Kansas City Mayor Sly James has been praised and criticized for his handling of the explosion at JJ’s.
There is no doubt that he was assertive, but was he more concerned with appearing to be in charge than making sure he was on the side of public health and welfare?
The problem with Sly’s initial response — we’re not going to play the blame game (paraphrasing), and the fire department “doesn’t do gas” — is that he didn’t think his comments all the way through.
Instead of a measured response — we will get to the bottom of this with all deliberate speed (paraphrasing again) — he opted for an assertive, knee-jerk reaction that made him appear to be defending the fire department and beating back the press. (Oh, the press! Those turds in the punch bowl…always asking niggling questions and trying to make us public officials look like we’re picking our noses.)
…It didn’t help that Sly was wearing a fire-engine red, KCFD shirt at the news conference. Instead of trying on shirts before the news conference, he should have been sitting in a corner, or in his car, thinking about what he was going to say and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.
But what’s done is done, and what was said has been consigned to Google.
So, what now?
A City Councilman I spoke with this week (he didn’t want to go on the record before the results of the fire department’s investigation has been released) noted that it’s easy for a public official to make a mistake and say something wrong in the midst of a crisis. The key, he said, is for public officials not to be afraid to reverse course once they analyze a crisis in hindsight and realize they erred.
If, after the fire department investigation is made public, James comes back and says that mistakes were made…and if he lays out a plan aimed at decreasing the chances of something like this happening again, then, yes, all is forgiven. The mayor will have reassured us that our safety is his top priority.
But if he sticks to “we don’t do gas,” he’s burying his head in the trench, and he will have used up a good measure of the trough of good will that every public official starts out with.
So far, Sly has taken only a baby step toward making amends with the public. In an interview with The Star’s Dave Helling last Friday, James said:
“If it turns out that something should be tweaked or done differently, that will certainly be something we will take a look at. But I’m not looking for somebody to blame… I’m not coming in with a preordained conclusion that somebody screwed up.”
Clearly, city procedures in the handling of gas leaks need to be more than “tweaked,” and blame must be assessed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the mayor.
Unfortunately, Sly’s comments so far have put him in the position where he has to lead from behind in order to get back to the front.
The next time he talks about JJ’s, I want to see him playing mayor not fire fighter.