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I was very saddened to read in Sunday’s paper about the death of former Kansas City Councilman Bob Lewellen.

I’m proud to say he was a friend to me personally, and, from a professional standpoint, he was a reporter’s delight. He was always thinking, figuring out how to advance the causes that were important to him, and he was a font of information and shared it liberally.

Between Lewellen and former Councilman Frank Palermo, who served contemporaneously with Lewellen, the information spilled out like the swollen Mississippi River.

I used to call Lewellen “an equal opportunity tipster” because, when he wanted to get a story out about one thing or another, he might first pitch it to a favored reporter, but if that reporter didn’t run with it, he’d tip off the next reporter on his list.

I covered City Hall for The Kansas City Times and, later, The Star, from 1985 to 1995 and had a lot of opportunities to write about Lewellen, who was on the council from 1983 to 1991.

The most memorable story I have about Lewellen came about as a result of a brouhaha over a secret, illegal meeting that took place in the late 1980s, I believe, while Lewellen was chairman of the Finance Committee.

Here’s what happened:

One of the main jobs of the Finance Committee was to recommend a proposed city budget, which the full council took up in late April every year. At about $750 million dollars (more than $1 billion now), the budget was almost always delicate and controversial. Every council member fought for a piece of the pie for his or her district, and reaching a consensus required a fine balancing act.

That particular year, the budget process was particularly fractious and difficult. Unbeknownst to the council at large, one Finance Committee member, Mary Bryant, asked Lewellen and the two other committee members — Joanne Collins and Katheryn Shields — if the committee could meet in secret at Fedora’s, an upscale Plaza restaurant.

The idea was to hash out their differences and cut up the pie outside the public eye so the committee members could wheel and deal freely.

Now, anytime that a quorum of an elected public body, or a committee of an elected body, gets together in public, it’s considered an open meeting under the Missouri Sunshine Law, requiring at least 24 hours public notice. So, this gathering was clearly illegal, and the committee members knew it.

The meeting went off as planned, with one exception: Bryant, who initiated the meeting, didn’t attend. I never found out why; he just didn’t go.

At the next regular meeting of the council, Councilman Dan Cofran, who had learned about the meeting, stood up and, in front of everyone, exposed the dastardly deed. As I recall, one of the committee members either confirmed the meeting, or none of them denied it.

I was furious. When the meeting ended, I corralled Cofran and got as much information from him as I could. I don’t remember if I was able to talk to any of the Finance Committee members, who scrambled out of the chamber as fast as they could, but I got enough to know that Cofran was on the money.

As I left my parking lot on the north side of City Hall and proceeded south on Oak, toward The Star building, Lewellen happened to be pulling out of the City Hall garage. We looked at each other. He grinned. I gave him the finger.

I wrote a story for the next day’s paper, exposing the chicanery, but that didn’t satisfy me…not at all.

I tossed and turned that night, and the next morning, still fuming, I went straight to the third-floor office of then-publisher Jim Hale. “Jim,” I said, “as you probably know by now, the City Council Finance Committee held a secret meeting at Fedora’s last week, and I think we should sue them.”

These were the days when The Star was a cash cow, and we didn’t hesitate to sue someone over a violation of the Sunshine Law.

“I think you’re right!” Hale said, without hesitating. And with that he summoned Scott Whiteside, our in-house lawyer, had me brief him on the situation and gave him the green light to set in motion a civil complaint.

Then, Whiteside and I traipsed down to the second-floor newsroom for a meeting with managing editor Monroe Dodd and other top editors. That’s when I started feeling a little awkward. After all, in going straight to Hale, I had completely jumped the chain of command, bypassing my assignment editor, the managing editor and the editor.

But I had set the wave in motion, and nothing was going to stop it. I remember that Dodd glanced at me curiously a couple of times during the meeting. Afterward, he took me aside and said, “Fitz, I wish you’d let me in on the fun sometimes!”

That reaction greatly relieved me because I could see that while he was a little miffed at being circumvented, he recognized that I had acted strictly in the interest of the newspaper and the public.

The case went to trial in Jackson County Circuit, with Lewellen, Shields and Collins as the defendants. Bryant, because he had been a no-show, slipped the noose.

I remember Lewellen’s attorney cross-examining me at length on a variety of issues that didn’t relate to the issue of the Sunshine Law having been broken.

When Lewellen was asked how the meeting came about, he said, succinctly,“The girls (Shields and Collins) wanted to get together and talk things over, and I agreed.”

The judge — whose name I can’t recall — found all three guilty. He fined Shields and Collins $100 each, and he fined Lewellen $300, hitting him harder than the others because of his leadership post. Although the fine was small, it was a clearcut win for the paper and the public and, naturally, we reported the result.

Collins and Lewellen accepted the ruling and paid their fines. Shields, with her husband, Phil Cardarella, serving as her attorney, appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals-Kansas City District but lost.

Within days, I was back in Lewellen’s office, and we laughed and joked about the case, particularly about Bryant getting a pass. I asked Lewellen if he remembered me giving him the finger, and he said it had slipped his mind.

