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Archive for November, 2011

As many of you probably know, Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters supported former Mayor Mark Funkhouser in his bid for re-election earlier this year.

Within a day or two after Funkhouser finished third in the primary, officials with Local 42 met with Sly James and Mike Burke, who advanced to the general election by finishing first and second respectively in the primary.

In short order, the firefighters endorsed James, who went on to win the general election handily.

With the firefighters, there’s always a price to be paid — usually a big price — for their backing.

In the coming weeks, Kansas Citians will find out just how many pounds of flesh Local 42 president Louie Wright was able to extract from James.

The telling, upcoming issue is pension reform, which will have a massive effect on city finances — one way or the other — for decades to come.

Today, the City Council Finance Committee will consider recommendations from a special Pension System Task Force, which has been meeting for almost a year, trying to devise a plan for moving the city forward on pensions in a fair but responsible way.

Task Force Chairman Herb Kohn, a lawyer with extensive political ties, will discuss the task force’s recommendations with the Finance Committee.

Naturally, Local 42 opposes the key recommended changes because they would reduce the lavish, defined pension system that firefighters — and most other city employees — enjoy.

According to the lead editorial in Monday’s Kansas City Star, task force recommendations include:

:: Increasing the employee contributions rate by a minimum of 1 percent in all four of the city’s pension systems.

:: Eliminating the 3 percent annual cost of living adjustment for many retirees and substituting one that could average 2 percent or less per year.

:: Changing the funding formula so that employees have to work a few more years before they are eligible for full pensions.

The editorial, probably written by Yael Abouhalkah, says the main thing missing is a recommendation to quickly establish a 401(k)-style plan for some workers.

The pension issue essentially will put James and the 12 other council members in the position of choosing between city and citizens’ interests on one hand and union interests on the other.

You can bet that Local 42 has been lobbying the council for weeks and that its officials laid the foundation for this battle early this year, when they decided which candidates to endorse.

You can also bet that the council members, including James, will be squirming in their seats as they try to balance any pledges they made to Local 42 with their fiduciary responsibility to the public.

James — who has had a nice, smooth, seven-month honeymoon — will be the main person on the spot. We will be able to judge by his actions on this issue if he is a mayor for the people or a mayor for the special interests.

My guess is that the task force’s decision not to push quickly for the institution of a 401(k)-style plan at City Hall was the first major concession to Local 42 and the city’s other major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Local 42 will be looking for more concessions, and they’ll be wielding the hammer of  past promises against the anvil of future endorsements:

“Vote with us, like you said you would last year…Vote with us or we’ll defeat you the next time you run.”

In its editorial, The Star laid the challenge at James’ feet.

“James and the council need to resist the pressure to protect the current arrangements. The special committee’s recommendations would go a long way to control the cost of taxpayer-financed pensions.”

Sly James…your honeymoon is about to end. The cards are being dealt; we will be watching to see how you play them.

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Chicago!

We just returned from Thanksgiving Day weekend in Chicago.

The highlights were being with our friends, Edie and Paul in Downer’s Grove; bringing our daughter Brooks back to Kansas City after a four-month stay there; and visiting the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago.

Here, for your back-to-work-day enjoyment, are some of the visual highlights of our visit.

Paul, Brooks and our son Charlie under "The Bean" at Millennium Park

Aon Center (formerly the Standard Oil Building), center, and other majestic, skyline buildings (Millennium Park is in the foreground.)

The lions that flank the Michigan Avenue entrance to the Art Institute are sporting holiday manes

Paul and Patty (Mrs. JimmyC), inspect an exhibit

Brooks and Edie, across the atrium

If only Rembrandt could see this look

Along Michigan Avenue

Felicitous facade

A dollop of sun

Who is that skulking in the vestibule?

***

Here’s a photo post script, just for Smartman. (See comment below.)

 

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Seventeen months ago, I wrote this about Kansas City International Airport:

“KCI is the dullest, dreariest major airport I’ve ever seen, and it’s horribly inefficient as far as check-in, security and concessions. A move to a single terminal — an inevitability — can’t happen soon enough for me.”

In that blog, I also said, “A new, all-in-one terminal would inject energy into Kansas City, just as construction of the Power & Light District energized downtown.”

