversal of Funkhouser’s stand on the Super TIF for the old Bannister Mall, the city council rebellion over Funkhouser’s rejection of the rehiring of City Manager Wayne Cauthen and trusted wife and advisor Gloria being accused of calling a mayoral staff employee “Mammy” (a story the blog Tony’s Kansas City wrote about weeks ago that The Star now seems willing to report on).
To his credit, Funkhouser doesn’t dodge or weave — amazingly demonstrated on Dec. 13 in the city council chambers — as he takes punishment and criticism, doesn’t run from the public punches yet countering even when there isn’t an opening, much like an aging prize fighter who doesn’t know when to leave the ring. He carries the look of a weary man, determined but tired, and a little sad. One can’t help to believe him when he says it’s his hope to retire into a life of academia as a college professor. No wonder Funkhouser depends so much upon Gloria, because in Funkhouser’s world, only she understands him.
And Gloria isn’t about to reveal what she knows about her man, how he — or they — make decisions. Love does that, even in the face of political failure, which Funkhouser continues to flirt with less than a year into his term.
Yet, I would bet Funkhouser still has the support of the majority of the citizens. His stand for Semler to remain on the Park Board was popular and the shortcomings of his TIF reform package overlooked by many because of their belief that development can save a neighborhood. Conservatives, suburbanites, especially north of the river, think he’s one of them — gamely fighting against minority special interest groups and under siege by liberal journalists, particularly at The Star, who find fault in whatever he does. Liberals think they see one of their own, inclusive to those outside traditional power circles, a male accepting equality with his female partner in life and one who works to keep the corporate influence in public policy at bay.
Between those two ideological bookends, Funkhouser has to feel the pressure, with possible relief coming from accomplishing big things, things of change, things that fit into his world view of what Kansas City is suppose to be. But in politics, when one has the power of being a big-city mayor, one has to let a lot of things go — as hard as that may be to stomach — and find that “legacy thing” that one can drape their name on and hope it did people right.
Former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver has his the Brush Creek redevelopment. Former Mayor Kay Barnes has her Sprint Arena and the Power & Light District. Funkhouser’s legacy could be light rail — the guy who built it, beyond Clay Chastain’s righteous claim as the one who got it passed at the ballot box. It is something this mayor wants for the city.
On Dec. 6, Funkhouser talked extensively with Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up to Date program about a regional transit plan. He called it his “highest priority.”
He built his reasoning around downtown. “In the long term, we absolutely need a regional transit system,” said Funkhouser. “Nobody who builds and sustains a downtown on the automobile will be successful.
“You’ve got to build parking garages, and that sucks the life out of downtown. Success depends on having a very robust transit system.”
A starter line won’t do, said Funkhouser. “It doesn’t contribute to a vital downtown and doesn’t go to the suburbs or east,” he said.
Funkhouser envisions a regional transit system, 60 to 75 miles long, funded by a one-half cent bistate sales tax, which would raise $138 million a year, allowing for $3.5 billion in bonding. Such an approach, he said, would allow for less federal funding, making the chances of getting federal monies happen quicker.
To oversee the system, Funkhouser called for setting up a 24-member governing board with an equal number of representatives from Kansas and Missouri.
“We would have to introduce legislation (in both states) that reflects the concept,” he said. “A shared governance, shared funding and regional — a new governing body.”
He’s convinced Johnson County voters would approve a ballot measure for funding if the necessary empowering legislation is passed. Callers to the show seemed confirm a strong support in regional light rail.
“The one negative in Johnson County is (not having) a decent type of transit system,” Funkhouser said.
One Johnson County resident suspicious of Funkhouser’s plan is Wayne Flaherty, who has fought against earlier bistate funding proposals, and is now spokesman for a group he formed called Keep Kansas Taxes in Kansas Committee. Yet, he says he’s not against light rail.
“We believe in regional cooperation; we don’t believe in regional funding,” said Flaherty. He added, “The record of Kansas City, MO is that it constantly believes they have the right to access Johnson County taxes.”
Flaherty thinks that MARC (The Mid-America Regional Council) wants to run any bistate transit governing board, opposing any such mechanism because “MARC is answerable to no one; MARC should only be a planning organization.”
Later, in a response to a Channel 9 editorial, Flaherty added, “A regional transit system needs only a master plan agreed to by all parties. Then, each state can execute its part however it wishes.”
Flaherty has his doubts that Funkhouser’s regional plan will ever gain any headway, particularly with Funkhouser’s want to build it all at once. On that count, Flaherty said, the KCMO mayor has “lost touch with reality.”
Arguably, some would consider that an explanation for the turmoil that has hit this city in recent days.
The danger, however, is that the opportunity to really change this metro area — as in building a light rail system — will be lost because of the pertinaciousness of Funkhouser in how he approaches his job as mayor.
When Kraske asked Funkhouser what keeps him up at night, he said, “Keeping track of everything.”
Get some sleep Mr. Mayor. Focus on a few key challenges, and then suggest to Gloria that you’re casting a big net for others to sit at the kitchen table with her — then ask her if she can get more chairs.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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