For both of us, the secret meeting was water under the bridge. City Hall was brimming with stories, and we needed each other too much to let a little thing like an open-meetings lawsuit lead to relation-changing resentment.

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Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon has sounded the warning: He’s ready to fight long and hard over the GSA’s plan to pull the EPA regional headquarters out of downtown KCK and relocate it in Lenexa.

But look out for the GSA: It’s shoring up its defenses.

Oh, the government won’t engage in verbal battle with Reardon, but it’s getting ready.

Listen to what the two sides are saying:

In an interview on Wednesday, Reardon said that:

— He would take his case directly to the White House.

— He might appeal the decision to the GSA inspector general, a referee of sorts.

— He expected the owner of the EPA building on Minnesota Avenue to file a formal protest (which would be filed with the U.S. Government Accountability Office) over the GSA’s decision.

— The GSA should explain in more detail and more clearly why it had accepted the offer to house the EPA headquarters in a Lenexa building that opened in 2008 and was used for a while as Applebee’s headquarters.

Reardon

“We need transparency,” Reardon said. “To me, it (the decision) defies common sense and good public policy. We couldn’t figure it out.”

For its part, the GSA is playing it cautiously, as you would expect, but is preparing to make a formal presentation “in the near future” regarding the selection process and its decision. GSA spokesman Charlie Cook did not indicate when that presentation might take place.

“We are preparing a broader outreach,” Cook said. “We want to get out in public and explain (the selection process) to the extent we can.”

So, the stage is set: The adept, rising politician (some are touting Reardon, a Democrat, as a possible candidate for U.S. representative next year) versus the faceless, entrenched bureaucracy of the GSA.

It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, but this is going to be quite a challenge for Reardon and Wyandotte County’s Unified Government.

GSA officials wouldn’t have made the decision they did without mounting a stout defense along the way.

The GSA will stand, primarily, on formal and strict “federal acquisition regulations,” and it probably will contend that the owners of the Minnesota Avenue building were “not responsive” to the government’s formal, 73-page solicitation of proposals that went out last fall.

Consider this:

While officials with UrbanAmerica Advisors, New York, which owns the Minnesota Avenue building, contend their proposal was superior, they have so far refused to release it. And the government is prohibited by regulation from releasing any of the losing proposals.

It’s not our information to share,” Cook said, citing federal regulations.

As a result, the only information about UrbanAmerica’s proposal that has come forward has been provided by Urban America, and the facts that it has chosen to release could well be self-serving.

Earlier, Urban America officials said they proposed a 20-year lease at an average of $25 per square foot. That would put their proposal at about $5 million a year, or $100 million over 20 years, for the 200,000-square-foot building on Minnesota. (The Applebee’s building has 187,000 square feet.)

In a brief telephone interview on Thursday, however, Scott Hall, an UrbanAmerica senior vice president, declined to answer questions about his firm’s proposal or about the possibility of a formal protest. The deadline for filing such a protest apparently is late next week.

His reticence could be due, simply, to the delicacy of the situation. Or, it could be that UrbanAmerica’s formal proposal would be exposed as problematic.

For example, if Urban America submitted an offer for a flat 20 years, the GSA would have considered it “not responsive.” In its solicitation, the GSA specified that it wanted proposals for “10 years firm,” with options to renew for up to 10 more years.

It is undisputed that Lexington LAC Lenexa LP, owner of the Applebee’s building at 112th and Renner Road, complied with the request for “10 years firm.” According to numbers that Cook released, GSA would pay about $52 million for a 10-year lease of the Lenexa building and about $120 million over 20 years.

Further clouding the Urban America bid, the $25-per-square-foot figure might not include everything. Cook, of the GSA, drew a distinction between a square-foot proposal that was “fully serviced” and one that was only “partially serviced.” In other words, the rate could be higher than $25 a foot if it did not include costs such as utilities and building maintenance.

Just as it is unclear if the length of UrbanAmerican’s proposed contract complied with the solicitation terms, it is equally unclear if Urban America’s self-proclaimed bid of $25 a square foot was fully or partially serviced. If it was only partially serviced, the additional expenses could have pushed the lease rates above that of Lexington LAC.

And Cook  is very firm about the bottom line: The Lexington LAC proposal, he said, “was the highest technically rated and the lowest-priced offer we received.”

There’s more:

— The solicitation specified that the GSA wanted a building that met the Silver, Gold or Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard for design and construction, as well as the Gold or Platinum LEED standard for maintenance and operation.

The Applebee’s building qualifies on both points. The current EPA building doesn’t, and it’s unclear, according to Kansas City Star real estate writer Kevin Collison, “whether the building itself could be upgraded to meet the minimum Silver LEED requirement.”

— In the summer of 2008, about a year before the initial 10-year lease of the Minnesota Avenue building was about to expire, the GSA went to the building owners — at that time a different company — and solicited a proposal for what Cook called “a succeeding lease” in the KCK building.

When the offer came back in 2009, however, the GSA determined that “the rates were too high and the terms unreasonable,” Cook said. (By then, UrbanAmerica had bought the building.) The GSA then canceled that solicitation and informed Congress that it intended to expand the search area and prepare a new solicitation in order to increase competition and drive down the rates.

