Archive for the ‘2010 Elections’ Category

Day 100 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

It’s now been over a hundred days since Jackson County has had functioning Ethical Home Rule. A hundred days for people like Henry Rizzo, James Tindall and Dan Tarwater to thank their lucky stars that no local authority exists to examine what they are doing with millions of dollars of COMBAT funds. A hundred days of a broken ethics system.

This is how they like it. They think they’re winning.

By exempting themselves from Ethical Home Rule, the Jackson County legislators have abandoned one of the key tenets of Jackson County government. As wise commentators here have pointed out, principles of statutory construction probably make their monarchic attempts to place their ethics beyond scrutiny legally ineffective – but, until we have a panel of brave citizens with the courage to fight the kind of fight that Rizzo and Burnett and the rest of the anti-Ethical legislators will fight to free themselves from scrutiny, it looks like we will have no functioning Ethical Home Rule in Jackson County.

Have they really won, though? In reality, they have lost more than they know.

First, almost all of them will face vigorous challenges in the 2010 elections. Rizzo will lose his election. Tarwater will lose his election. Tindall will lose his election. Burnett, Spence and Waits will face stronger challenges than they’ve ever seen, and two of them will lose their seats in races defined by ethical issues. Arbanas will attempt to handpick a successor, but his seat will go to an experienced politico running on a pro-Ethical Home Rule platform.

Second, they may well lose the COMBAT tax in the next reapproval election. By funneling all the money through a committee with a majority actually found guilty of financial crimes, they have undercut confidence in the administration of the COMBAT tax. It’s a terrible shame, because the COMBAT tax accomplishes much good in our community, but, even if we weren’t in the midst of an economic crisis, nobody can expect Jackson Countians to ignore the potential of massive corruption coupled with a refusal to accept Ethical Home Rule.

Third, they will lose the Ethical Home Rule battle anyhow, but not until they have destroyed their own credibility and electability in the process. Whether it’s through the work of a few brave legislators who could bring this issue up for a reconsideration, or through a brave Ethics Commission taking on the battle of standing up for the Jackson County Home Rule Charter, or through a revision of the Charter to make it even more explicit that our legislators do not get to prevent their own ethical oversight, or even through an initiative petition, Ethical Home Rule will be restored in Jackson County.

Finally, the scrutiny is not going to stop. Now that we’ve hit day 100, I will be scaling back my Jackson County Ethics Blackout coverage to weekly updates on the misdeeds of the Jackson County legislature. There’s plenty of material to do a daily piece, but there are other topics I want to cover in this blog, as well. By doing a weekly piece, bolstered by more time to do a few Sunshine Law requests and some insider interviewing, I’m hoping that less will be more.

Tarwater Vulnerable? – Day 85 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

It has been 15 years since Dan Tarwater was first elected to the Jackson County legislature. I remember the election well – it was my first exposure to how slimy Jackson County politics can be. Tarwater cruised to a victory over a young lawyer named Matt Davis, partially by recruiting a woman named Mary Davis to appear on the ballot as M. Davis. Tarwater was part of the Bill Waris operation, and Matt Davis was like that brave student in Tiananmen Square, only the tank didn’t even slow down.

Since that time, Tarwater hasn’t faced a serious opponent. According to Missouri Ethics Commission reports, it’s been well over a decade since Dan Tarwater has raised more than $500 to support a campaign. Even in 2008, when other unchallenged politicians were raising money for their more embattled friends, Tarwater sat on the sidelines and only made token contributions to a couple organizations.

While Tarwater was a tank in 1994, 15 years can gather a whole lot of rust. Since that time, he has gathered bad publicity in the form of a brawl with another legislator, on-again-off-again bribery issues asserted by former Chair Katheryn Shields concerning COMBAT funds (he’s the only one on the Anti-Drug Committee who hasn’t been convicted for criminal financial behavior), and he’s given his aide lavish bonuses from county funds. Et cetera.

Now that Tarwater has come out aggressively against Ethical Home Rule, he has made himself an attractive target for a spirited campaign in 2010. I’ve heard rumblings that some budding politicos in the south Ward Parkway corridor are talking to friends about running on a pro-Ethical Home Rule platform.

