Archive for March, 2012

It’s always been interesting to me to see how two reporters covering the same event can come up with such different accounts — how one reporter can completely miss the mark while another takes deadly aim.

Such was the case with two newspapers’ coverage of Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive’s appearance Tuesday at the Kansas City Tiger Club meeting at the Westport Flea Market.

Fortuitously, I am in a position to compare The Star’s account against that of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. I say fortuitously because, while driving around on Tuesday, I happened to hear, on the radio, either a lengthy excerpt of the event or a portion of live coverage.

When I tuned into the event, already in progress, I thought I was listening to a news conference, but the crowd was so boisterous and there was so much laughing and joking that I was thrown off balance. Only later, when I heard or read news coverage online, did I realize that it was an appearance before a large group of Missouri fans.

It was apparent from what I was hearing that Slive, who has been the SEC commissioner for almost 10 years, had the crowd in the palm of his hand.


He was answering questions confidently, and he was often droll and funny. It seemed like every other answer he gave drew a big, embracing laugh. It was clear that the crowd was enthralled.

So, when I saw a story about the event in The Star on Wednesday, I was eager to see if the reporter, Terez A. Paylor, would be able to re-create the energetic and enthusiastic atmosphere that permeated the Flea Market’s back room a day earlier.

I have to say, I was terribly disappointed.  Here’s how Paylor, who recently succeeded Mike DeArmond as Missouri athletics reporter, started his story:

It didn’t take Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive long to realize the passion of Missouri Tigers supporters in Kansas City.

Slive was greeted warmly by a crowd of a couple of hundred fans Tuesday, as he served as the guest speaker at the Kansas City Tiger Club’s weekly meeting at the Westport Flea Market.

“If this is the energy from the University of Missouri that’s going to come to every one of our events, I’m gonna have to go home and warn our guys to be careful,”  said Slive, shortly after he was greeted with a standing ovation. “The energy in this room is phenomenal.”

And it remained that way over the course of an hour, as Slive, who came to Kansas City from the SEC’s offices in Birmingham, Ala., took questions and spoke about a number of pertinent issues, including the possibility of Kansas City playing host to the SEC men’s basketball tournament, the status of his conference’s television deals and the status of cross-division rivalries in football.


It was a lame start, and Paylor went on to report, blandly, what Slive had to say about some of those issues that arose in the wake of Missouri’s decision to switch from the Big XII to the SEC.

Exactly where and how did the reporter fall on his face?

:: He talked about the passion of the fan club and the energy in the room, but other than noting the standing ovation, Taylor failed to show the reader how the interaction between the fans and the commissioner established the energy in the room.

:: He did not relate a single question that the fans posed to Slive, and he made no attempt to establish the humorous and convivial tone, which is what distinguished the event and spawned a strong bond between crowd and speaker.

Now, let’s set The Star aside and pick up the Columbia Daily Tribune.


Covering the event for the Tribune was a sportswriter named Dave Matter. I don’t know him, hadn’t read a thing he had written until I saw his story online this morning.

Here’s how Matter began his story:

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive couldn’t have expected his biggest applause line yesterday to be a one-word answer.

A Missouri booster in the middle of a jam-packed crowd at the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill asked Slive a perfectly reasonable question at the Tiger Club of Kansas City luncheon that sounded like this: Could you explain how the decisions were made to put Texas A&M in the SEC West and Missouri in the SEC East?

Slive’s reply came without hesitation.

“No,” he said.

The crowd, and Slive, erupted in laughter.

The 71-year-old Slive had the boosters rolling, but do not mistake the man for a court jester. Yesterday, he was feted like a king.

With several university and civic dignitaries in attendance, the SEC commissioner made his first public appearance in Missouri since November’s announcement that MU was joining Texas A&M as a 2012 addition to the SEC. For the 250-plus fans crammed into the booster club’s weekly watering hole, the buzz was still raging.

Look at some of the words and phrases that Matter uses to show, tangibly, how the bond developed and the energy burst forth.