In the meantime, GSA negotiated an extension of the old lease with UrbanAmerica.

(Side note: You might be wondering, as I was, why UrbanAmerica would buy the building before a new lease was secured. “Stupid” was the assessment of one former GSA official I talked to.)

The new solicitation went out last October, and at least two proposals — those of UrbanAmerica and Lexington LAC — came back a month later.

A GSA and EPA selection panel’s evaluation of those proposals went beyond price, Cook said, to include “sustainability, building and systems design, development team experience, and development team past performance.”

On April 4, GSA and Lexington LAC officials signed a lease contract, which the GSA announced the same day.

All this isn’t giving Reardon pause.

If he can stir up enough ire and make the bureaucrats sufficiently uncomfortable, he could win the fight. He’s relying largely on two well-placed body blows to significantly weaken the GSA’s technically tilted defense.

First, he stresses the importance of the EPA within the context of an urban area that is striving for respectability.

Downtown KCK has seen vast improvements in recent years, he said, including the emergence of small businesses on Fifth Street and the 2010 opening of a $15.5 million Children’s Campus of Kansas City, where several social service groups focus on at-risk children and their families.

In addition, the Unified Government is using the proceeds of a $10 million federal grant to develop an express bus route linking downtown with The Legends/Village West complex at 110th Street and State Avenue. The downtown transit station would be adjacent to the EPA, Reardon said.

All in all, Reardon said, the EPA regional headquarters, with its 610 employees, is a linchpin to continued downtown development.

“This is exactly the wrong time for them (the EPA) to leave,” he said.

His second punch, which is a natural follow-up to the first, highlights a 1978 executive order from President Jimmy Carter. It says in part:

“Federal facilities and federal use of space in urban areas shall serve to strengthen the nation’s cities and to make them attractive places to live and work…Except where such selection is otherwise prohibited, the process for meeting federal space needs in urban areas shall give first consideration to a centralized community business area and adjacent areas of similar character…”

Yes, the GSA gave “first consideration” to downtown KCK. But did it give it enough consideration? That is a key question.

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Kansas City’s mayoral candidates went eastward Saturday, and not all received a warm reception.

In fact, two of the candidates, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Councilwoman Deb Hermann, got a downright chilly response. The forum drew a crowd of about 100 people at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center on Blue Parkway.

The candidates on hand, besides Funkhouser and Hermann, were Mike Burke, Jim Rowland, Sly James and Charles B. Wheeler. Henry Klein was absent.

Funkhouser, Rowland, Burke, James (standing), Hermann and Wheeler

Under the rules of the forum, sponsored by The Call newspaper, people in the audience had a chance to question the candidates directly. When that part of the program arrived, about 10 people quickly lined up behind the microphone.

One questioner put this question to Funkhouser:

“Why is it we should give you a second term?”

Funkhouser said he had initiated several programs in the 3rd and 5th council districts, including his Schools First program, which aims to improve curbs and sidewalks around public schools. In addition, he said, “I’ve been in the community over and over.”

His explanation drew no applause or expressions of approval from the audience.

People queued up to ask questions of the mayoral candidates

Another person told Hermann he had never seen her in the inner city. “I’m sorry if that’s your perception,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”

Like Funkhouser, Hermann got very little, if any, positive response from the audience throughout the event.

Another candidate who got roughed up a bit was Rowland, who has secured the endorsement of Freedom Inc., the city’s major black political organization.

After Rowland bragged that $180 million of the $700 million Sports Complex improvement project had gone to women- and minority-owned businesses, Eric Wesson, an event moderator who is news editor of The Call, challenged him, saying he didn’t think the minority role was as significant as Rowland depicted it.

The audience’s lack of embrace for Funkhouser, Burke, Rowland and Hermann could indicate that each will have a problem getting a significant number of votes from black residents. Funkhouser has never been popular with black voters; Burke and Hermann hail from the Northland; and Rowland lives in the 4th District, in western Kansas City.

Burke got a spot of good news earlier in the day, however, when six black ministers, including Wallace S. Hartsfield and Wallace S. Hartsfield II, endorsed him. A Burke for Mayor press release quoted Hartsfield II as saying: “Mike Burke is the only mayoral candidate that backs up his words of inclusiveness with real actions. We feel that he is truly committed to working with our communities, fighting to have our voices heard and represented in city government.”

The only candidate who received anything close to a warm reception at the forum was Sly James, who is the only black mayoral candidate. He drew applause a few times, including once when he countered a moderator’s assertion that the City Council had no direct role in the quality of education in the Kansas City School District.

“The district is not under the direct jurisdiction of the city,” James said, “but we certainly have a moral obligation and citizen obligation to address education.”

Nevertheless, James, a lawyer, has his work cut out for him on the East Side, partly because he doesn’t live there and partly because he didn’t get Freedom’s endorsement. Also, this is his first run for public office, while all of the other candidates have run for or held public office before.

It appears at this point that the vote in the black wards could be very dispersed in the Feb. 22 primary. That would hurt Rowland and help Hermann, whose popularity in the Northland might give her the single largest voting block.

Burke expects to do well in all parts of the city, but he has no single area that he can count on for great numbers of votes.