Here’s a map of the district. Take a second and think about all the good people in that district, who could really bring something fresh and positive to the Jackson County legislature . . .

They Want to Win When They Lose? – Day 84 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

While the Kansas City Star assiduously avoids mentioning it, there’s gold in the Jackson County Courthouse. $678 MILLION dollars are being doled out in Jackson County’s 2009 Budget, which is actually a reduction from the prior year. In boom times or tight times, though, one thing remains constant – the Jackson County Legislature is scandalously under-regulated, dominated by criminals and defying local ethics oversight.

That makes the Jackson County Legislature a playground for lobbyists. Two out of three members of the committee that handles the $21 million dollars of COMBAT funds have criminal records for financial crimes – a majority with a rap sheet! And both of those individuals (Henry Rizzo and James Tindall) have voted against local ethics oversight.

If you ask a County Legislator about the Ethics Blackout, he or she will likely lie to your face and claim it’s no big deal, because the Legislature is covered by the Missouri Ethics Commission. It’s apples and oranges, though – the Jackson County Ethics Code includes important provisions ignored by the State Ethics Code. As pointed out earlier during the Jackson County Ethics Blackout, the Missouri Ethics Commission doesn’t even prevent our brawling legislators from showing up to meetings drunk or stoned!

Another, more profitable, difference between the Jackson County Ethics Code and the Missouri Ethics Code is that Missouri has no provision about former legislators coming back to lobby their former colleagues, while the Jackson County Ethics Code includes a prohibition against former elected officials profiting off of old backroom favors for a year.

In short, if they lose their next election, they want to be able to cash in on the cronyism and corruption that they have fought to preserve. They know who to ask and where to apply pressure for COMBAT funds, and they want to be able to sell that knowledge to the highest bidder when they finish their “public service”.

That’s only one of many reasons Jackson Countians must defeat the Jackson County Ethics Blackout, and why the criminal element of Jackson County government is fighting so hard to fight Ethical Home Rule.

Gone Mild Election Results – Day 81 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

I asked, and got 110 responses, to my completely nonscientific poll on which Jackson County legislator is least likely to be retained in 2010. Here are the results:

Henry Rizzo 27.3% 30

Scott Burnett 16.4% 18

James Tindall 15.5% 17

Dan Tarwater 14.5% 16

Theresa Garza Ruiz 11.8% 13

Dennis Waits 10.9% 12

Fred Arbanas 1.8% 2

Greg Grounds 0.9% 1

Bob Spence 0.9% 1

Interesting results, and not entirely what I expected. I should note that 12 of the 13 votes for Garza Ruiz came in during a 10 minute span – I suspect someone was stuffing the ballot box against her, but that was the only voting irregularity I noticed.

One of the flaws in my method was that it only called for a vote on who is most likely to not be retained. Henry Rizzo, with his aggressive stand against Ethical Home Rule and a district that includes the politically-active Ward Parkway corridor, was a fairly obvious choice, especially in the absence of a specific opponent.

I was a little surprised to see how high Scott Burnett ranked in the poll. As Chair of the Legislature, he will be in the hot seat if the voters do not see a return to Ethical Home Rule, so perhaps the readers have a good point. Personally, I think Mr. Burnett has done enough outreach and has enough donor friends to make him hard to beat, but time will tell how much this Ethics Blackout will damage his “good guy” image.

A low surprise was Fred Arbanas. Only two voters chose him as least likely to be retained, but I think there’s a decent shot that he will decide to step aside at the last minute and try to handpick a successor to a seat that he has held since the very first County Legislature met. That’s kind of like having James Madison still sitting in Congress today. Look for Mr. Arbanas to act as if he’s running until the day of filing, to discourage any competition, and then for him to walk in with a “team player” to take his place. I think Arbanas’ seat is one of the most likely to become a pro-ethics seat, but only if someone bright and aggressive takes on the seemingly daunting task of pushing a rock up the mountain of Fred Arbanas’ county-sponsored popularity. Trust me, that mountain may suddenly become a molehill when Fred Arbanas puts a backroom hack on the ballot in his place.