— “…a jam-packed crowd”

— “The crowd, and Slive, erupted in laughter.” Note, it was a shared laughter.

— “…had the boosters rolling.”

— “…feted like a king.”

— “…the buzz was still raging.”


And about that standing ovation…Paylor simply had it happening spontaneously, without explanation. But Matter…well, he framed the greeting by reporting that Missouri athletic director Mike Alden introduced Slive, calling him “the finest commissioner in all of college athletics and one of the most respected folks in all of sport.”

Now the reader can understand how a biased crowd could be catapulted into a near frenzy, can’t he?

Slive, as Paylor reported, later returned the favor to Alden, saying in answer to a question about the SEC’s $3 billion TV contract, “I am optimistic that we can make Mike Alden very happy.”

Another burst of laughter.

Everybody left happy…except those who weren’t there and had to rely on Terez Paylor’s reporting.

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Today, a quickie…

Tell me — honestly — how much are we going to miss this guy?

(For the record, I don’t approve of a guy wearing a bow tie to be screaming at the top of his lungs, unless his life or the life of someone else is in danger.)

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I’m sorry to see that in the face of opposition to a proposed daytime curfew for school-age children, the Kansas City Council has folded like a flimsy tent in a thunderstorm.

As you probably know, a City Council committee on Wednesday put the proposed curfew on ice, partly because home-school advocates have launched a full-scale assault on it.

I have a suspicion, however, that racial politics is the main reason the proposed curfew is not headed to the full council. The home-school bit looks to me like a big smokescreen.

It’s preposterous that the council would back down to the home-school “community” or that the home-school contingent could even be much of a factor in this issue. What’s to worry about? That a group of wild home schoolers are going to cut Mommy’s algebra class, go down to the Nelson Art Gallery and egg Henry Moore’s bronze sculptures?

Come on…

The main thing fueling my suspicion is Lynn Horsley’s Kansas City Star account of Wednesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting. She reported that Councilman Michael Brooks, a committee member who is African-American, took a strong stand against the curfew, which would affect all 12 or 13 school districts located wholly or partly within the city.

Horsley’s story said that Brooks “wanted to see more intervention programs from the public schools, such as alternative schools and social workers, before the city adopts a potentially punitive approach.”

To me, that sounds not just like putting the idea on ice but putting it at the back of the deep freeze and forgetting about it. What is the likelihood of the Kansas City School District establishing more alternative schools just to find out if they helped reduce truancy?

No, Brooks wants the idea to go away. And I would suspect that most of the other black council members do, too. It’s got to do with this: “Don’t stick your nose in my business; how I choose to monitor my children is my business.”

(For the record, the other members of the Public Safety Committee are John Sharp, Scott Taylor and Jermaine Reed. I don’t know if a vote was taken or if the measure was held by consensus.)

Now, let me say…I don’t like announcing that racial considerations are the reason I think the ordinance stalled, but, in my opinion, racial politics has been a major factor in the Kansas City School District having been mired in quicksand for 40 years. And it just keeps getting thicker.

A council majority ought to tell the home-school advocates to go back to their three-hour-a-day teaching schedule and stay out of the truancy issue, which has about as much to do with home schooling as T-ball does to fast pitch.

A council majority ought to stand up to what little is left of Freedom Inc. and Brooks and any other council members who are dragging their feet and vote the curfew into law. I’ll bet Mayor Sly James would resist the expected, conventional back peddling on this issue and would vote for it.

Remember the flash-mobs-on-the-Plaza scare last year, when James had to go to the ground after shots were fired on a Saturday night? He came out a day or so later and said, in so many words, “Parents, take responsibility for your children’s whereabouts.”

Passing the truancy-prevention ordinance would hold parents more accountable for the whereabouts of their children (parents of truants could be fined up to $100 per occurrence, after the first violation) and, yes, it probably would reduce property crimes caused by bored kids.