And, so, with three weeks remaining in the campaign, here’s how it is shaping up:

Klein and Wheeler are out of it. No chance. Funkhouser is fading fast, as the other candidates have started to use him for the punching bag that he is. James sounds good but has no record to back up his words. Rowland comes off as knowledgeable but antiseptic, seldom connecting with his audience.

That leaves the two Northlanders — Hermann and Burke — as the favorites, at least in my book. Hermann comes across as genuine, unpretentious and level-headed. Burke, although hardly charismatic, is as solid as a rock and has built up a trove of goodwill citywide, partly through his service on just about every economic-development agency that operates in the city.

They are the best candidates, and, for the future of Kansas City, let’s hope they are the top two finishers on Feb. 22.

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Money and pain

One of my favorite movie lines comes from a 1971 classic, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” in which Warren Beatty plays an enterprising but bumbling whore-house owner in the Wild West. He falls in love with the madam, Julie Christie, but runs into all manner of problems. At one point, speaking of women, he mumbles to himself, “Money and pain. Pain and money…Money…Pain.”

Beatty/McCabe

Funk/Funk

Given the legal developments of the last week or so, that would be a suitable refrain for Mayor Mark Funkhouser and other City Council members, including mayoral candidate Deb Hermann.

Join me, then, in taking a closer look at that story and two others — one a local story that became national and one out of Chicago.

:: The tidal wave of money going out of City Hall because of legal setbacks. Translation: Bad news for incumbents.

The front page of today’s Kansas City Star — the lead story, in fact — tells most of the ugly story. In the last four days, courts have awarded more than $5 million to two former employees who were wrongfully terminated and to a judicial candidate who was on a panel that the City Council improperly rejected in 2006.

On Thursday, a Jackson County Circuit Court jury awarded more than $2.6 million to two former budget analysts — 63-year-old Jordan Griffin and 54-year-old Colleen Low — who claimed the city discriminated against them when it laid them off in 2009. Part of the problem for the city was that Griffin and Low were laid off by now-acting City Manager Troy Schulte after Schulte told them they wouldn’t be laid off.

That verdict came on the heels of a Tuesday decision by the Missouri Supreme Court upholding a damage award of nearly $3 million to former municipal judge candidate Melissa Howard. Howard contended that the City Council unfairly denied her consideration for a judgeship in 2006 because she was white. (Interestingly, the council, after twice throwing out the all-white panel of three candidates, ended up appointing a white woman to the post.)

City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley wrote in her story that the Supreme Court ruling “sent shock waves through City Hall,” partly because employees worried that the ruling might adversely affect their wages.

I mentioned that Horsley’s report told most of the story. For some reason — perhaps because she’s not the sort to pile on — she omitted the City Council’s approval last week of a $125,000 settlement with a former aide to Mayor Mark Funkhouser. Funkhouser fired the aide, Shawn Pierce, because Pierce sided with another mayoral employee, Ruth Bates, who also sued the city successfully.  The city had to shell out $550,000 to Bates, a black woman who alleged she was harassed and discriminated against by Funkhouser’s wife, Gloria Squitiro. That’s $675,000 in city funds paid out because of Gloria’s totally unprofessional bearing.

How will all this play out in the current city elections? Hard to say, but today’s big, front-page headline certainly has to be more than a pinprick for incumbent council members seeking re-election. Two of seven candidates in the mayor’s race are incumbents — Funkhouser, who was elected in 2007 — before the Howard matter came up — and Hermann, who is completing her second term on the council.

In fairness to Hermann, she voted against the motion to reject the Howard panel. Her hands are clean on that matter, but the problem is that, to some degree, she’ll be seen by some city residents as having been painted with the same broad brush.

On balance, this is probably another major setback for Funkhouser, a medium to mild setback for Hermann and a bonus for the other three top mayoral candidates — Mike Burke, Jim Rowland and Sly James.

:: The uplifting story of Gil Meche. He made the front page of Thursday’s The New York Times.

NYT writer Tyler Kepner brought to the attention of readers nationwide the remarkable story of Meche, who decided to retire because of a lingering shoulder injury rather than hang on and collect $12 million for the last season of his contract.

Kepner quoted Meche as saying: “When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it. Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I didn’t want to have those feelings again.”

Inspiring, isn’t it? Someone who values self-respect over cash? It’s a great lesson for young people.

On a personal note, when Meche made his last start last season (I don’t remember what month it was), I stood up in the stands and booed loudly at one point, as he got shelled by opposing batters. What I didn’t realize was that Meche was pitching in pain; he couldn’t perform up to his capabilities. I apologize, Gil.

:: Unflappable Rahm Emanuel: The force that will not be denied.

At the end of a topsy-turvy week, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama is securely on the ballot in the Chicago mayor’s race. Candidates for mayor are required to have resided in Chicago for at least a year before Election Day. Emanuel left the White House last fall, but Emanuel argued that he was still a Chicago resident because he owned a house, paid taxes and voted there.

On Monday, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Emanuel did not qualify, saying he had to physically live in the city. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling, putting Emanuel back on the ballot once and for all.

