Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Thoughts from Last Night’s Ethics Forum

Friday, January 29th, 2010

The Committee for County Progress hosted an Ethics Forum last night. Micheal Mahoney served as moderator, with panelists Rep. Paul Levota, Rep. Jason Kander, and David Levinthal, the Communications Director for the Center for Responsive Politics in DC. The panel was great, the discussion was informative, and the crowd was a who’s who of up-and-coming politicos. I don’t have time to do one of my typically verbose descriptions of the event, but here are a few observations:

Paul Levota is funny. At one point, Mahoney was pressing Levota on the unlikelihood that the Missouri Senate will accept contribution limits. Mahoney pointed out that little will be accomplished by sticking to the issue accept to use it as a campaign weapon. “That’s the plan,” Levota deadpanned.

Transparency is crucial. One of the big problems in Missouri is that donors hide behind committees. When checks get funneled from “Missourians for Good Things” to “Missourians for Awesome Things” and then to “Missourians for Nice Things” and then finally to the candidate, it’s awfully hard to track the dollars back to the special interest pulling the strings.

Jason Kander is funny, too.
Commenting on a fellow representative’s $100,000 donor, Kander pointed out that the donor probably gets his calls returned faster than the representative’s children. (Maybe that isn’t funny.)

The Center for Responsive Politics is a tremendous resource. Levinthal was well-informed, completely balanced and thoughtful. The Center is non-partisan, and his straight-arrow style made clear that he is interested in good government, period.

The candidates are out to see and be seen. The crowd was peppered with candidates in up-coming races. I hate to mention names, because I don’t want to neglect anyone, but Crispin Rea was a welcome presence, along with his campaign treasurer Theresa Garza Ruiz. I finally met Jeremy Ploeger for the 51st district, and Geoff Gerling, candidate for the 46th District.

Where were the County Legislators? The only County Legislator in attendance was the always-wonderful Theresa Garza Ruiz. This came as a bit of a shock, given that it was a forum on Ethics sponsored by the Committee for COUNTY Progress. After the legislature’s embarrassing and anti-ethical attempt to avoid ethical home rule, it seems that more of them would have an interest in the topic. Fortunately, Henry Rizzo’s opposing candidate and likely replacement, Crystal Williams, was present.

Speaking of Theresa Garza Ruiz . . . I had a brief opportunity to speak with her about her sudden removal as Chair of the Justice & Law Enforcement committee. Despite her degree and experience in law enforcement, she was unceremoniously dumped from the committee, and the “dumper”, Henry Rizzo, didn’t even talk with her about it first, before awarding the committee Chair to a convicted felon. Theresa didn’t have much to offer by way of explanation of this baffling move, other than to point out that the claim that it’s part of a normal rotation of chairs is demonstrably false.

Micheal Mahoney knows his stuff. Mahoney did a great job of moderating the event, and the high point came when he ran factual rings around a loud audience member who was claiming that money is the be-all and end-all of politics. Mahoney pointed to the Carnahan/Talent race, and when the blustery but ill-informed talker pushed on, he pointed out that the Mayor was also not the leading fundraiser in his election. It was an amusing and deft evisceration of an anti-Funkhouser activist who seemed to be substituting volume for accuracy.

It’s wonderful that so many people care about ethics in Missouri.
On a Thursday evening, a healthy crowd of people came out to a mid-town law office to participate in a high-level forum on the topic of dollars and politics. That’s a pretty impressive level of interest, and the CCP deserves credit for putting on the forum.

Blogging is Dying

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

The FTC has issued new guidelines requiring that bloggers disclose conflicts of interest clearly and conspicuously, such as when they receive freebies for product endorsements.

Does that mean that I’m actually going to have to pay for all those restaurant meals when I write my posts?! I can’t imagine how that would work – do they really mean that I’m going to have to reach for my wallet and pay, rather than standing up at the end of my meal, telling the wait staff “I’m going to blog about this”, and walking out, as I always do now?