Let’s give credit, however, to freshman Councilman Scott Wagner, who lives in the Northland, for bringing this controversial proposal forward. He has said he is motivated by one goal — to get kids back in school…I can’t imagine any  ulterior motives he might have.

What’s to be lost by putting a daytime curfew in place?

The kids should be in school during school hours, shouldn’t they?


Editor’s Note: Today marks the second anniversary of the First Post on JimmyCsays. Since March 23, 2010, I have posted 251 blogs. It’s been a fun run so far, and I want to thank all of you for your readership, your support and, most of all, your comments, which are the lifeblood of any interesting blog. With that, into year three we lurch!

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The foremost question on the minds of millions of Americans, Afghans and others these days is this:

What prompted 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to leave his Army post in the middle of the night, walk a mile to an obscure village and slaughter 16 Afghans, including nine children?

Did he simply snap under the pressure of four tours of wartime duty? Did stress from domestic and financial troubles push him to violent sublimation? Did he lose his mind?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

The question is profound because there is little in his background — military and personal — that points to a logical conclusion. There’s no “ah-ha” pinpointing of a past experience or criminal history that satisfies one’s curiosity.

In an Op-Ed column published in The New York Times yesterday, David Brooks, a learned and reflective man, posed a general hypothesis that, in my opinion, comes close to yielding the answer.

The column, titled “When the Good Do Bad,” says that Bales’ actions should not be totally surprising because people who seem “mostly good” frequently commit monstrous deeds.

Brooks cites a study conducted by a University of Texas professor who asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and “if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay.”

Brooks says Professor David Buss was “astonished” to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women “had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies.”

Brooks writes:

“These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. they occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”

That deep-seated instinct clashes, Brooks says, with the commonly held view that most people are innately good. But an earlier worldview, Brooks goes on to note, was that “people are a problem to themselves.”

“The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside.”

Brooks notes that John Calvin, a 16th Century,  French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation, believed that “babies come out depraved.”

Brooks concludes by saying:

“According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.”

The phrase — “policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones” — really struck home with me.

Don’t we all struggle with that? Another way of putting is that we try to hide and shackle the demons within. Normally, when we screw up in a relatively small way — like offending a friend or saying something mean to a spouse or partner — we try, afterwards, to think it through and figure out how we could have avoided the offense, how we should have exercised patience to circumvent a regrettable course of action. And, normally, we say to ourselves, “I won’t let that happen again. Next time, I’m going to be think through my options and refrain from lashing out.”

The Bales case — and the question “Why?” — reminds me of a local case, perhaps the most shocking and notorious murder in the history of Olathe.

It was the early-morning hours of Feb. 28, 1982, killing of 25-year-old David Harmon, who was married to a woman whose father was superintendent of this area’s Church of the Nazarene.

Harmon, a loan officer at a bank, was bludgeoned while he slept in the duplex that he and his wife, Melinda Harmon, rented. He was beaten mercilessly and viciously, struck more than a dozen times, full force, by an attacker wielding a crowbar. It was so bad that one of David Harmon’s eyeballs popped out of its socket and landed on the floor several feet away.

Police completely botched the case, partly because Melinda’s father, William Lambert, intimidated detectives; threw a fit at police headquarters and refused to let them interview his daughter, even though she was an adult and police could have persisted.

Mangelsdorf (KS Dept. of Corrections photo, 2011)

The person wielding the crowbar was a 21-year-old man named Mark Mangelsdorf, who was either conducting an affair with Melinda or wanted to. Melinda aided and abetted the murder, and, in fact, was in the room when the beating started.

Because the investigation was “a board certified disaster,” as Marek Fuchs wrote in his 2009 book about the case, “A Cold-Blooded Business,” Harmon and Mangelsdorf got away with murder for 23 years.

After the murder, Harmon and Mangelsdorf went their separate ways, with Harmon marrying an Ohio dentist, Mark Raisch, and having children with him.

As for Mangelsdorf — here’s where the analogy to Robert Bales comes into play — he became a big executive, first with Pepsi and later with a couple of other companies and ended up in a $1.3 million, three-story house in an area abutting Long Island Sound. He was married to another executive, and they were respected members of the community.