Perhaps future polls ought to ask how many of the County Legislators will not be returning, and we can also test different names against some of the more vulnerable legislators. It’s going to be an interesting year and a half for the Jackson County legislators – perhaps the last year and a half in public office for several of them.

"Someday a Real Rain will Come . . ." – Day 80 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

From the phone calls and emails I’ve received, 2010 promises to be a watershed year for the Jackson County legislature. A new generation has taken over in Washington, and the 2010 Jackson County elections are the first opportunity for fresh blood to get transfused locally. Candidates choosing to run for the Jackson County legislature will face incumbents dogged by questions about why they have refused to accept Ethical Home Rule, and why they fear local oversight.

I’ve not been authorized to release any names, but a majority of the districts are going to see vigorous, serious challenges – some involving big names and solid experience. So, let’s take a little survey – assuming a viable, reasonably well-funded challenger, who do you think is most likely to lose in 2010? (The names are listed in alphabetical order.)If you choose to explain your vote, that’s what the comment section is for.

Slapping Paint on the Wreck of JaCo Legislators’ Ethics – Day 79 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I’ve been told by those who know a lot about these things that the Jackson County Legislature is going to make changes to the Ethics Ordinance. They will refuse, however, to bring themselves under the oversight of the Jackson County Ethics Commission, as required by the Jackson County Charter. All this will happen after a new Ethics Commission is chosen, the timing being a petulant gesture of classless disrespect to the prior Commission.

Like crooked car dealers, they’re going to try to slap a coat of paint on the wreck, and try to sell it as fixed.

While it’s a slimy, sneaky, cynical tactic intended to fool inattentive citizens into thinking they’ve done the right thing, I could not be happier that they may be dumb enough to give it a try. Bogus “improvements” to the Ethics Code will backfire on the Legislature, and may save the political careers of those legislators smart enough to abandon the majority.

As an advocate of ethical government, I am thrilled that the Jackson County Legislature will bring this issue up again, for a fresh round of publicity and attention. I’ve talked and corresponded with several of them, and they have absolutely no defense for their refusal to accept Ethical Home Rule. “Double jeopardy” is the best argument they have, but it holds no water, and nobody is going to feel sorry when those who begged for our votes whine about the terms of their office.

Will a fresh ordinance that excludes Ethical Home Rule pass unanimously? I think the leadership might be in for a surprise. Why would anyone but the most arrogant and recalcitrant hack vote again to create a bright shining issue for the 2010 election? Why not distinguish yourself from the “Go along to get along” corruption on the County Legislature, and inoculate yourself from those who will be running on a pro-Ethics platform in 2010? A new ordinance will give the good legislators an opportunity to distance themselves from the bad ones. If certain political clubs weigh in by tying support for Ethical Home Rule to their endorsements, voting with the anti-Ethical majority will be too much obedience to expect.

Revisiting the Ethics Ordinance without accepting local oversight demonstrates an electoral death wish. Fortunately, our Jackson County Legislature may be dumb enough to blunder into the trap.

A Brief History of Jackson County Home Rule – Day 74 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Few people in Jackson County realize what a gift our Home Rule form of government is, or how recently the gift was given. As recently as 1972, Jackson Countians existed under a crude form of government derived from 1815 territorial government. Legislative and executive power were concentrated in the hands of three judges, and the “Public Administrator”, like a Roman tax collector, collected fees that made the Jackson County PA the highest paid public official in the state of Missouri.

A brief history of the process of creating a new form of government for Jackson County may be found here, in the papers of Judge John R. Gibson. It’s impressive to think that so recently, such a bipartisan group of great men and women worked together to create a new form of government for Jackson County.

We do not need to speculate about the motives of this group of civic-minded leaders. Fortunately, they set forth their goals quite clearly in the introduction to the Jackson County Home Rule Charter. They wanted Jackson County government to be controlled by Jackson County, not Jefferson City.

The Constitutional Home Rule Charter presents basic home rule for Jackson County, for it is a constitution prepared by residents of Jackson County for the operation of Jackson County’s government, and providing within it a method for amendment by residents of the county. The Charter places in the hands of the people of Jackson County the power to effectively operate its government without going to the State Legislature for changes.