What was perhaps most amazing about this story was how Emanuel appeared to maintain total equanimity during the turbulent days.

“Throughout the challenges to Mr. Emanuel’s candidacy,” Monica Davey wrote in today’s New York Times,” he had confidently asserted that he would be allowed to run, and had proceeded with routine campaign events as if there was no crisis.”

Davey went on to report that “moments after the ruling was issued late thursday,” Mr. Emanuel was shaking hands with voters at a downtown “L” train stop, where many had yet to hear the outcome, and asked what had happened.”

I guess that after the pressure cooker of the White House, a little dust-up with the top Illinois courts is not something that will not easily rattle a guy.

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The issues of conventions (can Kansas City be competitive?) and development (where’s it gone?) took center stage tonight at a mayoral forum sponsored by the American Institute of Architects of Kansas City.

More than 100 people attended the forum at the AIA’s comfortable, cutting-edge space at 1801 McGee. Those in attendance sat in black, hard-back chairs under a wide, red, runway-type ceiling. The five mayoral candidates who participated sat at a table in the front of the room, against a red wall that presents as a vertical extension of the ceiling.

The candidates took turns answering questions put to them by Kevin Collison, The Star’s development writer.

Participating candidates were Jim Rowland, Henry Klein, Sly James, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Mike Burke.

An AIA official said Deb Hermann had informed the group that she would arrive late, but she failed to show. Later, she said she had attended a long-scheduled campaign event at a home in the Brookside area. “You can’t just hit everything,” Hermann said, referring to the many mayoral events.

The seventh mayoral candidate, Charles B. Wheeler, said later when reached at home that he didn’t know about the forum. The AIA official said she had either e-mailed or called the Wheeler campaign but had not heard back. “That’s possible,” Wheeler said, adding that he was enjoying a Laurel and Hardy movie on TV.

Wheeler and Hermann missed a good show. The discussion was energetic, for the most part, and sometimes intense.

Is the party over?

For example, on the issue of a proposed $300-million-plus convention hotel, Funkhouser essentially wrote Kansas City off as a major convention destination. “We do not need this hotel,” he said forcefully. “…This is a huge (financial) risk. We are probably not going to be a high-end, national convention city…This is a bad, bad idea.”

In surveys and elsewhere, he said, few city residents cite a convention hotel as a high priority.

Sitting to Funkhouser’s left and answering after Funkhouser, Burke, a former Convention & Visitors Bureau board member, took a sharply contrasting position. Convention business is critical to the city, he said, and the need for a downtown convention hotel is great.

At the same time, he said, “we cannot put the city’s general fund at risk.”

Klein said he was “very skeptical” about the feasibility of a convention hotel and pointed to the bankruptcy of a downtown hotel in St. Louis (apparently a Sheraton property that failed last September) as good reason to be skeptical.

Rowland urged patience, saying “a process is in place” that probably would determine whether the city should provide significant financial incentives and backing for such a project. He was referring to a steering committee that has been studying the issue and could make a recommendation to the City Council as soon as March.

Like Burke, James said the city needed a new convention hotel but that it should not come at the expense of a lower bond rating for the city or increased debt level. (As a practical matter, there’s virtually no way the city would be able to provide significant financial backing without taking on new debt.)

Earlier in the forum, Collison asked the candidates to rate, on an A-to-F scale, how the city was doing in recent years in terms of “development and investment activity.”

Starting off, Burke handed out a grade of “D,” citing the “collapse” of the Plaza’s West Edge project and the loss of the Wizards soccer team (going to KCK) as evidence of significant slippage. He offered optimism, however, saying “we’re coming out of this recession” and that the city needs to take advantage of the improved situation.

Funkhouser gave a grade of “C” and said the city had lost thousands and thousands of middle- and upper-income residents in recent years to the suburbs. A turnaround, he said, will hinge on “slow, organic growth.”

Like Burke, James issued a grade of “D,” and Klein, while he took his full quotient of time, didn’t give a specific grade. He said, among other things, that incentives the city handed out in earlier years (presumably for projects like the Power & Light District) might have created the illusion that things were significantly better back then.

Rowland gave the city the lowest grade — ”D-minus, at best” — charging that Funkhouser and the council had established “an environment that is toxic for development and business.”

“There are too many road blocks, too many barriers, too much red tape,” he said. Later, answering a related question, he said: “I would change fundamentally the tone at City Hall.”

The evening had its funny moments. At one point, for example, Rowland found himself agreeing with Funkhouser on an issue, after having agreed with him on another issue minutes earlier.

“This is twice,” he said, “and I’m not going to do it again.”

The last question of the evening — from an audience member named Tiffany Miller — made all of the candidates, except Burke, squirm. As a prelude to her question, which had to do with a HUD home-repair program, Miller said she had e-mailed her question to each of the candidates, using e-mail addresses on their web sites. Burke was the only candidate to respond, she said.

The candidates — except Burke, who was smiling contentedly — scrambled to come up with reasons why they had either missed the e-mail or failed to respond.

Funkhouser covered himself by saying he had spoken with Miller about the issue in the past. James said Miller’s e-mail was in a queue of 200 or 300 messages that he hadn’t read yet.

