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Archive for July, 2019

Sometimes, even one of the best papers in the country gets the story wrong.

In this case, the paper is The New York Times, long my favorite.

And the screw-up was memorable.

On Friday’s front page, The Times featured an eye-grabbing story about the dismissal of a 49-year-old pastor at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, a well-known, progressive church.

Rick rojas

Times’ reporter Rick Rojas, a five-year Times veteran who does not get many front-page stories, portrayed Rev. Amy Butler as a “rising star” who was the victim in a squabble with the church’s governing council. Specifically, Rojas pinned the blame on a 70-year-old former governing council member named Ed Lowe, whom Rojas painted as a blatant sexist.

Rojas’ second and third paragraphs set the tone for this 30-column-inch story:

“Two years into her tenure, an influential former member of the church’s governing council (Lowe) left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both with labels that read ‘Sweet Bitch,’ according to an internal investigation ordered by the church after Dr. Butler filed a formal complaint.

“The former governing council member also sent suggestive emails and text messages to Dr. Butler’s female colleagues, the investigation found.”

 

Shocking, right? So shocking that, according to Rojas, a hubbub resulted and the governing council this month dismissed Butler, who had been senior pastor five years, by not renewing her contract.

But just a second…Does that make any sense? That the governing council of a progressive church with 1,750 members would not renew Butler’s contract because a member of the council did her wrong?

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that the council would get rid of the offending council member and apologize to the pastor?

The story didn’t make sense, and when I read it Friday morning I had the feeling I wasn’t getting the full story. My wife Patty, who manufactured clergy vestments for 25 years, also read the story. A friend of hers — another person in the vestment business — sent her an email that cited a story on a website called Queerty, which covers the gay community. The headline on the story reads, “Pastor fired after pressuring gay minister to sex shop, offering to buy him sex toy.”

The story — posted the same day The Times’ story was published in its print edition — said “the sex toy shopping spree” occurred May 15 while Butler was in Minneapolis for a religious conference with two assistant ministers and a congregant from Riverside Church.

The story continues.

During a break from the conference, Pastor Amy suggested they check out the Smitten Kitten, a local sex shop. When one of the assistant ministers, a gay man in a committed relationship, said he was uncomfortable with that idea, Pastor Amy insisted.

Feeling ‘pressured,’ the man agreed to tag along with the women. Inside the store, Pastor Amy offered to buy him a sex toy. He politely declined her offer.

Then Pastor Amy offered to buy a $200 vibrator for another assistant minister, a single mother of two. The woman accepted the sex toy but later said she really didn’t want it and had only taken it because she feared professional retaliation.

At the register, Pastor Amy allegedly said, “Is this a church business expense?” then whipped out her church credit card.

Upon returning to New York, the two assistant ministers filed a formal harassment claim, prompting the church to hire a third-party investigator who interviewed both of them and substantiated the claims.

In response, Pastor Amy and church officials agreed it was time for her to go.

The Queerty account sounded a lot more credible than The Times’ story, which had made no mention whatsoever of the sex-shop incident. I was skeptical, however, because I’d never heard of Queerty and have no idea how reliable it is.

Then I went to Google and found that the New York Post had run a story Thursday night reporting that Butler had indeed been ousted because of the sex-shop incident.

In its lead sentence, the Post was able to both have fun with the story and embarrass The Times:

“The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.”

Deeper in the story, the Post rubbed it in some more, saying:

“In a New York Times published online Thursday — after The Post began making calls for this story — her supporters claimed she was let go because she spoke up against harassment and sexism.”

At some point, The Times made significant changes to its online story, including relating the sex-shop outing in the seventh, eighth and ninth paragraphs. The Times also tempered its unattributed implication that the “Sweet Bitch” business had cost Butler her job and instead attributed that claim to “Dr. Butler’s supporters.”

Ordinarily, The Times is very up front and transparent when it changes or corrects online stories, noting the changes or corrections at the bottom. That was not the case with this story, however; there was no mention of the story having been changed.

…This story, prominently played where it was, proved to be a major embarrassment for The Times. It even borders on — I hate to say it — fake news.

Rick Rojas is probably on very thin ice right now. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he is summoned for his annual evaluation.

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One of the key things to know about the real-estate-assessment ambush is that it was orchestrated primarily by people who have been slurping at the political trough for decades and are still making big bucks at taxpayer expense.