The preamble to the Jackson County Home Rule Charter makes the point in eloquent fashion:

We, the people of Jackson County, Missouri, in order to perfect the structure and enlarge the powers of our county government, to insure that it is just, orderly, efficient, and fully responsible to the people, and to secure the benefits of home rule and self-government for Jackson County to the fullest extent possible under the Constitution of the State of Missouri, do adopt this Charter as the fundamental law for the government of this county.

Today, the Jackson County Legislature is trying to stymie this impulse toward self-government. In a recent ordinance, the Jackson County Legislature has sought to rob Jackson Countians of the right to oversee the ethics of their elected officials (as set forth in the Home Rule Charter itself), and outsource that job to Jefferson City’s Missouri Ethics Commission.

Back in 1970, over 60,000 citizens of Jackson County sought “to secure the benefits of home rule and self-government for Jackson County to the fullest extent possible under the Constitution of the State of Missouri”. In 2009, 9 legislators decided that Home Rule is too much supervision. They don’t want open meetings of Jackson Countians to look at their ethical lapses and corruption. If they want to hire an in-law into a cushy county job, or maybe take a tiny bribe, they don’t want anyone in Jackson County to call them to justice.

Instead of Home Rule, the Jackson County legislature yearns for the days of closed-door deals in hidden Jefferson City offices. A 6 member panel of people from all over the state is less likely to notice or care about Jackson County’s problems than a group of 5 local citizens focused on keeping Jackson County clean. Indeed, the Jefferson City panel refuses to even enforce the local standards that the Legislature imposes on everyone else in the county.

The principles of self-governance means something to Jackson County. It’s in our Charter, and it’s in our political heritage. The Jackson County legislature’s attempt to subvert those principles will come back to haunt them in 2010.

Starting Your Political Biography – Day 73 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Has the thought of running for office ever run through your mind? Have you ever looked at the politicians on TV or at neighborhood meetings and thought, “I could do that as well or better than him (or her?), and I would do a better job of looking out for the people of this area”? Have you been thinking someday, when the time is right, you will seriously look at launching a political career?

The time is right in Jackson County. You can start your political career with a victory in 2010.

How does this sound for the start of your political biography?

_______________ started his/her political career in Jackson County, Missouri. In 2010, inspired by the election of Barack Obama, ______________ decided to take on an entrenched incumbent who had grown arrogant in office. His/her first opponent was a member of a cozy cabal of old-school politicians who existed in a dim world of prearranged, unanimous votes and a lax attitude toward ethics. In 2008, the Jackson County legislature went so far as to exempt itself from local ethical oversight, and _______________ realized that if real change was going to happen in Jackson County, it was not going to happen with the entrenched incumbents controlling the Courthouse.

______________ was swept into office as part of a group of reformers whose first priority on the campaign trail was to “Bring Ethical Home Rule to Jackson County”. The Ethical Home Rule Slate of candidates turned the tide when they began winning the endorsements of reform-minded political groups, and campaign donors followed suit.

The Ethical Home Rule Campaign of 2010 succeeded in defeating a majority of the anti-ethics legislators who had controlled the Jackson County legislature. After serving two terms on the Jackson County Legislature, ______________ successfully ran for an open seat in the Missouri General Assembly . . .

If you’ve been thinking about jumping into politics, you will never face a better opportunity than running for Jackson County Legislature in 2010. The fundraising demands for a county office are manageable, and the incumbents have all come out against Ethical Home Rule for Jackson County. Many of the candidates have documented problems with ethics and the law, so their attempts to avoid ethical scrutiny will be impossible for them to explain on the campaign trail.

If you don’t take this opportunity, who will? If you are waiting for the right time, when will the time be better?

"But I Know A Change Gonna Come" – Day 67 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

The title is, of course, a reference to Sam Cooke’s posthumously-released masterpiece. Unfortunately, from what the insiders have told me, a more appropriate selection would have been the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. I recently heard from someone who knows a lot about these things that, after a new Ethics Commission is chosen, the legislature will try to make a few non-substantive changes to the code, but will seek to retain their own exemption from local oversight.

No change that continues the exemption from local oversight will be good enough.

