Posts Tagged ‘Sly James’

That’s it…the headline, I mean.

That’s the slogan — christened here today on your favorite blog — for the bond-issue campaign (God willing) that will determine if Kansas City builds a new single terminal at KCI or sticks with the one we’ve had for more than 40 years.

I’m hereby giving Pat Gray, Steve Glorioso, Pat O’Neill and other political consultants carte blanche to appropriate the slogan, which, I think, says all voters need to know about why a new, single terminal is a good idea…

“Soar into the future.”


OK, so the campaign isn’t going to be the slam dunk I first thought it was going to be. A Save KCI group has formed, and it has a web site. Letters to the editor tilt toward maintaining the status quo, and Mayor Sly James now seems to be hedging his bets.

A front-page story in The Star yesterday said that James supports “moving forward with a study on the merits of a new terminal.” That’s a long way from being unequivocal.

Here’s what he should say…

“This is what we need, Kansas Citians; this an opportunity for us to keep pace — as did with the Power & Light District and Sprint Center — with other top-tier cities. This is an opportunity to build a 21st Century terminal that will be more efficient and will make travelers open their eyes when they arrive in our city.”

That’s what he should say, anyway, if he wants to be remembered like former Mayor Kay Barnes, who gave us Power & Light and the Sprint Center. Or like the late former Mayor Ilus W. Davis, who moved air travel out of Downtown Airport and gave us a major-league airport in Platte County.

(A quick digression: Remember how “convenient” Downtown Airport was?)  

For the campaign to succeed, it’s going to need James’ strong backing. He has built up tremendous credibility with the public. I think that’s great; that’s what enables a mayor to lead. But if James equivocates on this, or if he throws in the towel, Kansas City is hosed. Another opportunity to modernize KCI probably wouldn’t come along for another decade…at least.


Earlier, when I put in the mayor’s mouth the words “make travelers open their eyes,” I meant it almost literally.

Look around the next time you go to KCI…Most people are trudging around soporifically, in the dungeon that is Terminal B, looking for someplace decent to get something to eat, other than a day-old croissant or a three-day-old sandwich.

Then, watch those who are “shopping” for items for friends and relatives back home. They flip through the KU, K-State and MU caps and shirts at the news stands, and they quickly move on.

Folks, this place is not far from being a dump!

The only difference between KCI and Kemper Arena is that Kemper Arena was always a dump. It held us back on the sports front for many years. Now, with Sprint Center, we’ve got one of the most successful arenas in the country, and when we have a big concert or basketball tournament down there, the streets, bars and restaurants are filled with happy people. A beautiful sight it is, if you love Kansas City and want it to rank up there with St. Louis, Denver, Indianapolis and Louisville.


Denver International Airport

The important thing to realize is that the “convenience” factor, which opponents of a new, single terminal continuously harp on, is an extremely narrow view. Yes, you can get to your airline fairly easily at KCI, but once you go through one of the security checkpoints, you are a prisoner in a smaller holding area where about all you can get are yogurt cups, crackers and bottled drinks.

I was in one of the holding areas recently, and to get to the restrooms I had to walk from one end of the enclosed area to the other and then down at least one long flight of steps. Convenient? Hell, no! A lot of people, like me, don’t have the knees they once did…You should never have to go down a flight of steps to go to a restroom at an airport.


Here’s the best thing about a bond election that would have to be held before the city could proceed: If voters approve (by a simple majority), the bonds would be retired solely with revenue generated by the Kansas City Aviation Department.

A lot of people don’t understand this, I fear. They hear that the new terminal is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and their knee-jerk reaction is, “We can’t afford it!”

Not so. Airport-construction bonds would not rely at all on the city’s General Fund, that is, on taxpayer dollars.

The Aviation Department is one of two city departments, along with the Water and Pollution Control, that do not tap the General Fund. They are called “enterprise departments'” because they pay for their operations, totally, with fees they charge.

In the case of the Water and Pollution Control Department, it’s the water and sewer bills we get in the mail every month. In the case of the Aviation Department, it’s fees charged to airlines and other businesses that rent space at the airport. The department’s largest source of income is airline “landing fees” — usually so much money for each 1,000 pounds.