Five readers commented on that blog, and each of them defended the existing three-terminal design — which is now nearly 40 years old — because of its efficiency.

Now, if you happened to read Lynn Horsley’s excellent, front-page story about KCI in Sunday’s Kansas City Star, you’ll know that the existing KCI’s days are numbered.

Yes, folks, quaint and cozy Kansas City Insipid Airport is on the way to becoming a trucking or freight terminal and a facility “for businesses needing ample parking and airport access.”

What’s the matter with KCI?

For starters, it’s dull and dark, and its retail and food options are pathetic.

Oh, and did you know that because of its layout, with no central security point and no “spokes” to gate areas, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are wasted on excess security people and other personnel who need to be deployed throughout three different terminals?

But here’s the clincher: In terminal A, only eight of 27 gates are being used. In Terminal C, only 12 of 24 gates are being used. In Terminal B, meanwhile, where Southwest Airlines holds sway, 20 of 24 gates are in use.

As Horsley aptly put it, “Terminals A and C sometimes resemble ghost towns.”

That’s ridiculous. If we want to remain a major-league city in every respect, we must have a modern terminal — one that is not only efficient but hums with activity and sends a signal that you have arrived (or are leaving) a place that holds out the prospect of activity and excitement.

As usual, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver gets the picture. One role of airports, he told Horsley, is to function as “glamorous ports of entry into a community.”

Mark VanLoh, city aviation director, has a clear view, too. “The situation with the three terminals is getting worse. It’s a mess…It (a new terminal) is going to happen regardless of whether our citizens want it to happen.” He estimates that a new terminal will open within 10 years.

Plans are for the new terminal, which would cost $1 billion to $2 billion, to be located south of the existing airport on city-owned land. It would use the same runways, but the terminal would be four miles closer to people arriving from the south — the direction that the vast majority of airport users come from.

The new terminal would be about 700,000 square feet, compared to the current terminals’ 1.2 million square feet. The reduction, Horsley said, would mean “big savings on utilities, while still accommodating 15 million passengers or more per year.”

And that bulging price tag? No tax increase necessary. “The money…would come from federal aviation dollars, the airlines themselves and taxes and fees paid by airline customers,” The Star’s story said.

The Aviation Department is one of two “enterprise” departments, along with the water and pollution control, that pays for itself through customer fees.

Those among us who are having trouble giving up the “curb-to-gate-is-best” philosophy need to think this through and consider what we want our city to be in the future. Do we want to continue being a destination city, like Denver, St. Louis and Indianapolis, or do we want to be an also-ran, falling farther behind other major cities with newer, first-class airport terminals.

Jerry Orr, the aviation director in Charlotte, NC, where the airport serves nearly 40 million passengers a year, told a visiting contingent from the KC chamber of commerce this fall that with a new terminal Kansas City could get more direct, international flights.

In other words, KCI could actually be an international airport, deserving of its name.

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Lots of news today. Let’s get right to it…

:: The New York Times reports that “Grandpa Joe” Paterno “transferred full ownership of his house to his wife, Sue, for $1 in July, less than four months before a sexual abuse scandal engulfed his Penn State football program and the university.”

Hmmm. Now, why would Pa-Pa want to put into his wife’s name the house that they had jointly owned since 1969?

The Times quoted Wick Sollers, a lawyer for Pa-Pa, as saying that the Paternos had been engaged in a “multi-year estate planning program” and that the transfer was “simply one element of that plan.”

The Times also interviewed Lawrence A. Frolik, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in elder law.

“I can’t see any tax advantages,” The Times quoted Frolik as saying. “…It sounds like an attempt to avoid personal liability in having assets in his wife’s name.”

Looks like Grandpa Joe did what any guy would do if he’s expecting a run on his bank account — disperse the assets.

:: Closer to home, The Star reports that Bishop Robert Finn slipped the criminal noose in Clay County and has agreed to enter into a diversion program with the Clay County prosecutor for covering up the Shawn Ratigan child-porn case for at least five months.

The agreement calls for Finn “to meet face to face” with Clay County Prosecutor Daniel L. White or his successor every month for the next five years “to discuss any allegations of child sex abuse levied against clergy or diocesan staff within the diocese’s Clay county facilities.”

That would include churches, schools, gyms, among other buildings.