And what about beer? Do they really expect me to pay for the bottles of beer I write about, rather than simply browsing through various retailers, pulling interesting selections off the shelves, and walking out?

Of course, those benefits of blogging are minor in comparison to the lucre I bring in through my writing on poetry. The compensation packages I have worked out with various publishers of poetry have made this blog into the economic engine that it is. The estates of Frost and Yeats have made me a wealthy man, and I resent having to disclose every time I cash one of their six-figure checks, or they send me on a junket to Tahiti.

If not for the profit motive, why would I even write this thing?

Fortunately, the guidelines don’t become effective until December 1. Until then, it’s business as usual. If you want me to mention your business on this blog, just email bigdollarendorsements@gonemild.com. We’ll work something mutually beneficial out, just like we always have.

Cozy Cash Committees Closely Controlled – Day 87 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Why are the “Big Money” Committees on the Jackson County Legislature controlled by only 5 legislators?

Why are 3 legislators (Theresa Garza Ruiz, Greg Grounds, and Fred Arbanas), excluded from the three committees (Anti-Drug, Finance & Audit, and Budget) that have the most financial influence on Jackson County (Anti-Drug, Finance & Audit, and Budget)?

Dan Tarwater serves on all three of the Big Money Committees. Theresa Garza Ruiz serves on none.

James Tindall (convicted of income tax evasion) serves on two of the Big Money Committees (Budget and Anti-Drug). Greg Grounds serves on none.

Henry Rizzo (convicted of providing false information to a financial institution) serves on two of the Big Money Committees (Budget and Anti-Drug). Fred Arbanas serves on none.

It can’t be based on experience, because Fred Arbanas has been on the County Legislature since it started.

It can’t be based on knowledge, because Theresa Garza Ruiz is completing a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with an emphasis on Government Business Relations and Public Management.

It can’t be based on qualifications, because Greg Grounds has over three decades of government and business experience, including a stint on the Jackson County COMBAT Commission.

It can’t be based on public trust, since two of the Financial Five (controlling 4 of the seven seats on the Budget and Anti-Drug committees) have criminal records for financial improprieties, while none of the other three have rap sheets.

It just doesn’t make sense. Any auditor knows “there is safety in numbers”, meaning that you should have as many people as possible involved in oversight of financial matters – a rule that would apply with special force where some of individuals involved have been caught and convicted of financial improprieties.

At the same time this bizarre and unsettling committee structure was being set up, the Jackson County Legislature decided (in violation of the Charter) that it should not have to answer to the Jackson County Ethics Commission anymore.

Why does the Jackson County Legislature oppose Ethical Home Rule? Is there Big Money involved?

Government in the Dark – Day 64 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Knowledge is power, and it appears that Jackson County Government doesn’t want to spread the power very widely. Unlike the City of Kansas City and the State of Missouri, Jackson County does not maintain a searchable database of its laws. Instead, Jackson County tells you to contact the County Clerk if you want to know what the law is, or download the chapters you want in pdf form.

And, in case you’re looking for the famous Jackson County Ethics Code, which the Legislature imposed on everyone else but still refuses to bring itself under, don’t bother looking on the Code page. Instead, you need to go back through the journals of the legislative meetings and track it down that way.

Personally, I think that’s a shame, and that the citizens of Jackson County ought to have easier access to the law that the Jackson County Legislature fears. So, here is a pdf version of the law. And, if you want to see how the legislature’s refusal to allow the Jackson County Ethics Commission violates the Charter, here’s a pdf of the Jackson County Charter. Look at pages 25 and 26 for the provisions that the Jackson County Legislator is violating.

Why is it that a mere blogger makes these laws more available to the public than the Jackson County Government?

Who’s benefiting from the secrecy? In 2010, we can have a solid slate of candidates who accept the Charter and support ethics to run against each incumbent on the Jackson County legislature.

Too Much Cooperation? – Day 54 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Cooperation is generally a good thing, but it has its limits. In the legislative world, too much agreement is a red flag that something is amiss. If a roomful of elected officials sworn to represent their constituents don’t ever disagree, they are either not facing genuine issues or not having the courage to dissent.