I want to emphasize this point about how the bonds would be financed…Here it is again, straight from yesterday’s Kansas City Star:

“The bonds would be backed by aviation funds — paid by the airlines, passengers, tenants and other users — not general taxpayer dollars.”

No tax dollars…No, it’s not free, but the airlines and other users are paying, and they’re willing to pay because they know it will pay off for them in the long run.


Once again, I’m going to quote U.S. Rep. and former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who, I’m convinced, got Kansas City focused on the future when he was mayor, after a long period of belly-button gazing.

Here’s what Cleaver used to say — always in an insistent tone of voice:

“This is not some podunk town along I-70. This is Kansas City!”

People, it’s time to cut bait on the existing KCI, with its sodden, antiquated terminals.

Don’t look back; don’t be nostalgic. The KCI of the 70s, with its gleaming, parquet floors and its fresh, clean look, is a thing of the past. Look ahead; let’s Soar into the Future…

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Yael Abouhalkah had a very interesting column in yesterday’s Star, in which he touched on some of the biggest challenges facing Kansas City Mayor Sly James at the halfway point of his first term.

First off, Abouhalkah said James is in great position to get re-elected in 2015 because “no current City Council member comes close to matching the wattage of James’ personality or his ability to influence policies and programs at City Hall.”

In the past (with the notable exception of James in 2011), the strongest candidates for mayor generally have come from the council’s ranks, and none of this council’s other members seems to be establishing a high profile for himself or herself.

Some of the major challenges that Abouhalkah listed were:

— Construction of a new, single terminal at KCI

— Proposed local control of the KCPD

— City Hall pension reform

In brief, here’s what Yael had to say about each of those issues…and my observations (not as brief).

Single terminal

Yael: “If it (the single-terminal concept) remains as unpopular  as it seems with a large contingent of Kansas Citians, James could face a possible defeat on a major issue.”

Me: Organized opposition to a single-terminal is growing, with the formation of a Save KCI! (savekci.com) group, and letters to the editor continue to tilt heavily to the status quo. Yesterday, the City Council voted 9-3 to move ahead with further planning for construction of a new, single terminal. The mayor voted with the majority, but it appears that he has begun equivocating on his previous strong stance in favor of a single terminal.

In a report on the meeting, KSHB-TV, Channel 41, said that James “admitted he is not completely sold on the current proposal, but said since Kansas City is not obligated to anything at this point, the process needs to continue.”

I don’t think James’ position on this issue will be a major factor in whether he gets re-elected. If he is going to establish himself as a strong leader on difficult issues, however, and if he wants to be remembered as a bold and farsighted mayor, he needs to stay out front for a single terminal and resist the impulse to assuage those who are steadfastly parochial and nostalgic about KCI.

If you’ve traveled to just a few other major airports in the U.S., you know that KCI sucks by comparison in just about every aspect except the distance between parking and gate. Now, that is an important consideration, but the facts…that KCI is way too expensive from a security standpoint and that it’s a HOLLOW, DARK, BORING, ANTIQUATED PIECE OF SHIT... far outstrip the convenience factor.

The correct call on KCI is as clear as it was on Sprint Center and the Power & Light District. If Mayor Kay Barnes hadn’t led courageously and pushed hard for those two massive attractions, Downtown would be a fuckin’ wasteland, and we would be well below Omaha (not to mention St. Louis, Denver and Louisville) in the category of downtown venues that attract tourists and area residents.

It seems abundantly clear that if we don’t get a modern airport within the next several years, usage of KCI will continue to drop dramatically and the airlines will shift many flights to other cities.

Don’t let us down on this, Sly. This isn’t a re-election issue; it’s a legacy issue. Do you want to be remembered as a big, energetic guy with a big personality — another H. Roe Bartle — or as a mayor who catapulted us into the ranks of big cities with great airports? 

Local control of KCPD

Yael: “The mayor appears ready to embrace local control of the Police Department…But if the panel (a commission he has appointed) balks at local control — or the (Missouri) legislature gives James the cold shoulder next year — the mayor could lose out on a key issue of how taxpayers finance public safety.”