Victor Callahan

The key figures in this outrage at the state level are the three members of the Missouri State Tax Commission, which ordered counties to bring their assessments up to actual valuation. Two of the three commissioners — Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit and Victor Callahan of Independence — slid into their bureaucratic posts after hitting their term limits as state senators.

The third member, Chairman Bruce E. Davis, is a baked-and-boiled bureaucrat. He has been on the commission nearly 20 years and chairman since 2005. Before going on the commission in 1990, he was administrative secretary to the tax commission for six years. And before that, he worked in the Department of Revenue. (I believe he lives in Columbia.)

All three commission members are all being paid well over $100,000 a year.

Gail McCann Beatty

At the local level, the key figures are County Executive Frank White — who can’t even handle his personal finances — and County Assessor Gail McCann Beatty, whom White appointed last year after she was about to be term-limited out as a state representative.

White and Beatty are also making well over $100,000 a year.

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Before delving more deeply into the players, let’s turn to the policy issue here — local officials’ assertion that property valuations had to be brought up to true market value in one fell swoop.

That’s just ridiculous. (It’s also “outrageous, egregious, preposterous,” as Seinfeld attorney Jackie Chiles would say.)

Real estate valuations could and should have been raised (or lowered, as the case may be ) over four or six years. Missouri counties reassess every two years. Phase I could have been implemented this year, and the job could have been completed in 2021 or 2023.

But, no, Frank White and Gail Beatty chose to do it all at once, claiming it had to be done that way because the State Tax Commission said so.

That is such a cop-out because, as we all know, where elected officials are concerned, everything is negotiable.

The Star’s Mike Hendricks wrote today the commission informed Beatty in April “your county (is) out of compliance with State Tax Commission (STC) requirements.”

So why couldn’t Beatty and White have sought a meeting with the tax commission and tried to negotiate a two-or three-step process that would have eased the pain for taxpayers?

Or why couldn’t they simply have decided to phase in the true-market valuations and see how the tax commission reacted?

I seriously doubt the tax commission would have dragged the county into court. I’ve never heard of that happening and, besides, the commission consists of people whose main concern is keeping low profiles and continuing to draw their fat salaries.

**

Now, back to the players.

Another striking aspect of the assessment ambush is how quickly people like Kraus, Callahan and Beatty have forgotten they once owed their livelihoods to the goodwill of voters.

As elected officials, they would have fought tooth and nail to stop any explosion of property valuations and, by extension, tax increases. But as soon as they got into appointed positions where they were immune from voters’ whims, they suddenly became staunch advocates of “upholding the law.”

For example, listen to what Kraus had to say after it was announced he was being appointed to the tax commission:

Now a new call to serve has come, one that aligns with my legislative experience and affords me the opportunity to continue my lifetime commitment to service. Being an advocate for smaller government and lower taxes has been the cornerstone of my legislative career. Accordingly, I am honored to accept the governor’s appointment and look forward to continuing my work on behalf of the taxpayers of the great state of Missouri.”

“An advocate for lower taxes.” Yeah, sure…He did get one thing right, though, he’s a “lifer” as far as being on the public payroll is concerned.

Will Kraus

Kraus, a Republican, was a state representative from 2005 to 2011. He was elected to the State Senate in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for secretary of state in August 2016 but lost to Jay Ashcroft. His path to higher elective office blocked, he sought the safety of a bureaucratic job and was appointed to the State Tax Commission in 2017 by then-Gov. Eric Greitens.

Callahan, a Democrat, was an Independence city councilman and a member of the Jackson County Legislature before being elected to the State Senate in a special election in 2003. He was re-elected to the Senate in 2004 and 2008. On Dec. 31, 2012 — at the very end of his second and last full Senate term — he was appointed to the tax commission by then-Gov. Jay Nixon.

Beatty, a Democrat, was a member of the Missouri House from 2011 to 2018. Because of term limits, she could not have run for re-election in 2018. She has long been a leader of the Jackson County political group Freedom Inc.

(Side note: I am very disappointed The Star has not profiled Beatty. To the best of my knowledge, none of the recent spate of stories about the higher property valuations has even mentioned she is a former state representative.)

**

One thing I can tell you for sure: If Beatty, Kraus and Callahan had to face the voters, like they used to, they would not be so intent on “upholding the law” and trying to jam true-market valuations down taxpayers’ throats. They would be doing what the Jackson County legislators are doing, that is, kicking and screaming about this underhanded development.