Over the first 4 meetings of the 2009 Jackson County Legislature, Bob Spence is the only legislator to vote “no” on anything. No other legislator has broken from the herd even once. (To be completely fair, as always, I should point out that Fred Arbanas abstained from a vote to congratulate him on his birthday, and Scott Burnett abstained from the vote electing him Chair. So at least two legislators have a vocabulary that exceeds “aye”. It’s also worth noting that Henry Rizzo didn’t abstain from the vote electing him Vice Chair, secure in his knowledge that ethics rules don’t apply to the Jackson County legislature.)

During that time, the Legislature has spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, and changed the law in a fashion that will almost certainly cause children to be harmed in Jackson County, as well as property damage.

More tellingly, nobody has dared introduce an ordinance reversing the Legislature’s anti-ethical exemption of itself from the Jackson County Ethics Code. I had correspondence with one legislator who agrees with me that the exemption should be reversed, but he won’t introduce such a measure unless he knows it will pass. Sadly, going on record supporting ethics is less important than avoiding the wrath of the legislative leadership.

Folks, a good legislature is marked by spirited debate and respectful differences. A bad legislature is marked by fearful cooperation and gutless orthodoxy. A legislature that agrees on everything is not doing its job.

The Jackson County legislature is not doing its job.

Jackson County 2nd At-Large District – Day 53 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

I’m an optimistic person, and I believe that the Jackson County legislature will reverse itself on its misguided attempt to exempt itself from the Jackson County Ethics Code. I hope we won’t need to attempt an initiative campaign, or recruit candidates to run against the incumbents.

All that said, now is the time for people to start thinking about running in 2010, and I want to encourage that thought by posting profiles of various districts. Today, I’ll talk about the district that ought to be most “in play” of all the districts – Henry Rizzo’s 2nd at-large district. I’m choosing that one because, even though I live in his district, Henry Rizzo failed to respond to my polite email seeking information about his vote on the ethics ordinance. Non-responsive politicians are a pet peeve of mine.

Here’s a map of the district – it covers a huge swath of Kansas City’s most politically active and wealthiest section. It includes almost all of the County inside the 435 loop south of the river, including the Ward Parkway corridor. There are lots of people in that geographic zone with serious political insight, good connections, and experience running in elections. Certainly someone out there who ran for Mayor, who has termed out of another office, who ran for State Rep, or who has always wanted to get involved with elected public service, would be willing to step up and put his or her name into contention to run against Henry Rizzo, especially in light of his insistence that the Jackson County legislators should not be overseen by the Jackson County Ethics Commission.

Rizzo is vulnerable for a whole bunch of reasons beyond his rejection of ethics. He was behind the recent fireworks legislation, which is already attracting some scrutiny regarding who is really profiting. He’s also pleaded guilty to a charge of providing a false statement to a financial institution, a federal offense. I could list more, but the clear message is that Henry Rizzo would face a difficult time running against a fresh face with a concern for ethics.

Take a second and look at this map. Think about some of the politically-involved people you know in that area. Next time you see them, ask them whether they might be interested in running for office . . .

Why Does the Star Ignore the County? – Day 52 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a savvy former politician who told me that when he was being interviewed by TV people, and he said something he didn’t want broadcast, he would drop an F-bomb into the sentence. Video editing capabilities of the day and pressing deadlines kept him out of the news when he didn’t want to be there.

I have discovered a similar trick that works to keep the KC Star from putting something in the paper. Just mention “Jackson County”. The Star will lose interest and flee from the story.

I attended an introductory meeting for an unofficial committee focused on city business last week, and I was not at all surprised to see two, count ‘em two, Star writers there. I asked one of them afterward why they double-teamed a city issue, but nobody was writing about the fact that the Jackson County Ethics Commission was NOT meeting, because nobody had been timely named to it.

Similarly, there is nobody writing about the fact that this is Day 52 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis, with the Legislators continuing in their refusal to be governed by a local ethics commission.