Me: Again, I don’t think this is a big deal either way as far as the mayor’s chances of getting re-elected. (Can we just acknowledge that he’s going to serve six more years?)

But, just as with the single terminal at KCI, local control is an issue whose time has come. In fact, it came about 15 years ago, but the police bureaucracy has such a stranglehold on operations and on the Board of Police Commissioners that it’s been difficult for the advocates of progress to get any traction. James has wedged a foot in the door with the appointment of the panel to review the idea, but my guess is that the police hierarchy (along with just about every brain-washed, puffed-up police board member who has served during the last 30 years) will stamp their feet and holler so long and loud that the change agents will back off for another decade.

Sly James just might end up leading the local-control retreat, too…If he does, it will be another missed opportunity to be remembered as a gutsy, decisive mayor whose first interest was the taxpayers, not police commanders or the fat-cat commissioners appointed by Missouri governors.

Pension reform

Yael: “He (James) is still working to reform the unsustainable pensions for firefighters, police officers and other city employees — almost 18 months after a citizens commission delivered a how-to report on the issue in late 2011. The cost to taxpayers for retirement benefits has reached $60 million annually, up from $54 million two years ago.”

Me: Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Turn on the laugh tracks…Pension reform involving the firefighters? After James rode high and tall in a fire truck at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade a week before the 2011 election? And after he donned a bright red KCFD jacket after the JJ’s tragedy and said, famously, “Fire (department) doesn’t do gas.” ????


Mayor Sly James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi after the JJ’s explosion

The chances of meaningful pension reform involving the fire department during the next six years are slim and none.

The next mayor, though? The unfortunate, winning candidate who succeeds James?

Well, the pension situation will be at crisis point by then; the new mayor and City Council will have to do some incredible belt-tightening and make some mighty unpopular moves; and they’ll all serve one term and be thrown out of office.

Thanks in advance, Sly.


Editor’s note: You’ll recall that I wrote about the steps taken by the North Kansas City Mayor and City Council to put in motion a possible sale of North Kansas City Hospital. Well, last night KCPT ran a nine-minute piece, reported by special correspondent Sam Zeff. It featured, among other things, an interview with me, as well as video of Patty’s clothing manufacturing business on Swift Avenue. Here’s the link. If you watch it, I think you’ll find it interesting.

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At last, nearly a month after the JJ’s explosion, the Kansas City Fire Department has acknowledged the obvious: That it is responsible for dealing with natural gas leaks.

Initially, after the Feb. 19 explosion that killed waitress Megan Kramer and injured 15 other people, Mayor Sly James infamously said in defense of the Fire Department: “(The) Fire Department doesn’t do gas.”

No more.

The Star’s Matt Campbell reported today that KCFD would change the way it responds to gas leaks.

Campbell wrote: “Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that from now on, the initial dispatch on any call about a possible natural gas leak will include a battalion chief and a fire truck equipped…to monitor gas levels in the air.

“In addition firefighters will remain on the scene and continue to consult with gas utility experts to determine whether to evacuate an area or building. They will remain there until the risk has been resolved.”

That’s the way it should have been all along. In 2010, Fire Engineering, a firefighting trade journal, had this to say on its website about natural gas leaks:

“Responding to gas leak emergencies often carries the stigma of a routine service-level call. The contrary is true, however, in that each of these incidents can easily escalate into a major emergency that could involve fire, explosion, collapse, evacuation, and any number of serious outcomes. Each of these responses must be treated as true emergencies and be handled with appropriate levels of risk management.”

Why, then, would a KCFD crew to arrive at the scene of a major gas leak, heed the advice of gas workers saying “we’ve got it under control,” and then get back on the truck and drive away?

That’s exactly what happened an hour before the JJ’s explosion. The crew left 13 minutes after they arrived and about 45 minutes before the explosion. .

It is unclear to me whether a battalion chief was at the scene, but from all I’ve heard and read it appears that the captain in charge of the truck made the call.

As one former KC firefighter told me, for whoever made the call, “It could be a career-altering move.”

Another big mistake the crew made was advising JJ’s staff to keep all ignition sources off. The crew told JJ’s employees to turn off all ignition sources but didn’t make sure it got done and didn’t help. Thus, the staff overlooked a couple of pilot lights — which I can see easily happening: Pilot lights are out of sight and somewhat out of mind, at least for the average person.