Then came Rowland with a real head-scratcher.

“I haven’t been home or slept the last 48 hours,” he said.

That was greeted with tittering from the audience.

Minutes later, after the forum had ended, I asked Miller what she thought about Rowland’s explanation.

“Yeah, my dog ate it,” she said.

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Over the next few weeks, the campaign for mayor will get increasingly interesting, and probably more pointed.

With the holidays in the rear view mirror and baseball season a long way off, the mayor’s race is about the only excitement on the immediate horizon. By default, if nothing else, people will begin taking a closer look at the seven candidates heading toward the Feb. 22 primary, when the field will be whittled to two.

Several mayoral forums are scheduled to be held this week. All are open to the public.

The times, days, sponsoring agencies and locations are as follows:

— 8:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday, Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, City Stage Theatre, Union Station. Each candidate will have 30 minutes to answer questions on mass transit.

— 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, American Institute of Architects, Kansas City Chapter, 1801 McGee, Suite 100.

— 8 p.m. Thursday, UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium, 5000 Holmes. (A council candidates’ forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m.)

— 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, The Call, Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway.

While waiting for the action to intensify, here are some observations on the candidates:

** Jim Rowland. The “corridor kid” made good points at the Central Presbyterian Church forum last week when he reminded the audience what a jerk Mayor Mark Funkhouser has been. He’s the first mayor in at least 40 years to banish a council member (Jan Marcason of the Fourth District) from all standing committees. But Rowland has a couple of major problems: Beady eyes and a sour personality.

Burke

** Mike Burke. Has the deepest, broadest background in civic matters and projects confidence. Needs to sharpen his message, however, and tell people clearly why he is the best candidate and paint a sharper picture of where he would lead the city. (He also needs to drop his “perfect storm” explanation for why things have gone so badly at City Hall the last four years. It wasn’t the jet stream that wreaked havoc at City Hall; it was the mayor and his spouse.) Burke hurt himself by initially refusing to publicly talk about the Port Authority scandal, citing attorney-client relationship. (He was general counsel at the time.) Documents unearthed by The Star, however, show that after learning about the $9.7-million contract between the company developing the Richards-Gebaur site and a company owned by another Port Authority attorney, Burke wrote a scolding letter to the attorney, William Session.

Hermann and James

:: Deb Hermann. Straight shooter. Easy to talk to. Has guts. (Stood up to Local 42’s demand that the city include the former MAST employees in the city pension system at an estimated cost of $30 million.) Her kindly grandma appearance and non-threatening manner stand as appealing contrasts to Funkhouser’s bashing, avenging ways. Leadership is a question, though. She’s led the Finance and Audit Committee, but is that enough?

:: Funkhouser. Speaks knowledgeably and authoritatively about the issues, as you would expect of an incumbent, and almost makes you forget what a disaster he’s been. That’s why Burke and Rowland have to keep reminding the voters. (Hermann probably would like to slide through without going negative, at least in the primary.)

:: Henry Klein and Sly James. Well-meaning and well-spoken individuals who add a lot to the discussion. However…these and similar pretenders from past elections (Stan Glazer, Gomer Moody, etc.) who wake up one day and think, “Hey, I could be mayor,” need to go back to investing, the law, show business, liquor sales and whatever else it is they do and stay there. The last 40 years of Kansas City history shows that you can’t get elected mayor unless you’ve held another major elective office (Charles B. Wheeler); served on the council (Richard Berkley, Emanuel Cleaver and Kay Barnes); or been hand-picked by The Star’s Yael Abouhalkah.

:: Charles Wheeler. The most candid, accessible and entertaining mayor we’ve had during the last 40 years. (Held the office from 1971 to 1979.) I’ll never forget when he wrestled a bear in the mayor’s office and then regaled the press with the details: “The bear sat right over there on that couch and drank a Pepsi.” That said, he might not even get on the ballot. It takes 1,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot, and, at this point, that translates into supporters willing to stand outside supermarkets, in the cold, approaching shoppers and saying, “Excuse me…are you registered to vote in Kansas City?”

Suggestion: If you really want on the ballot, Charlie, hire Clay Chastain to get your signatures. He needs something constructive to do to take his mind off himself.

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Ordinance No. 110056 popped up at the last minute Thursday, too late, as the clerk said, to be included in the printed docket.

It didn’t involve a lot of money, relatively speaking — $125,000 — and it generated virtually no discussion.

But it sure packed a political wallop.

Yes, it did. It could hardly have come at a worse time for Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who has spent the last year or so trying to put “the Gloria thing” behind him. The Gloria thing, of course, was the long-running flap over wife Gloria Squitiro’s presence at City Hall, when she worked there as a full-time volunteer in his office.

Worked, as in scorched the walls of the old Art Deco building with a blowtorch and breathed fire down the throats of  many regular, salary-earning employees.

A little background:

You’ll recall that Squitiro refused to leave City Hall and that her husband — uh, the mayor — didn’t have the good sense, or maybe the courage, to tell her to do so. The council had to pass an ordinance, later thrown out by a judge, forcing her to do so.