Unfortunately in this particular instance, power in county government is centered in the county executive’s office. The Legislature’s hands are bound.

As for Frank White, he has pulled off two remarkable feats in the last decade: First, he managed to alienate his former team, the Kansas City Royals, probably by demanding a ridiculously high salary for relatively little work.

Now, in the space of several weeks, he’s managed to alienate voters. Let’s just hope he doesn’t do any more significant damage before his term expires in 2022. If he runs for re-election, we’ll have a chance to get rid of him once and for all.

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It’s no secret that as The Star’s ranks have thinned over the years, the overall quality of the paper’s local report has diminished.

The veteran reporters who remain are stretched thinner than ever, and the young, low-paid reporters who have been hired on are busy with OJT.

Where this downturn in quality is most evident is the astonishing lack of detail in too many stories.

It’s the details, after all, that differentiate one story from another and sometimes make the difference between mundane and compelling.

A glaring example this week was a story by longtime reporter Glenn E. Rice about a 20-year-old man who was acquitted of murder in the 2017 killing of his father but convicted of killing a man who had been standing beside the father outside a grocery store.

The question that immediately popped into my mind as I read that story was, How does a guy get convicted of killing one guy outside a store but beat the rap in the killing of the guy standing next to him?

Rice — a very good reporter with more than 30 years’ experience — gave the readers no inkling about why that happened. He could have found out by making a phone call to Mike Mansur, spokesman for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, but apparently he didn’t make that call.

Instead, he merely repeated information Mansur had put in a press release. In fact, Rice didn’t even use all the information in the press release. He had one sentence about the actual shooting:

The younger Jones (Reginald Jones Jr.) pulled a gun and shot his father, prosecutors alleged. He then pointed the gun at (Daryl) Singleton (the man beside the father) and shot him.

I regret having to say it, but this is lazy reporting. It is irresponsible for a reporter to write a story like that and not explain the most obvious question: Why was Jones Jr. convicted of killing the bystander but not his father?

I got the answer by emailing Mansur. Mansur (a former Star reporter himself) said the defendant and two friends testified that just before Jones started shooting, the father, Reginald Jones Sr., started to walk inside the store. The witnesses said they believed Jones Sr. was going into the store to retrieve one or more guns and that they felt threatened.

“As you probably know,” Mansur said, “in Missouri we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant had no reason to believe he felt threatened — sometimes a high bar.”

If the men claimed they also felt threatened by Singleton — and I don’t know that they did — the jury didn’t buy it.

…In addition to this being a failure by Rice, it is an indictment of the editing. I get the impression that reporters often post stories on the website without another set of eyes being put on the stories. I hope that’s not the case, but it sure appears that way.

Small fry that I am in the publishing world, I fly without a net (no editor), and I frequently make errors. You readers are my editors, and I appreciate it when you call errors or omissions to my attention.

Reporters at a major metropolitan newspaper should not be flying without a net, however. That’s not right. Stories like the one Rice wrote cost the paper credibility. And when credibility ebbs, so do readership and circulation. I hope top management at the McClatchy chain in Sacramento understand this, because if stories like this become the norm, a lot of people won’t care very much if their paper — or the chain — goes under.

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Fortunately, we are still getting some good, everyday reporting from The Star, and I’d like to single out one reporter, Robert A. Cronkleton, who routinely demonstrates that he has the reader in mind when he writes.

Cronkleton, also a 30-plus-year veteran, is not one of the The Star’s big-name reporters. Last I knew, he had the early-morning to early-afternoon shift and covers a lot of weather-related stories and low-level crime stories.

One thing I appreciate about Cronkleton — whom I worked with in the Wyandotte County bureau in the late 1990s and early 2000s — is that he not only gets the “who, what, when, where and why,” but he is very explicit about the “where.”

Let me give you two examples:

:: On Tuesday, Cronkleton and another reporter, Luke Nozicka, wrote about an 18-year-old (later identified as Corey Robinson of Kansas City) who was killed during a disturbance in the Brookside area. The story said, “Police responded about 12:15 a.m. on an ambulance call to the area of 57th and McGee streets, which is just south of Brookside Park and two blocks from the Trolley Track Trail.”

Cronkleton

Most reporters would have let it go at “the area of 57th and McGee streets,” but not Cronkleton. He understands that in a metro area the size of Kansas City, many people are not familiar with 57th and McGee. So, he added “south of Brookside Park and two blocks from the Trolley Track Trail,” which places the intersection in a much broader context.