The pilot lights actually triggered the explosion, but it was what took place earlier — MGE saying it had the situation under control, the pumper truck driving away, and evacuation delayed until 10 to 15 minutes before the explosion — that truly caused the disaster.

By the way, in announcing the policy changes, Berardi said his comments would be his final statement on the matter.

This chief, who succeeded Smokey Dyer last year, has already had more than his 15 minutes of fame. He probably hasn’t had a solid bowel movement in weeks. He has not handled this debacle well, and the city and MGE — and perhaps others — are going to pay mightily for their mistakes.

A lawyer friend of mine said the litigation scenario would go like this: The plaintiffs will sue everybody — the contractor doing the digging, the fire department, MGE and maybe Time Warner Cable, which hired the contractor. Then, the defendants will file “cross claims,” each trying to cast the brunt of the blame on the other defendants.

Depositions and case filings will point toward how the blame should be apportioned. Then, the settling will begin.

Millions of dollars will change hands. In the end, though, Kansas City still will have lost a fine citizen, and area residents will forever think of the JJ’s site as the scene of a senseless tragedy.

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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.

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With the passage of several days and the surfacing of more information, the human error that led to the fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant last week has become clear:

For more than an hour, as gas poured out of a broken line before the explosion, NO ONE WAS IN CHARGE.

I hate to say emergency responders were standing around with their hands in their pockets, but it’s pretty clear that nobody was doing much, for a long time, to protect citizens in the bar and in the immediate area. Evacuation didn’t start until a few minutes before the explosion, and apparently no one shut off the nearest gas valve.

(I would love to find out that was not the case, but in the absence of an assertion that gas was cut off, we’re left to assume it wasn’t.)

We all know by now that the Fire Department unwisely deferred to workers with Missouri Gas Energy.

Whoever the ranking fire fighter at the scene was…he failed to take charge.

Same for any of at least three MGE workers who arrived at the scene, separately, before the explosion. The fact that they arrived separately may well have contributed to a “who’s-in-charge-here” attitude.

The MGE workers told fire fighters that they had the situation under control. That’s a lot different, of course, than someone actually being in control.

The other main people on the scene — besides customers who smelled gas but didn’t go anywhere, partly because they weren’t told to — were the workers who pierced the gas line while digging in preparation to lay fiber optic cable.

None of them was in charge, of course. They work for a company that does work for Time Warner. They were trained in digging and running lines, probably not in organizing an evacuation and maybe not even in shutting off gas valves.

It was a most regrettable case, then, of a public agency and a private company being on the scene but neither knowing for sure which was in charge or what steps should be taken to protect the public.

In the absence of a clear process on what to do, the only hope that JJ’s patrons and workers had was that someone would step forward to fill the void. Unfortunately, no one picked up the hero’s mantle, and one person died and 15 were injured.

The Star’s Dave Helling reported yesterday that Kansas City’s generic emergency response plan calls for public safety officials — that is, police or fire fighters — to decide “if threats such as gas leaks warrant evacuations.”

That means the fire department should have taken the reins…Ah, but it’s not that simple.

The document goes on to say that “incident commanders” are in charge of “routine evacuations” —  which, clearly, this should have been.

Strictly speaking, however, there was no “incident commander,” partly because, for some crazy reason, the fire department routinely takes a back seat to the gas company in the case of leaks.

Helling also wrote about another document that should help the city deal with similar situations in the future. It’s called the National Incident Management System. It’s produced by the federal government, and the fire department follows its guidelines.

The telling line in the document, as far as the JJ’s explosion is concerned, says that at the scene of a dangerous situation or a disaster, the command function “must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations.”

Makes all the sense in the world…So, let’s make sure that happens in the future.

Our very self-assured mayor — who sank from from mayor mode to lawyer mode that fateful day (and the next) — should step forward, soon, and hand down common-sense guidelines to govern dangerous situations where multiple agencies are involved.

kcfdlogoI’ll even give him the first two paragraphs of the new policy:

“When an incident arises where public health and safety is at risk — and where more than one agency or entity is involved — the Kansas City Fire Department or the Kansas City Police Department — whichever is appropriate — will be in charge of the incident and will take immediate steps to protect the public.

