A lot of topics came up for discussion at last night’s mayoral forum at Central Presbyterian Church, 35th and Campbell. Crime, education, the earnings tax, city services, the Plaza, urban blight, subsidized housing. And others.
But the undercurrent of the night — the palpable feeling that wove around, under and through all the talk — was the burning desire of the six challengers to see the incumbent, Mayor Mark Funkhouser, turned out of office.
I think it’s fair to say that not only do the six challengers — Mike Burke, Deb Hermann, Sly James, Jim Rowland, Henry Klein and Charles B. Wheeler — want Funkhouser out because they want in, but because they think Funkhouser has poisoned the well at City Hall.
Not only was that the sense of the challengers; it carried over into at least one prominent audience member, Fourth District Councilwoman Jan Marcason.
Marcason sat in the second row of the audience, listening closely, eyes studying the people on the stage.
It might seem odd that Marcason, a first-term council member, has become a flash point for the election, but that’s the way it is.
Through her dogged battle to boot Funkhouser’s wife, Gloria Squitiro, out of City Hall — where Squitiro was a pesky and unwanted presence in the eyes of many residents and city employees — Marcason has become the face of the oust-Funkhouser movement.
For her perceived impertinence, Funkhouser reciprocated by tossing Marcason off the council Finance Committee (where she was vice chairman) and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
And, so, against that backdrop, a question arose last night about what was at the root of the “disdain” that some council members have exhibited toward each other, and about what it might take to get a semblance of “civility back to City Hall.”
Burke went first. A former councilman and a former chairman of the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee, he talked about the importance of team building — of the implied need for the next group of council members to build a rapport so they could work together effectively.
Then it was Funkhouser’s turn. “I’m not sure it’s a lot less civil than it ever has been.” As an example, he recounted an incident when a former councilman came close to physically attacking longtime City Hall baiter Clay Chastain.
When the stakes are high and the issues are large, Funkhouser said, “There’s going to be an argument; there’s going to be a fight. Some people call it drama.”
Using the word “drama” could well have been a jab at Rowland. Twice Tuesday night, Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, noted that he had overseen the $700-million renovation of the sports complex “on time, on budget and with no drama.”
As the candidates went down the line, answering the civility question, Klein turned the thermostat up several degrees. It’s time, he said, “to take some of the egos down.” One person, he said pointedly — without specifying who but leaving no doubt who it was — had “usurped all the attention.”
Then it was Rowland’s turn. He stood up, made a complimentary comment about Marcason’s service on the council and then asked her, “How many (council) committees are you on?”
“None,” she said.
To which Rowland rejoined, “There has been four years of distraction and dysfunction.”
It was a square shot to the Tall One’s teeth, and everyone got it: Because she dared to take on the mayor, Marcason is not on one, single committee.
A few minutes later, the forum ended, and I went over to get a word with Marcason.
“How strong is your desire to see the mayor turned out of office?” I said.
“I think we deserve new leadership,” she replied. “Positive leadership that can help move the city forward.”
I asked her if she had endorsed any of the other six candidates. No, she said, but added that, in her opinion, there were four strong candidates — Burke, Hermann, James and Rowland.
We returned to the subject of Funkhouser having denied her a spot on any council committee.
“It’s unprecedented,” she said. “He’s just a mean-spirited person.”