Don’t you just love it that the mighty bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph is going to have to report to the prosecutor like a wayward kid would report to the principal? The bishop, who has dozens of many minions at his disposal at diocesan headquarters, 20 W. Ninth St., trucking up to Liberty once a month, with his big hat in his hand? SWEEEET!

I fully expect Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to follow suit and put Finn in a separate diversion program. That means he’d have to grab his mitre and staff and head to the Jackson County Courthouse once a month, too.

Finn couldn’t have screwed things up any more than he did with the Ratigan case, but I bet he’s going to be a model enforcer from now on…Of course, he’s still a disgrace and would leave office if he really cared about the institution and people he’s supposed to be serving.

:: The Star also reports that Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters lost its battle to get full, retroactive, city pension benefits for about 300 ambulance workers who formerly worked for MAST. (MAST received city funds but was not directly under its jurisdiction.)

An arbitrator ruled that the city would not have to provide pensions that had been estimated to cost $30 million over 10 years. In June, the City Council voted to give the employees supplemental pensions estimated to cost $6 million to $10 million over 20 years. So, if the ruling holds, taxpayers should be off the hook for at least $20 million.

Wright

It’s not often that Local 42 and its president, Louie Wright, don’t get what they want. But just about any time they don’t, it means Kansas Citians should celebrate because tax money is being saved.

For his part, Louie told The Star’s Lynn Horsley that he was “extremely disappointed.” Naturally, a lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court is a possibility.

With Louie and Local 42, it’s never over until all remedies have been exhausted.

:: Now here’s something unusual. Louisville football Coach Charlie Strong said that the Cardinals lost to Pittsburgh last Saturday because the players were “more focused on a video game than they were on Pittsburgh.”

A new video game — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” — was released recently, and Strong said the players got preoccupied with the game, instead of the game.

The things coaches have to deal with these days….

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Just a question for you today, readers:

Is it a good thing to have been “The Greatest of All Time?”

Sixty-nine year-old Muhammad Ali arriving for Joe Frazier's funeral yesterday in Philadelphia

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At least one person in the state of Pennsylvania was not intimidated by Joe Paterno and the high-on-a-pedastal Penn State football program.

The residents of Pennsylvania can thank Republican governor and former state attorney general Tom Corbett for the firing of Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier.

I don’t know about you, but I was surprised and impressed with the quick and decisive action by the school’s board of trustees.

The story about former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky and two senior university officials being charged in connection with a long-running child-abuse scandal broke last weekend. Almost immediately, Paterno’s failure to do anything more than report a 2002 sex-abuse incident to former athletic director Tim Curley was called into question.

On Wednesday morning, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of the season. That probably would have satisfied a lot of people, especially the student body, most of which rallied behind Paterno.

But it wasn’t nearly enough — thank God — for Governor Corbett, who this week fiercely lobbied the board of trustees to oust Paterno and Spanier immediately.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett

Now, let’s take a step back. Here’s how Corbett’s involvement in the case unfolded, according to a great, front-page story yesterday in The New York Times.

In 2009, officials at a Pennsylvania high school reported that Sandusky had molested a boy at the school. However, the county prosecutor cited a conflict of interest and referred it to the attorney general’s office.

“Here, he (Corbett) had a wildly popular football coach and a program which in Pennsylvania was revered, and this case lands in his office and without flinching he went down that path,” Times’ reporter Jo Becker quoted a Republican lobbyist as saying.

Corbett convened a grand jury and prosecutors took testimony. As the case proceeded, more victims turned up, and Corbett and his investigators became appalled at the university’s lack of action.

“We talked about how this would be a real shock to people, and how shocking it was to us,” Becker quoted a former assistant attorney general as saying.

Corbett went on the win the governor’s race. After he left the attorney general’s office he had to adhere to grand-jury secrecy rules that prohibited him from talking about the case, other than with a few people he had brought with him from that office.

One person who stayed close to the case was Frank Noonan, whom Corbett had appointed state police commissioner. Before that, Noonan had been chief of investigations in the attorney general’s office.

Periodically, The Times’ story said, Corbett would ask Noonan how the sex-abuse investigation was going, and Noonan would tell him it was going well, although he couldn’t share details.