“The highest-ranking officer at the scene will assume command, and he or she will organize and direct the response of whatever agencies are involved in the incident.”

Never again should we Kansas Citians see our well-paid, well-trained fire fighters (or police officers) standing down to some gas energy guys running around in jeans, T-shirts and hard hats.

And those guys…let’s make sure they know where the shutoff valves are and how to switch them to the off position.

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The Kansas City Star assigned a team of four outstanding reporters to the JJ’s explosion story Wednesday, and they established facts that pointed fingers of blame at two companies, a city agency and one big-city mayor.

Let’s be clear: These are maddening, infuriating fingers of blame.

Waitress Megan Cramer should not be dead; more than a dozen other people should not have been injured; JJ’s should still be intact.

Clearly, this was a disaster and tragedy that occurred because no one, NO ONE, made COMMON-SENSE decisions in the presence of a strong smell of gas…a smell that permeated the immediate area for MORE THAN AN HOUR before Tuesday’s explosion.

OK, so which individuals and entities shoulder the blame and why?

Investigative reporters Judy Thomas and Mike McGraw, energy reporter Steve Everly and City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley laid out the prosecution’s case in their story, and the four defendants seem to have little defense.

Let’s consider the defendants in the order that they screwed up…

1) Heartland Midwest LLC.  Shall we just call them The Mad Diggers?

Using a trenchless, horizontal boring machine, the Time Warner subcontractor managed to bore into a two-inch gas line that serviced JJ’s.

The Star’s story said that before digging, Heartland officials called Missouri One-Call, a nonprofit organization set up by utilities to help excavators and utilities dig in compliance with safety laws. The story doesn’t say what, if anything, Missouri One-Call did in response to the Heartland call, so that part of the story remains up in the air. Missouri One-Call could end up sharing blame.

2) Missouri Gas Energy. It will be a long, long time before this company regains any credibility.

How could MGE workers not recognize this was an extremely dangerous situation?



With damning impact, The Star interviewed the president of the North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group based in Massachusetts.

The official, Mark McDonald, told The Star, “It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.” He said a shutoff valve to the restaurant could have been closed soon after utility workers arrived, which was nearly an hour before the explosion.

3) The Kansas City Fire Department. Asleep at the wheel.

A truck arrived on the scene at 5:04 p.m., about 10 minutes after Heartland reported the leak.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that firefighters conferred with MGE workers and that the workers assured the fire crew that they had the situation under control.

“We left the situation in their hands,” Berardi said, “We have to leave that up to the experts at the scene.”

What? WHAT? Like the fire department doesn’t know anything about the hazards of natural gas?

And when, by the way, does the fire department defer to anyone? When there’s distinct danger in the air, the fire department has a responsibility to act.

On Tuesday, KCFD was the public’s strongest representative at the scene. The crew captain or battalion chief — whoever was in charge when that first truck arrived — could have, should have, said, “This doesn’t smell good to me…Let’s check this out a little further.”

4. Mayor Sly James. Like the fire department, he abdicated his duty to the public on Wednesday.

In a morning news conference, James deflected questions about who might be to blame, saying that simply that an investigation was underway.

“Now I understand everybody wants to know what happened, wants to blame somebody,” James said. “Everybody wants to know these details, but let me just assure you that’s not going to happen today.”


Mayor Slay James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi

That statement was OK, as far as it went. But the situation begged for much, much more.

What he should have added, emphatically, is something like this: “I assure you we are going to get to the bottom of this. This tragedy has raised plenty of questions, and I am going to make sure that every question is answered. We will let the chips fall where they may.”

Remember when the skywalks at the Hyatt collapsed, killing 113 people?

The day after it occurred (maybe the second day), Mayor Richard Berkley stood up to Don Hall, Hallmark and other deep-pocketed, vested interests and called for a federal investigation. Then-Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton got involved and a full-scale investigation got underway almost immediately.

Berkley didn’t say, “Let me assure you that (the search for answers) is not going to happen today.”