It’s even reached the point that the Star downplays Jackson County issues on the Prime Buzz. Recently, I did two posts in one morning – one was about a minor argument I had with another local blogger, and the other was an analysis of whether anyone would agree to serve on the Jackson County Ethics Commission, and raising the question of whether it was even ethical to serve on it while it was barred from taking on the tasks assigned to it in the Jackson County Charter. The Prime Buzz’s Blog Watch column ignored the post about an important issue for Jackson County governance and wrote about the other.

Who, at the Star, covers the City? Lynn Horsley, Deanne Smith (who I understand has a vested interest in keeping County coverage positive), Yael Abouhalkah, and anyone else with a spare moment and a scrap of paper. Who, at the Star, covers the County? Well, let’s see – Mike Mansur does a decent job when he has the chance, but it’s only one of his many assignments.

The result is that you have the Star double-teaming a committee meeting, but ignoring the Jackson County Ethics Crisis. The result is that the Star didn’t even mention that the Jackson County Ethics Commission had resigned until weeks after it had happened. The result is that the Star STILL has not reported that the time has lapsed for the ethics committee selection board to appoint replacements, with the result that Mike Sanders now has that duty.

For some reason, the Star has decided that it should not flip over the rocks in Jackson County government. It’s kind of sad, because the more I look, the more I find. I’d love to see what a real journalist could do with these stories.

Burning Houses, Severed Fingers, Blinded Children – Jackson County Wants More of These – Day 51 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Our Jackson County legislature has legalized the sale of fireworks in Jackson County. They claim that the reason they are doing so is to help nonprofits.

No, seriously, they are claiming that.

I attend a lot of nonprofit meetings, I read a lot of nonprofit publications, and I know a lot of nonprofit executives. Never once have I heard anybody propose that fireworks sales are the solution for the funding crisis faced by nonprofits. Not once.

And, really, Mr. Rizzo and Mr. Tarwater, if you want to help nonprofits increase revenues, why choose a seasonal item that causes fires, traumatic amputations and blindness? Nonprofits have funding needs all year, not just in July. Why not let nonprofits sell drugs, or run brothels? There’s a lot more money in those vices than you can get from the chump change people fork over for bottle rockets.

Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps Henry Rizzo and Dan Tarwater have been talking to the National Society for Blind Homeless Kids Missing Fingers.

Or, perhaps they have lined up some donations from people with ties to the wholesale fireworks industry.

It has now been 51 days since we have had a fully staffed Jackson County Ethics Commission with the power to investigate our Jackson County legislators. As long as the legislature exempts itself from local enforcement of the Jackson County Ethics Code, Jackson County voters should assume the absolute worst of legislators.

With characters like Rizzo and Tarwater helping out the fireworks industry, it’s hard to believe anything but the worst.

Day 50 of Jackson County Ethics Crisis – Will Citizens be Forced to Use Initiative Petitions to Get the Ethical Governance Promised in Our Charter?

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Jackson County Government has been in an ethics crisis for 50 days, and the crisis shows no sign of fading. Instead, it worsens.

Way back in the beginning of December, Sly James resigned from the Jackson County Ethics Commission. His resignation started a 30 day time frame for a new appointment by the ethics committee selection board. Unfortunately, that board failed to appoint a replacement in time, so, under the County Charter, Mike Sanders is now the only person with the authority to make that appointment. Similarly, the remaining ethics commissioners each resigned before Christmas, and the 30 day period for their replacement has passed, as well.

In the time when Jackson County has been without an Ethics Commission, the Jackson County Legislature has run amok. First, it passed an ordinance which illegally purports to rob the Commission of its role in overseeing Jackson County Ethics. As if to demonstrate its utter contempt for ethical standards, the County Legislature then selected as its Chair a member who has already been fined for a state-level ethics violation.

Why has Mike Sanders failed to appoint a new Ethics Commission? Probably because ethical citizens are hesitating to join a Commission which is directed by the Charter to do that which is barred by ordinance. It’s an untenable position, and I certainly understand why good people would not want to be a part of an atmosphere that is rapidly descending from unethical to actively anti-ethical.