Finally, after the story broke last week, Corbett, who is a member of the Penn State board of trustees, was free to roll into action.

“Privately,” The Times’ story said, “he worked to move the board in what he believed was the right direction. He called multiple members, including Vice Chairman John P. Surma, the chief executive of U.S. Steel, and told them that the country was watching, that a change at the top was needed, and that the issue was about more than a football program.”

Paterno

The board called an emergency meeting on Wednesday night, just hours after Paterno had announced his retirement plans.

The board exhibited no forbearance and summarily removed Spanier and Paterno.

“Afterward,” The Times’ story said, “the trustees said they had acted independently. But they conceded, without being specific, that the board had received some unsolicited encouragement about what action to take.”

Bravo, Governor Corbett!

Here’s my final thought on this: If Gov. Corbett announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president, he would immediately jump to the top of the list.

He won’t do that, of course, but I hope we hear more from him on the national scene in the future; the country needs more politicians who move decisively instead of wetting a finger and holding it up in the breeze.

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In an appearance at the University of Missouri-Columbia last night, a distinguished editor and publisher gave more than 100 journalism students a lot to think about as they mull career options in an ever-changing field.

Mike Waller, former editor of The Kansas City Star and former publisher of the Hartford Courant and the Baltimore Sun, told the students that despite the waning influence and prospects of major American dailies, newspapers still offer great opportunities to young people seeking careers in journalism.

“I was in the business 42 years, and I didn’t have 42 bad days,” said Waller, now retired and living in South Carolina. “…I still don’t think you can go wrong working for a newspaper. You will learn in two to three years the skills of the way to do reporting that will hold you well for the rest of your life.”

Among the qualities and skills that young reporters can develop at newspapers, Waller said, are honesty and integrity and how to relate to and work with people.

Mike Waller and Randy Smith

He also cautioned the students, assembled at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute on campus, not to try to rush up the career ladder. It is vital, he said, for young journalists to learn the basics — reporting, verification and solid writing — before seeking to advance.

“Don’t cut corners in your career,” Waller said. “They (the fundamentals) are all building blocks to something; you don’t know what.”

Waller, 70, spent yesterday and today on campus as the guest of Randy Smith, professor and Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair of Business Journalism at MU. Smith spent many years at The Star, including about 10 as deputy manager editor-metro. Smith and I both worked with Waller before he left for Hartford in 1986.

While still bullish on careers in journalism, Waller voiced significant concerns that should give pause to prospective journalists thinking about careers at major metropolitan dailies.

After one student asked him if he thought there was any correlation between the credibility of a newspapers and their ability to generate revenue, Waller noted that The New York Times has held those up as its twin goals since its founding.

He added, however: “Today almost nobody operates on that premise…I don’t really believe most (major metropolitan) papers are pursuing excellence. They’re pursuing survival; they’re pursuing cash flow and revenue.”

Those aren’t encouraging words for students thinking about working for what used to be “destination” papers, such as The Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune or any of dozens of other second-tier papers. (By second tier, I mean those right under the “Big Three” national papers — The New York Times, the Wall-Street Journal and USA Today.)

But if students are willing to start out at any number of small- to mid-size dailies, Waller said, opportunities abound.

Waller with visiting scholar Thomas Gao of China

There are about 1,200 such papers that are doing quite nicely,” Waller said.
“The big thing about those papers is that the Internet is not a big threat to them.”

If residents of small- to mid-size towns don’t take the local paper, he said, they “haven’t got a prayer” of finding out what’s going on in their areas.

“Those small papers, I think are going to be with us forever,” Waller said.

Circling back to the subject of the major metropolitan papers, Waller said it was the loss of classified advertising to the Internet that thrust them in a persistent downward spiral.

“That revenue is never going to return,” he said, adding that, right now, no one appears to have the answer as to what it might take to revive the fortunes of the bigger papers.

“Somebody’s going to come up with the answer, I’m convinced,” he said. “Will it be too late for a lot of papers? Probably, probably.”

***

Editor’s Note: Waller’s most recent book, Blood on the Out-Basket: Lessons in Leadership from a Newspaper Junkie, is available online through The Kansas City Star Store, Amazon or any of several bookstores, including Rainy Day Books in Fairway. The 135-page paperback sells for $16.95.

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