James’s attitude is going to have to change, and quickly. The public will demand it. What James didn’t seem to take into account yesterday was the anger that was, and is, coming to a boil.

The Star reporters showed us exactly what that looks like when they quoted the executive director of a foundation that has offices immediately north of JJ’s.

“I’m really, really angry,” said Gayla Brockman. “I honestly don’t get it.”

She smelled the gas slightly more than an hour before the explosion, and it was so strong that it nauseated her.

People with Heartland Midwest, MGE and the fire department smelled gas, too…Why didn’t any of them act quickly, in the interests of public safety? 

And why wasn’t Mayor James demanding answers the day after a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten?

I want to know. And my fellow Kansas Citians want to know.

And there must be accountability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Very interesting, this E-tax situation. Not just the Kansas City situation but the combination of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Quite a contrast, actually. In both cities, voters overwhelmingly approved retention of the one-percent tax on salaries and business profits. But that’s where the similarities end.


— In Kansas City, the opposition, led by eastern Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield spent about $600,000 trying to defeat the tax. In St. Louis, there was no organized opposition.

— In Kansas City, all indications are that it will be “business as usual” at City Hall and that a serious, extensive review of city taxes and finances is not likely to occur. In St. Louis, however, it appears that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the E-tax will be eliminated before the next retention election, which would take place in five years.

So what’s the deal?

Well, it seems clear to me that, in St. Louis, Sinquefield and Mayor Francis Slay, a friend of Sinquefield, made a deal.

Here’s how the conversation that led to that gentleman’s agreement likely went…

Rex — “Uh, Francis, you know you’ve got to get rid of that E-tax; it’s killing job and business growth.”

Francis — “Yes, Rex, I realize that. But we can’t chop it off all at once, you know. How about this: If you don’t contest it on April 5, I promise you that we’ll get rid of it before it comes up for retention in five years, and we’ll come up with ways to replace the revenue.”

Rex — “You got it.”

How could such a clear-cut deal take place in one city, while, at the other end of the state the battle will be re-engaged every five years for the foreseeable future?

It’s the difference between a strong mayor form of government (St. Louis) and a council-manager form of government in Kansas City.

Slay can make that deal without having to worry about being undermined by the Board of Aldermen. In Kansas City, however, the mayor can’t promise anything, unless he’s got the signatures of six other council members, giving him a 7-6 majority, including himself.


To see the difference in the E-tax intentions of leaders in the two cities, one had only to read Slay’s comments in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Mayor-elect Sly James’ comments in The Kansas City Star.

James: “What a great victory. We now have confirmation that we’re going to have the earnings tax that we need so much.”

Slay: “What we saw here was a step, an important step toward what I believe to be a necessary and inevitable change in the way the city delivers services and the way the region is governed.”

The Post-Dispatch story went on to say that city officials already had begun talking about other ways of getting the revenue that the E-tax generates. “I don’t think there’s going to be another campaign on this earnings tax” in five years, Richard Callow, pro-earnings-tax campaign manager was quoted as saying.

That about says it all, doesn’t it? The wheels are in motion in St. Louis, and the E-tax is going away.

Now, if Kansas City leaders are paying attention, that should set off all kinds of alarms.

Two reasons:

1) The E-tax undoubtedly is hurting business and job growth in Kansas City. We’re already getting poached to death by the Kansas side, and now, with many Missouri-side suburbs growing, they, too, will pick up the cherry-picking pace.

2) After St. Louis gets rid of its E-tax, it will start competing more stoutly for businesses that are looking to relocate to Missouri. And when it lays out its package of incentives, it can say, “If you come to St. Louis, you won’t have to worry about an earnings tax, but if you go to Kansas City, you’ll be hit for one percent of your profits.”


Let me make this clear: I was not only for the E-tax, I was on the Save Kansas City Committee steering committee and made two presentations on behalf of the tax. At both appearances, however, I advocated for a thorough review of Kansas City finances.

And while I like the idea of forcing the “sundowners” — those who leave the city after work each day — to help pay for the amenities and facilities that bolster the urban core, I think this newfound focus on the E-tax is fostering a lot of unnecessary resentment among the sundowners.