Melinda Raisch (KS Dept. of Corrections photo, 2010)

In 2005, however, the case was reopened, and both  Raisch and Mangelsdorf ended up coming back to Kansas and pleading guilty to second-degree murder. (An interview that Harmon gave to two resourceful Olathe detectives  proved to be the turning point.)

Each was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. Both remain in custody — she in Topeka, he in Lansing — but both apparently are now eligible for parole.

Where Bales was able to contain his demons until he was 38, Mangelsdorf lost control of his at age 21 but then managed to corral them and go on to live an exemplary life.

In his book, Fuchs uses a different metaphor for the Mangelsdorf case — a lion getting out of its cage.

“Mark managed to put the lion back,” Fuchs wrote. “And keep him locked up. This was not a crime committed at a distance, but close-up, one that sent a man’s eyeball flying across the room. And while it was partially a crime of passion, he had planned it for months, lying in wait with a crowbar in his possession for a full week. But the lion was, forever afterward, caged and gentle.”

Unfortunately for the world, and particularly for the victims and for the United States’ world image, the lion in Sgt. Bales got out, too.

Unlike Mangelsdorf, though, Bales probably won’t be getting a chance to re-cage the lion and redirect his life in conventional society.

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Last year, if some of you will recall, I was in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, promoting my friend Mike Burke, who was running against Sly James in the mayor’s race.

We all know how that turned out, and Sly seems to be doing a fine job. So, this year, instead of being in the street, I was off to the side.

Oh, well…it was a good time, and I thought you might enjoy a few of the sights, even if you were there…

You've got to look the part, as well as feel it

Looking north on Broadway from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The queen on her throne -- the back of attorney John Gordon's Irish Mustang

One of several politicians in the line-up, the county prosecutor

Retired architect Kite Singleton and bored grandson

Sometimes it takes connections to get in the blog...Daughter Brooks and wife Patty, both cutting a fine figure

Top Hat

Attention, please!

A skinny Miami Dolphin sneaked into the parade

Green is nice, but there's a lot to be said for auburn

Everybody needs a break...

My pin

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My sharp-eyed, 23-year-old daughter Brooks, who has the makings of a good editor, called my attention to a Sunday New York Times story that had an unusual number of glitches, mostly related to missing and misused words.

It was a 17-paragraph story, inside the front section, about how a 340-ton, 21-foot-tall boulder was transported 60 miles from a quarry to the downtown Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Borne on a 196-wheel-transport truck, the boulder arrived at its destination at 4:35 a.m. Saturday and was greeted by a boisterous crowd of more than 1,000.

Within the next month, the boulder will be placed over a cut trench and opened to the public as an exhibit.

The story was fascinating and carried a catchy headline:

“Lights! Cameras! (And Cheers) For a rock Weighing 340 Tons.”

The writer was Adam Nagourney, a very well-known Times reporter. Nagourney, 57, was chief national political correspondent for The Times from 2002 to 2010, when he was appointed Los Angeles Bureau Chief.

The first 10 paragraphs of the story were free and clear of problems, as far as I could tell, but the last seven paragraphs were marred by six glitches.

Take a look:


Paragraph 11: “Los Angeles is not a particularly late-night city, and people who made it there at 4:30 in the morning either found a new use for the disco naps of their use or stayed up all night.”

Huh? Try this…”either found a new use for disco naps or stayed up all night.

Sound better?


Paragraph 12: “Jeff Miller, 32, (blank) to a Guns N Roses show at the Hollywood Palladium that lasted, he reported, until close to 3 a.m.”

The missing word? “Went.”


Paragraph 12 (continued): “At that point, he figured he would just make a night of it and headed over to (blank) museum.

Yes…”the museum.”


Paragraph 13: “By the end, the convey traveled 100 miles of road to cover 60 miles of distance…”

“Convey?” No comprende. How about “convoy?