Of course, it goes a lot deeper than a domineering wife getting her way and a deferring husband nodding to the status quo.

The city had to pay out $550,000 to a former mayoral aide, Ruth Bates, who sued Funkhouser, Squitiro and the city for Squitiro’s alleged harassment of her and discrimination against her. The city paid the money after settling with Bates, while Squitiro’s insurance company paid Bates an additional $45,000.

Let’s think about that again, as we approach the Feb. 22 primary election, in which Funkhouser is one of seven announced candidates...Five hundred fifty thousand dollars of taxpayer money was lost to the city because of Mrs. Funk’s tart tongue and poor judgment.

And she wasn’t even a full-fledged city employee. She was a squatter!

That brings us to Thursday and Ordinance No. 110056.

Bates’ lawsuit wasn’t the only one filed as a result of the Squitiro rodeo at City Hall. Shawn Pierce, a former aide to Funkhouser, filed a suit last January alleging that Funkhouser fired him because he had sided with Bates in that fracas.

There must have been something to Pierce’s claim because last month the city agreed to pay Pierce $125,000. “We have an agreement in principle,” Pierce’s attorney said at the time.

On Thursday, it was time for the council to approve the settlement.

And who introduced the ordinance? None other than Deb Hermann, a second-term council member who appears, on the basis of endorsements and momentum, to be the leading contender in the Feb. 22 primary.

Hermann, chairwoman of the council’s Finance and Audit Committee, was in a difficult position Thursday. I would think that, to some degree, she relished the prospect of sticking it to the mayor at this time, when the public is starting to pay attention to the mayor’s race.

On the other hand, Funkhouser, Mrs. Funk and all the bad stew that has been served up at City Hall the past few years have undoubtedly turned some members of the public against the council as a whole. As a result, Hermann — the only current council member running for mayor, besides Funkhouser — could suffer from association.

Earlier Thursday, I asked Hermann if she would vote “yes” for the Pierce payout through gritted teeth.

“I’m certainly not happy about this, but I would be much less happy if we had to pay more,” she said.

And, so, when it came time for a vote on Thursday, there was very little discussion: Just one question, directed to city staff, to confirm that the $125,000 would come specifically from money budgeted for the mayor’s office.

After the city attorney confirmed that was the case, the clerk proceeded with a roll-call vote. There were 11 “ayes,” one person absent (Councilman Bill Skaggs) and one abstention — the mayor.

Now, let’s do the math. Five hundred fifty thousand plus one hundred twenty-five thousand equals six hundred seventy-five thousand.

That’s $675,000 in taxpayer funds that has been paid out as a result of Mrs. Funk’s wonderful foray at City Hall.

Think about that when you go to the polls five weeks from Tuesday.

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Besides picking up some key endorsements in recent days, such as mortgage banker James B. Nutter Sr. and Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, another reason that Deb Hermann is coming on strong in the mayor’s race, in my opinion, is her creative use of signage.

I’m not referring to her yard signs, which are good, but to two mobile signs that are being rolled out for maximum exposure.

The billboard-type signs, essentially giant yard signs, cover the sides and backs of two U-Haul-type trucks, one of which has been parked along Southwest Trafficway and the other along Burlington Avenue in North Kansas City.

The one on Burlington, just past the the north end of the Heart of America Bridge, has been in a parking lot outside Bridge View Hall. Hermann’s campaign needed approval of the Bridge View Hall owner to park the truck outside his building.

The other truck has been parked on 36th Street, just off Southwest Trafficway.

I’ve been around politics a long time, but I’ve never seen truck advertising of this quality. I’ve seen a lot of second-rate truck advertising, including the use of homemade signs and irritating bull horns blaring the candidate’s message. But nothing this sophisticated…if you can call truck advertising sophisticated.

Hermann and her campaign staff are justifiably proud of the gimmick. “I think it’s certainly unique to get my name out there,” Hermann said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

But Hermann doesn’t take credit for it. She referred me to campaign coordinator Megan Tallman, whose roots are in Westport and who has been involved in many grassroots-type campaigns.

Tallman said she saw similar truck-side advertising used in a Northland campaign last year, and she said she mentioned it at a campaign staff meeting. From there, the idea took off. The person who implemented the plan is a sign-company owner who is a supporter of Hermann. The man ordered the signs and had them affixed to the trucks, which he owns, Tallman said.

As a result, it’s not costing the campaign much money. It’s a so-called “in-kind” service, where the sign-company owner donates his cost to the campaign. It would be nearly cost prohibitive, at least in a local campaign, to rent two trucks for a month or more.

So, congratulations to the Hermann campaign for its ingenuity and for adding a capricious touch to the mid-winter campaign. As Tallman said, even if you’re not for Hermann, the gimmick “still makes you smile.”

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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.

Funkhouser

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

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.”

Rowland

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.

Marcason

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.”

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I’m afraid it’s almost inevitable that Missouri voters will approve Proposition A a week from Tuesday.

At its core, Prop A is an insidious scheme designed to appeal to voters’ selfish inclinations at the expense of Kansas City and St. Louis, which make the state the special place that it is.