You remember, don’t you, E-tax proponent Dan Cofran’s now-famous quote to a woman who was frustrated because she had to pay the tax even though she didn’t live in Kansas City? “Then, don’t work here,” he said.


The reply didn’t hurt the tax’s chances of passage at all, but it didn’t help relations between those of us who live in Kansas City and those who don’t. We shouldn’t allow the E-tax to drive the wedge even farther between us and them.

So, let’s see what we can do about getting rid of that E-tax, OK, Sly? OK, council members?

The last thing we want, other than that wedge being driven deeper, is the sight of St. Louis steaming by us as we cling to a tax that only about 20 percent of the largest cities in the U.S. are holding on to.


Also, this looks like a case where the big dog, Sinquefield, isn’t going away. He’ll be back in five years — assuming he’s still alive — and he and his minions will dump several hundred thousand more dollars into that campaign, and he’ll make our business community shell out another $1 million or so to try to beat him.

To me, he looks an awful lot like Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters: He won’t quit until he gets what he wants.

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Despite the blogs, the TV ads and the candidate forums, most frequent voters still rely on The Kansas City Star to help them sort out the issues and gauge the candidates in the mayor’s race.

In recent days, The Star has, in some instances, yielded valuable insight. On the other hand, it fell face-down in the mud on a story last Friday about the legal cases that candidates Mike Burke and Sly James — both lawyers — have handled.

Let’s get the mud-splatter job out of the way first.

Political reporters Dave Helling and Steve Kraske set up their front-page story about Burke’s and James’ legal backgrounds by quoting Jim Bergfalk, a longtime political consultant who engineered the ill-fated campaign of Deb Hermann, who finished fifth in the Feb. 22 primary election.

On the front-page part of the story, before it “jumped” to an inside page, Helling and Kraske said that “because both men have thin experience in public office, some attention has turned to the pair’s legal careers for clues about their approaches to government.”

Then came the stage-setting quote from Bergfalk: “It (the legal perspective) is absolutely relevant. It’s the only real body of work that voters have” for the two contenders.

Oh, really?

Never mind that Burke has served as chairman of three economic development agencies, headed the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee for five years, founded the July 4 Riverfest celebration and headed the committee that got Kansas City named an All-America City in 2006. And forget that James was co-chairman of the Save our Stadiums committee and served on the boards of Operation Breakthrough, the United Way and Genesis School.

First, shame on Bergfalk, who should and does know better. I don’t know what the hell he was thinking or doing when he said that. Maybe whichever of the two reporters who interviewed him led him in that direction. Maybe he was thinking about how, on his watch,  Hermann plummeted from favorite a month before the primary to fifth on Election Day.

But the bigger shame goes to Helling and Kraske, who also know the quote is completely misleading and are guilty of using it to artificially pump up the importance of that day’s story. OK, the candidates’ legal backgrounds are relevant — no doubt about that — but is it…

“the only real body of work that voters have” ?????

Come on…In my view, those two reporters were trying to sell their story to both their editors and their readers. Once again, as is often the case at The Star, one or more editors failed to rein in the reporters. One of an editor’s main jobs is to make sure a story is balanced and in perspective. Sometimes, editors have to stand up to heavy-hitting reporters, blow the whistle and say, “No, that’s outta bounds.” Unfortunately, the editor who handled this story was a milquetoast.

Just that one quote blew the legal backgrounds of the two candidates out of perspective and, correspondingly, unfairly denigrated their respective civic-activist backgrounds.

…Guess I’ve gotta rein myself in here…Let’s move on to the next point.

On Thursday, Yael Abouhalkah, Op-Ed columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board had a column that, in part, addressed the two candidates’ leadership styles.

As a Burke contributor and supporter, I have to say, I loved that column. To my surprise, Abouhalkah said that James’ emphasis on being a mediator was “starting to wear thin.”

I say that surprised me because The Star recently endorsed James, although it was complimentary to Burke.

It sounds to me, just from that column, like Abouhalkah either didn’t cast his editorial vote for James or he’s had second thoughts.