Paragraph 14: “And in any event, this did not appear to (blank blank) routines of people who are accustomed to late nights.”

If you guessed “disrupt the routines,” you get a gold star.


Against that backdrop of screw-ups, the last paragraph of the story began like this:

“Mr. Miller, who stayed up all night, said he had rarely witnessed events like this here.

Now, had the story been otherwise glitch-free, I would have construed the italicized words to mean that Miller had rarely witnessed events such as this taking place in Los Angeles.

But in light of the mind-boggling word jumble that had gone before, I tended to interpret them this way: “Mr. Miller who stayed up all night, said he had rarely witnessed events like this here event.”

When a writer and a newspaper throw junk at the reader, what they get in return is disgust and even contempt from readers. That’s when you start hearing people say, “That paper contains so many grammatical errors that you can hardly read it!”

And that is exactly the kind of attitude that newspapers can no longer afford. Readers now have 340 tons of options for where they can go to get their news without having their intelligence insulted.

Editor’s Note: The errors were corrected in the online version of the story — the version that is linked above…”This here” stayed as is…or was, or whatever.

Editor’s Note, No. 2: I’ve got an e-mail in to Art Brisbane, The Times’ “public editor,” asking him essentially, “What the hell happened with this here story?”

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One of my favorite events, the women’s Big XII basketball tournament, was in town over the weekend, and it didn’t disappoint. Too bad it was the last year for Kansas City to host the women’s tournament, as it moves to Dallas next year. I trust it will be back, though. Municipal Auditorium is a tremendous basketball venue, especially for crowds of less than 10,000. As expected, Baylor, led by 6-8 center Brittney Griner, came out on top, winning the final 73-50 against overmatched Texas A&M, the defending national champion. Check out the scene:

The convention district, alive and well

A Texas Tech cheerleader...Oh, wait, that's my daughter Brooks!

Dee Kantner, queen of the refs -- a Division 1 referee for about 25 years

The Baylor band gets peppy

Color Guard, at ease

This fan ended up by the wrong band

Griner the Great, warming up

AP photographer Jeff Tuttle -- not all the work is through the lens

"Starting at forward, No. 50, Bailey the Bear"

Step right up...

Everybody looks good at tournament time

After the game, Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey talks with one of her favorite players, her daughter and Baylor guard Makenzie Robertson

And the skies opened up...

Brittney owns the net

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Welcome to Journalism 201, students. I’m instructor Fitzpatrick — you can call me Mr. Fitz — and I’ll be taking you through this single-session course, worth five credit hours toward your journalism degree.

I know that all of you got A’s in Journalism 101, otherwise you wouldn’t be here today.

Before we get started, you can see that I’ve written my expectations on the dry-erase board. Let’s review:

One…Pay attention. If I can’t see your eyes, you’re not listening.

Two…Turn off all electronic devices and store them away. Otherwise I throw them out the window.

Three…No gum chewing. NO GUM! If I see your jaw moving with your mouth closed, you’re going to the dean’s office.

OK, now down to business. Today, we’re going to talk about the “nut graph.”

…Hey, hey! You with the tattoos on your neck and ring through your nose…Stop laughing!

I’m not talking about almonds, cashews, salted nuts or genitalia. There’s nothing funny about the nut graph. This may be the most important, single lesson you learn about journalism, so hark back to Rule No. 1. What does it say? That’s right…pay attention!

OK, as you were, then…So, what do you students think the “nut graph” might be? Anybody…

Yes, you with the tortoise-rimmed glasses and plaid, pooling pants…

That’s precisely right! It’s the key paragraph, found within the first few paragraphs of a lengthy story, that summarizes what the story is all about and why it’s important. It’s the story “in a nutshell.” It’s the one paragraph that is responsible, in many cases, for either keeping the reader reading or losing his interest right off the bat.

…What’s that, young lady right up front here with the mid-thigh skirt and gray-green eyes? Do I have examples? Of course, I do!