Anything else is a sideshow, intended to distract attention from the empty center stage of Jackson County Legislative ethics. Until the Jackson County legislators accept the Charter-mandated oversight of the Jackson County Ethics Commission, the fight will continue.

It’s a foolish maneuver, destined to blow up in their faces. We’re not stupid, and we’re watching. When they try to make the cosmetic changes to the Code, all they will accomplish is to draw attention to their failure to make the real change that people expect. “Bring Ethics Home” is too easy a slogan to counter the legislative preference for hiding their ethical misdeeds behind closed doors in Jefferson City.

Here are five reasons that the Jackson County Legislature’s bogus attempt to ship its dirty laundry out of town just isn’t good enough:

1. The Jackson County Ethics Commission conducts its work in public, while the Missouri Ethics Commission closes its doors. Sunshine is the best governmental disinfectant, while cockroaches prefer the dark.

2. The Jackson County Ethics Commission gets appointed non-politically, while the Missouri Ethics Commission is all gubernatorial appointments divied up by parties and congressional districts.

3. Citizens and local press have the opportunity to watch our local commission, but not everyone can afford to take a field trip to Jefferson City every time one of our legislators pushes his or her luck too far.

4. The MEC has 6 people covering every elected official in the state, from the Governor’s election contributors down to the tiniest municipality’s copier contract. The Jackson County Ethics Commission has 5 people trying to keep up with just our local folks. I put my money on the hometeam.

5. It’s in the freaking Charter!! The Jackson County Charter puts the Jackson County Ethics Commission in charge of investigating ethics allegations involving our local crew of misfits. Why does the Jackson County legislature think it gets to write itself out of the Charter, which has been duly approved by the voters of Jackson County?

There are more reasons I could list, but these 5 ought to suffice for today.

Already, County Executive Mike Sanders and County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar have undercut the legislature by agreeing to local ethics enforcement. At least some of our elected officials agree that we ought to be able to do our laundry at home, instead of sending it to Jefferson City.

If you’re talking to a Jackson County legislator, and he or she tries to assure you that they are going to make changes to the ethics ordinance in a few months, ask whether those changes will include local ethics enforcement over the Legislature. Really, the next time you see one of them in the grocery store or meeting or coffee shop, ask if they’re willing to go back to local ethics enforcement.

After they finish their answer, you’ll realize that I’m right. And you’ll see that this fight is going to continue long after their cosmetic changes have been made. Folks, it looks like the Jackson County Ethics Blackout won’t end until the majority loses their elections in 2010.

I know that the Jackson County Ethics Blackout is a tiny thing compared to the societal change that Sam Cooke was singing about, but I can’t help but be inspired by his final verse -


There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Get on the Ethics Commission – Day 66 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

At first, I was hesitant about whether people should get involved with the Jackson County Ethics Commission. Right now, the Commission is trapped between an ordinance that purports to limit the scope of that Commission’s duty, and the Jackson County Charter, which directs the Commission to ignore the purported limitations. It’s a difficult spot to step into.

We need great people on that Commission. If you are willing to help do the important work of bringing ethics to a County Legislature that will resist it like castor oil, then please go here to fill out the easy online application. Here are the simple criteria you must meet:

* I am a Jackson County resident and interested in serving as a member of the Jackson County Ethics Commission.
* I do not hold any other elective or full-time appointed public office.
* I do not hold any other County office or serve on another County board or commission.
* I am not an elected or appointed member of a local, state or national political party committee.
* I am not a member of any partisan or nonpartisan political club or organization that promotes candidates or issues.

While it’s not an official criteria, I would add one other to the list – “I have the integrity and backbone to stand up to bullying by ethics-fearing Jackson County legislators, and I will do my duty under the Charter rather than supporting the attempts of the Legislature’s leadership to shirk local oversight.”

Over the next several months, the Jackson County Ethics Code is going to be getting a lot of attention. Candidates will be announcing ethics-based campaigns against several of the entrenched incumbents. Perhaps even the Star will overcome its blind spot for Jackson County politics.

We need great people who are willing to stand up for ethics in Jackson County. If you, or someone you know, has the time and inclination to serve our community, please direct them to the Jackson County Ethics Selection Committee’s website.