Listen to what he went on to say…

“James recently hasn’t taken definitive stands on the Polsinelli law building/Country Club Plaza dispute, the future of Acting City Manger Troy Schulte and pension reform.

“His continued reservations won’t earn him points with voters who want leadership on issues that have been discussed for months, sometimes years (such as city pensions).”

Wow. Those are two powerful paragraphs that the Burke campaign could blow up into 60-point type and smack James in the head with.  Whether the campaign will take advantage of that godsend remains to be seen.

That brings us to side-by-side stories in Sunday’s “A” section. Reporters Lynn Horsley and Michael Mansur interviewed both candidates on the most important issue in the race — Why should voters choose you? — and ran excerpts of the interviews.

Both stories were excellent and riveting — riveting to those of us who like politics, anyway. Here’s a link to the Burke story, and here’s a link to the James story.

Congratulations to Horsley and Mansur on stories that might prompt many voters to go for one candidate or the other.

I will leave you with the final questions and answers.

Question to James: Is there anything else we haven’t touched in terms of differences (between you and Burke)?

A: The key difference between Mike Burke and Sly James is we’re totally different people. Because I’m willing to accept that he has good ideas doesn’t mean we’re the same. … I believe I’m the leader that we need to go forward…I believe that the past is part of the problem for why we are where we are. I’m not saying that’s his fault. I don’t want that to be said at all. I’m just saying the time for politics as usual needs to cease and we need to do things a little differently in this town.

Question to Burke: Anything else in contrasting yourself with Sly James?

A: The main thing is who’s ready to walk in the mayor’s office and know how City Hall works, know who at City Hall are the good administrators, are the people you can trust for advice. That’s something I’m sure he can learn over time, but I don’t think we have a year or two of on-the-job training.

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Step aside, Deb Hermann. At least for now.

The Star’s endorsement tonight of Mike Burke and Sly James in the Feb. 22 mayoral primary struck a blow to Hermann, who had rung up some key endorsements in recent weeks.

Even with The Star’s errant endorsement of Mark Funkhouser four years ago — and his subsequent election because of it — this is the best possible endorsement a citywide candidate can have. Better than the Citizens Association (which Burke has), better than Freedom Inc., (which Jim Rowland has), better than the firefighters (whom Funkhouser has), better than the downtown business interests (which Hermann has).


James was the first person to declare his candidacy; he raised a lot of money early; and he presents clearly and confidently at candidate forums. Now he’s in an enviable position — a position that Jim Rowland and Deb Hermann would love to be in.

The Star said: “Many Kansas Citians know little about James, a lawyer, partly because he has never sought political office. But as he shows in personal conversations, he would be the kind of impressive, charismatic and knowledgeable mayor Kansas Citians deserve.”

I still say he won’t win and shouldn’t win. In my opinion, to be an effective mayor, there is no substitute for service on the City Council, where, if you want to get something significant done, you have to figure out how to get the votes of six other council members.


Burke has been there. He served out an unexpired term in the late 1980s and, although he didn’t seek a full term the next time around, he learned the ropes. Then, he went out and served in leadership positions on just about every significant economic development agency in the city, including the Economic Development Authority and the Port Authority.

On top of that, he founded KC Riverfest, the annual Fourth of July festival at Berkley Riverfront Park.

The Star gave a nice nod to his experience, saying, “Burke…has an extremely accomplished resume…It’s evident he could be a well-rounded mayor working for the good of Kansas City.”

As for his supposed big drawback, being a development attorney, the city hasn’t had any development the last four years. The Great Recession and The Myopic Mayor made sure of that. This is just the time that Kansas City can use a mayor who knows a thing or two about development. This city needs to get back on track, for God’s sake!

So, bring it on. The race is coming into clearer focus.

If you want to see the mayoral candidates in action, here are the forums (that I know of) that are taking place this week:

10 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 8, Kansas City Industrial Council, Sprint Center.

4:30 to 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb 8, Kansas City Business Journal/Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. RSVP at http://www2.bizjournals.com/kansascity/event/40321

11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 9, Downtowners, Town Pavilion, 1111 Main.

7 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 10, League of Women Voters, 10842 McGee.

5:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 11, Crossroads Community Association, 122 Southwest Blvd., Second Floor.

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