Let’s take a look at the front page of Sunday’s Kansas City Star. Feature writer Eric Adler wrote this story about young people who already have fallen into alcoholism and have turned to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Adler starts with an anecdotal lead, describing the young people arriving for a typical AA meeting, this one in a storefront room. Those who introduce themselves include a 20-year-old woman, a 23-year-old woman, a 25-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl.

After seven short, introductory paragraphs — still on the front page before the story “jumps” to the inside — Adler hits us with the nut graph. It reads:

“At a time when binge drinking remains at epidemic levels, and as tens of thousands of high school and college students begin packing for spring break destinations where alcohol flows freely, thousands of other young people nationwide will flow into meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, having concluded that what they once thought was a rite of youth is an addiction.”

What does Adler do in that graph, students? …He tells us something we know — that binge drinking is a big problem — but then he layers it with information that a lot of us probably don’t know — that “thousands of young people” have given up the illusion of partying and have acknowledged that they suffer from a serious illness and want to get better.

Also, putting the icing on the cake, so to speak, Adler reminds us that this story is topical: It’s time for hundreds of thousands of students to descend on warm-weather destinations for a week of drinking and all-out partying.

That graph probably propelled tens of thousands of readers to the “jump,” where he examines the problem in the equivalent of a full page of text. A job well done by a seasoned journalist.

…Hey, hey! You with the black trench coat on…What the hell was that that you just let fall out of your coat sleeve into your hand? Was that a cell phone I saw?…It was your watch, you say? Well, whatever it was, I don’t want to see it again, you understand? You don’t need to know what time it is, anyway…You’re on JimmyC time now.

OK…Here we go with example No 2…

Let’s take a look at this Saturday story in The New York Times about the New Jersey trial of the guy who had his Web cam trained on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, while Tyler was making out with a boyfriend in his dorm room at Rutgers. As you know, Clementi committed suicide a few days later, and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, is being tried on three felony charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.

The reporter, Kate Zernike, starts out the story by recapitulating some key testimony from Friday’s court session…Then, in paragraph eight, shortly after the jump, Zernike delivers this impressive nut graph:

“Mr. Ravi is not charged with Mr. Clementi’s death, but the suicide hangs over the case. It prompted a worldwide debate about the bullying of gay teenagers, particularly in a cyber age, when taunting and harassment come not always face-to-face but on an array of technological devices and forums. Several gay teenagers had committed suicide in the months before Mr. Clementi jumped off the bridge, and his death became a symbol of their collective pain.”

“A symbol of their collective pain…” Isn’t that a nice turn of phrase, students? It not only describes the breadth of the issue but directs your empathy toward the result of the psychological cruelty.

OK, so that’s it, students. Now, what I want you to do after you leave here is, when you read significant stories in the coming days — either online on in print — look for nut graphs. When you find them, think about them…Do they adequately summarize the stories? Are they well crafted? Also, look for stories where you would expect nut graphs but can’t find them. It happens a lot. Not all papers and other publications make them as high a priority as they should.

Class dismissed, then. Thanks for your attention…

Hey, wait a minute…you with the trench coat…Can I borrow your cell phone? I left mine at home and need to call my wife to see what she wants me to pick up at the store.

Thanks, buddy, I hope you enjoyed the class…

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A big fire is burning down at City Hall, and the fire chief is heading for the hills.

City Manager Troy Schulte and Mayor Sly James have pinned Chief Smokey Dyer into a corner with their directive that he come up with a plan to cut $7.5 million from the Fire Department’s budget.

In his 2012-2013 budget message to James last month, Schulte proposed cutting 105 firefighters. Fire calls, he said, have dropped by more than 60 percent the last 10 years, largely because of improved building codes, inspections and fire prevention education. Clearly, he implied, a bulging firefighting force was no longer needed.

Dyer’s and the fire union’s response? They chirped like birds whose nests were being threatened, saying such a cut would compromise public safety.

As the screeching went on, Schulte and James wisely put the ball in Dyer’s court, directing him to come up with his own plan for saving $7.5 million.