:: On June 30, Cronkleton wrote about a 17-year-old girl who was murdered and whose body was found in the back of a semi in Kansas City, KS. Here’s how Cronkleton described the location:

“Jasmine Mills’ body was found Saturday morning in the 1100 block of South 12th Street in an industrial area near the Kansas River. The area is filled with junk yards and railroad tracks, with many semi trucks parked in rows behind tall fences.”

A lot of reporters would not have gone beyond saying the 1100 block of South 12th Street. For context, though, Cronkleton put it near the Kansas River and then proceeded, in one sentence, to paint a picture of a forlorn area that would seem to be a place where a dead body might turn up. From that sentence, it sounds like he took the trouble to go out there. If so, that is great — a good service to the readers.

Congratulations to Cronkleton. And let’s hope other Star reporters — beginners and veterans, alike — follow his lead.

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Ordinarily, one of the most low-profile boards or commissions in Kansas City or Jackson County government is the county Board of Equalization, aka, the BOE.

Very soon, however, the BOE is about to become the most relevant government body to thousands of taxpayers. That’s because the BOE will be hearing real estate assessment appeals lodged by people disappointed, put out or outraged at the valuations the Jackson County Assessment Department has placed on their homes.

The assessment department has been hearing informal appeals and will continue to do so, but if you’re seeking a significant assessment adjustment — in the range of $100,000 or more — your best bet is to file an appeal with the BOE.

The deadline for filing an appeal with the BOE is tomorrow, Monday, July 8. You can appeal by mail, email or in person, but you’ve got to get it in by tomorrow. Here is the website for the BOE, and here is the link to the page that spells out the appeal process.

It is especially important to file if you have already filed an informal appeal (that deadline has passed) but have not heard back from the county. There is no such thing as an automatic appeal from the assessment department. You are responsible, and if you don’t do so before the deadline, you’re out of luck.

…With that backdrop, I’d like to tell you a little about the BOE and what you can expect when your case is set and you go before the BOE at the county courthouse downtown.

The BOE consists of three members, each of whom is appointed by the county executive. The three current members are Christopher R. Smith and Marilyn M. Shapiro, both of whom are Kansas City attorneys, and Forestine A. Beasley, a real estate broker.

Christoher Smith

Forestine Beasley

Smith is chairman of the BOE. He is with the firm Krigel and Krigel, which has offices on the Plaza. He focuses on family law and workers compensation. I don’t know what, if any, political connections he has.

Shapiro is a solo practitioner who has her office in the Crossroads. (I couldn’t find a picture of her.) She focuses on divorce and family law. She has been on the fringe of politics for decades but, to the best of my knowledge, has never run for elective office.

Beasley, on the other hand, has run for office. She was one of six candidates in the April 7, 2015, primary election for the 3rd District City Council at-large seat. Beasley finished last and did not advance to the general election. The winner was none other than Quinton Lucas, who last month was elected mayor.

…So, those are the people you will see when you go to the courthouse for your appeal. Now, what to expect?

I appealed a valuation to the BOE about 10 years ago, and the process is generally fairly quick. My case took three to four minutes. One of the three commissioners back then was Joanne Collins, a former Kansas City Council member.

The chairwoman — I don’t remember her name — did all the talking. She asked me what I thought my house was worth and why. I don’t remember if I had any supporting documentation, but I clearly recall that the chairwoman offered me a modest break on the valuation. As I recall, I countered with a lower figure but she wouldn’t budge, and that was that. I went away not entirely happy but at least satisfied that I had gotten a reduction…On valuations, you’ve got to take the long view: Every time you can get the assessment department or the BOE down, it can make a difference in your tax bill not just that particular year but in years ahead. The savings can compound.

**

I have my appeal ready to go and will submit it by email today. My recommendation on supporting documentation is to keep it simple, clear and organized. My strategy is to compare my home to four others in my neighborhood that sold last year and one that is on the market now, with sale pending.

The four that sold were in the same price range as what I believe mine is worth, but all are larger than mine. The one that is for sale now is smaller than mine, and the listing price is significantly less than the figure the county has placed on my property.

If you’re thinking of preparing dozens of “comps,” I would strongly advise against it. The board is not going to give you very much time. The chairman is going to hurry you along and want you to make your points in short order. Brevity could work in your favor; to the board, time is of the essence.