I’ve often quoted former mayor and now-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who used to rally the troops at City Hall by saying, “This isn’t some podunk town along I-70; this is Kansas City!”

But if Kansas City and St. Louis lose their one-percent earnings taxes and falter badly because of it, the podunk element will grow in prominence, and the urban dimension will diminish.   

The podunk element — my apologies to rednecks across the state — is going to vote in full force for Prop A, which would eliminate the prospect of an earnings tax anywhere in the state except Kansas City and St. Louis.

Then, it will come down to this: If Kansas City and St. Louis want to retain their earnings taxes, they will  have to hold renewal local elections every five years. The tax is applied to the net profits of corporations in the two cities and to the wages of individuals who either work or live in those cities. 

What should deeply concern Kansas City residents is that the e-tax generates more than $200 million a year, about 36 percent of the city’s $560 million general fund.

And, by the way, here’s one of the main reasons Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be given his walking papers: Late last year he said he was “open” to the idea of eliminating the earnings tax. He later came to his senses, but the mere fact that he was willing to entertain the notion of eliminating the e-tax shows how far off beam he is.  

On Sunday, The Star had an excellent front-page story — “Whither city services?” — that, I hope, will make Kansas Citians more aware of the nature of the threat posed by elimination of the earnings tax.

The story, written by longtime City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley and intern Seth Putnam, addressed, among other things, a so-called “Doomsday List” of cuts the city might have to make if the earnings tax goes away. 

Included on the list were $58 million from the Police Department and $20 million from trash collection, curbside recycling, bulky-item pickup and leaf and brush services.   

Do you remember, several years ago, when the raging debate about the earnings tax was whether city residents were entitled to free trash bags indefinitely?

I dare say, many people would welcome the return of that debate, instead of the current issue of whether to do away with the tax altogether.

Ironically, it’s outsiders, for the most part, who are agitating for repeal of the earnings tax. 

The chief chef, the man who concocted this nasty stew, is Rex (Down the Drain) Sinquefield, a multi-millionaire who apparently lives in Osage County, near Jefferson City, but has strong ties to St. Louis.

Sinquefield

Sinquefield is president of a non-profit organization called the Show-Me Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank. On its web site, the institute says that its work “is rooted in the American tradition of free markets and individual liberty.”

The group’s chairman is R. Crosby “Chris” Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library. Kemper and Sinquefield have argued for years that the earnings tax hurts growth and employment.

In a recent KC Star article, political reporter Dave Helling said Sinquefield, who has made himself invisible in this campaign, is a retired businessman whose income “appears to be based on business holdings and dividends, which are not subject to the earnings tax.”

OK, maybe he’s not motivated by self-interest. But he sure is posing a threat to Missouri’s two biggest cities. So far, according to a recent Kansas City Star article, Down the Drain has spent nearly $11 million of his own money to get Prop A on the ballot and fuel the campaign against it.

Cozad

The assistant chef, working for Prop A on our side of the state, is former Missouri Republican chairman (Knock On) Woody Cozad, a lawyer who lives in Platte City. Cozad is a regular panelist on the KCPT program “Ruckus.”

A couple of years ago, describing Republicans, Knock On Woody said, “We don’t like government  in general.”

Down the Drain obviously shares that philosophy, and, so, his and Cozad’s approach with Prop A essentially is, “Let’s put a big hole in the financing of city government so there will be a lot less of it.”   

Strategically, I must admit, Down the Drain has hatched a brilliant plan. By attacking the earnings tax statewide — and pitting rural against urban — he’s given himself an odds-on chance of winning. Why would the vast majority of outstate Missouri voters have a very strong reason to vote “no”?

A big incentive for outstate residents is that not only does it not affect them (as long as they don’t care about the stature of the state’s two biggest cities, anyway),  it would prevent an earnings tax from ever being visited upon them.

For the earnings tax to survive in Kansas City and St. Louis, then, it will come down to local elections next year. Earnings-tax proponents will have the challenging job of trying to convince voters to be unselfish and to think, first and foremost, about what kind of city they want and what kind of municipal services they want.

Two recent letters to the editor in The Star framed the issue very well.

In an Oct. 15 letter, Mack Tilton of Kansas City called Proposition A “a trick,” with the trick being that “if we want to keep the tax we’d be asked to decide again every five years.”

“It would be very hard,” he continued, ” for the city to borrow money or make any long-term plans knowing that a primary source of its income would be challenged every five years.”

In other words, it would be more difficult for the city to commit to big projects like development of the Power & Light District, which has helped resurrect downtown and keep Kansas City on the map as a convention destination. 

Last Thursday, Joel Pelofsky, a former city councilman and former Kansas City school board member, wrote: “The fact that people who do not live in Kansas City but work here and pay the tax is only fair. Many of the city services benefit them, as do cultural and entertainment facilities maintained by tax revenues.

“Nobody likes to pay taxes,” Pelofsky concluded, “but it is a reasonable price to pay for living in a great city.”

If you live in Kansas City and you want to see it continue to grow and prosper, I urge you to vote “no” on Prop A next week. But, more important, be ready to vote “yes” on retention of the e-tax next spring.

You can’t say this about many taxes, but it’s a beautiful thing.

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