Dyer, who is nearing 65, has made it clear he wants no part of a significantly trimmed-down department. A City Hall source said Wednesday that Dyer was thought to be close to resigning after Schulte’s and James’ directive that he figure out how to cut more than 100 of the department’s 1,370 positions.

Now, it looks like Smokey has cooled off a bit…enough anyway to hang on until he gets a nice golden parachute. And on Thursday the council accommodated him by approving a retirement incentive package.

The council approved a retirement-policy change that will affect only Dwyer, and perhaps future fire chiefs. Under the change, as reported by The Star’s City Hall reporter, Lynn Horsley, “Dyer would be eligible for an annual pension of about $42,000 if he were to retire soon.”

As it is, the city’s retirement plan is only available to a member of the firefighters’ pension system after 25 years of service. Dyer has been the chief slightly more than 11 years. Previously, he spent 13 years as fire chief in Lee’s Summit before retiring from that city.

I think the ordinance that the council approved is good: A fire chief who has served for at least 10 years, even if he came from another city, should be eligible for a decent pension. Good fire chiefs are hard to find. And, as some council members said, the 25-year-rule could make it difficult to recruit top-notch fire chiefs who did not rise through the KCMO ranks.

The bigger point here, however, is that Smokey seems to have one foot out the door at a time when the department is really going to need some shrewd leadership to help guide it into a time of retrenchment. As Mike Waller, a former Kansas City Star editor, once told me, “It’s easy to manage in good times, when there’s plenty of money, but it’s a lot harder when there are cutbacks.”

Dyer has been very popular with the firefighters and their union, Local 42, because he has been able to help them get big, fat salaries and raises without sacrificing any manpower.

Now, however, Smokey’s and the fire union’s real good thing is about to come to an end.

The city can no longer afford a 1,370-person department where firefighters salaries average $56,000 and they get bigger raises than other city employees.

Something’s got to give: In some way, shape or form, the fire department is going to suffer.

The council has only itself and earlier councils to blame, of course: it was elected council members, worried about running against fire union opposition, who caved in repeatedly to former firefighters’ union president Louie Wright.

In January, The Star’s Yael Abouhalkah said this in a column about Wright’s retirement:

“A big part of the recently retired fire union’s president’s legacy is a bloated Fire Department that costs Kansas Citians at least $10 million more every year than it reasonably should. That’s $10 million going to more than 100 unneeded firefighters. It’s $10 million that could be used on smoother streets, bridge repairs, better park maintenance and new technology to catch tax cheats.”

It’s enough to make you clench your teeth, but it’s hard to bring about real change because Local 42 is so damned powerful politically. They back their candidates with money; they vote; and their families vote. On the other hand, many people who complain about how the special interests get what they want don’t bother to vote and, in many cases, don’t even keep themselves informed on day-to-day developments. In a way, the apathetic get what they deserve.

But enough of that sermon…back to the here and now.

Under new fire union president Mike Cambiano, the firefighters have dug in for this new battle. Horsley reported that several hundred firefighters packed into the City Council Chamber yesterday in support of Dyer and a no-job-cut budget. (Frankly, I don’t know how several hundred firefighters were able to squeeze into the chamber, unless fire regulations were ignored and firefighters were sitting in each other’s laps.)

As this face-off advances, it will be interesting to see just how hard and far James is ready to push against the union. After all, he was elected last year with firefighter union support, and he almost surely will seek re-election in 2015.

At Thursday’s council meeting, he gave an indication of a softening of position.

“We ought to be able to find some ways to make sure we’re not unnecessarily cutting large numbers of firefighters,” he said. “Nobody wants to do that. That’s not palatable. We’ve got to dig beyond the obvious and look at things that are not so obvious.”

We’ll probably end up with some sort of compromise where fewer than 50 firefighting jobs are cut and the budget gurus come up with a “previously unidentified” few million bucks — look what we found! — that makes the union happy. For now. 

But by the time that happens, Smokey might have hit the door, or he’ll be mighty close.

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