If you make a decent case, you will probably be offered a lower valuation. Feel free to make a counter offer, but don’t be surprised if no concession is made: This will not be like haggling over the price of a leather purse in an Italian market.

One thing I feel certain about, however, is that with all the bad publicity the 2019 assessments have received, the BOE will be inclined to be generous. Who knows? Chris Smith or Marilyn Shapiro might want to run for office some day, or Forestine Beasley might want to run again and hope to do better than she did last time.

In any event, I don’t think the BOE members are going to make the same mistake County Executive Frank White has made by going out of his way to piss off half the county.

Good luck, everybody. And remember, no matter how unhappy you are about your valuation, you can’t beat being a resident of Kansas City and Jackson County.

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Although technically and by calendar we’re less than two weeks into summer, this, right now, is really the apex of summer.

You agree with me, don’t you? I mean we haven’t been bludgeoned by a series of really hot days; we’ve got two more relatively relaxed months sprawled out in front of us; and, most important, everybody loves the Fourth of July.

So it’s fitting, I think, that we raise a toast to the joy of summer. And what better way than to dig deep into the record bin and pull out some of the great Oldies that connect us to summers long past?

So, here we go, with five summertime classics.

Summertime Blues by Eddie Cochran

Wikipedia describes this inimitable song as being “about the struggle between a teenager and his parents, his boss and his congressman.” It’s a bravura performance by Cochran, who sang both the vocal and bass vocal (“no dice, son, you gotta work-a-late”) and played all the guitar parts. His girlfriend, Sharon Sheeley, was one of the hand clappers.

It was released in August 1958 and peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in September 1958. The song is ranked No. 73 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In my personal rankings, it’s in the Top 10.

The song was released when Cochran was 19 years old. He died two years later when a speeding taxi driver crashed his cab in England and Cochran was ejected from the car. Also in the car were Sheeley and singer Gene Vincent, who both survived.

Eddie has a little slice of immortality through this song, though, and here it is

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Theme from A Summer Place by Percy Faith & His Orchestra

The song was written for the 1959 film A Summer Place, starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. It was recorded for the film as an instrumental by Hugo Winterhalter, a famous orchestra leader in his own right, but it was Percy Faith’s version that went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 and stayed there for nine weeks.

Here it is…

**

School Is Out by Gary U.S. Bonds

Like Bonds’ song Quarter to Three, this song has a get-up-and-go, garage-band feel. It went to No. 5 in 1961. (Quarter to Three hit No. 1 a year earlier.)

The song has some tremendous lyrics, including these in the first verse…

I can root for the Yankees from the bleachers
And don’t have to worry ’bout teachers

and the chorus…

(School is out) Everybody’s gonna have some fun
(School is out) Everybody’s gonna jump and run
(School is out) Come on people don’t you be late
(School is out)

Here it is…

**

Summer in the City by The Lovin’ Spoonful

Upbeat and driving, this song captures both the oppressive part of summer…

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

And the alluring part…

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright

The song features car horns and jackhammer noises during the instrumental bridge, reflecting the sounds of a chaotic, urban street. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three weeks in August 1966.

This YouTube version has been viewed more than five million times.

**

See You in September by The Tempos — and also by The Happenings

This is a seminal song of the tenuousness of teenage romance…The boy and girl are madly in love when they part at the train (or bus) station at the end of the school year, but will the mutual ardor survive the three achingly long months of summer? There’s a good chance it won’t because — oh, yeah — “there is danger in the summer moon above.”

The song was first recorded by the Pittsburgh group The Tempos and peaked at No. 23 in the summer of 1959. The most successful version was recorded by The Happenings, out of Paterson, NJ. It hit No. 3 in 1966.

…I’ve always preferred The Happenings’ version, mainly because it gets more airplay on the Sirius-XM than The Tempos’ version, but I found today there’s a raging YouTube debate on the issue.

The Tempos’ arrangement has a nice calypso beat, is slower and thus more accurately reflects the possibility that the boy will lose the girl “to a summer love.” (I wonder, though…couldn’t he just as easily find a summer love and dump her?) The Happenings’ arrangement is catchier, and I like the background singing a lot better.

Both versions are outstanding, though, and have us looking down on the train-station scene, wondering — like the anxious singer — what the summer has in store.

Here’s the version by The Happenings.

And here’s the one by The Tempos.

Happy Fourth, everyone, and enjoy summer at its peak!

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