Is there a solution to this ethical toxicity created by the Jackson County legislature? We have a completely empty Ethics Commission, and it appears that nobody will fill those seats. At this stage, even if Mike Sanders were able to find willing participants, what kind of credibility would they have? For all concerned, it might be best to leave the Commission vacant as a symbol of the Legislature’s disdain for ethical standards.

If the Jackson County Legislature persists in its rejection of local ethical oversight, citizens have two methods of fighting back for their Charter. As I’ve mentioned before, replacing the incumbents in 2010 may be relatively easy and bring a bunch of fresh faces to the legislative body.

The second method, and one that is becoming increasingly attractive, is an Initiative Petition. With under 7000 valid signatures on Petitions, we could force a vote in Jackson County about whether we want our Jackson County legislators to be subject to local ethical oversight and local ethical standards.

If we time this correctly, we can gather the signatures on spring weekends and get the issue on the ballot in August. It’s going to take a lot of work and a bit of money, but this is the sort of project that ought to catch fire. There are a lot of people who knocked on doors and organized successfully for the November elections, and new potential candidates for office should be eager to align themselves early with the pro-ethics side of Jackson County.

It’s day 50 in Jackson County’s ethics crisis. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be posting more about this problem. Stay tuned.

How to Help Bring Ethics to Jackson County

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

I’ve been on a bit of a roll lately, directing attention to the false arguments and nasty implications of the Jackson County legislature’s refusal to submit to local ethics oversight. The attention is having an impact – KKFI has done a show on the topic, the Star has condemned the bad behavior, and, for the first time ever, the Jackson County Courthouse has climbed into my Top 10 sources of visitors! Folks, that’s a lot of hits from one location, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re reading my coverage of their lack of ethics, or if they’re checking out my “99 Bottles of Beer on the Blog” series. Either way, welcome!

While that’s all been fun and good, a bunch of people have asked me in person and through email what they can do to help. People are sincerely angry that the Jackson County legislature is violating the County Charter and refusing to submit to local ethical oversight. By popular demand, here are a couple ways you can help in the effort to bring ethics to County government.

1. Write the legislators! This whole scandal stems from a belief that they could get away with this ugly subterfuge without anybody paying attention. They almost succeeded – if the members of the Jackson County Ethics Commission had not all resigned in response to the ethical shenanigans of the legislature, this whole issue might have escaped notice. Now, we need to let the legislators know we’re paying attention. Here are their email addresses:

Scott Burnett – sburnett@jacksongov.org
Theresa Garza Ruiz – tgarza@jacksongov.org
Henry Rizzo – hrizzo@jacksongov.org
Fred Arbanas – farbanas@jacksongov.org
James Tindall – jtindall@jacksongov.org
Dennis Waits – dwaits@jacksongov.org
Dan Tarwater – dtarwater@jacksongov.org
Greg Grounds – ggrounds@jacksongov.org
Bob Spence – bspence@jacksongov.org

If you would prefer to call their offices or use old fashioned mail, you can find their phone numbers and addresses by clicking on their names on this page. Please contact them and let them know that you want ethics in Jackson County.

2. Talk to them. If you see them out someplace, like in a store or at a neighborhood event, politely mention your concern to them. Most of them are quite nice people, and most are unlikely to take a swing at you if you are polite and sincere. Truly, they are (mostly) fine public servants who are doing this job for good reasons, so the tone to take is one of gratitude for the many good things they do, but concern about this uncharacteristically unethical move.

3. Educate yourself about the County. I’ve posted links to the Jackson County Charter, the Ethics Ordinance and the Missouri Ethics Commission site on this website already, and, if you want your own copies, email me and I’ll be happy to get them to you. The Jackson County Government does not get nearly the attention in the press that the City government gets, but it has a huge budget and impacts a broader geographical area.

4. Educate yourself about the Ethics issue. Unfortunately, if past behavior is a predictor of future performance, if you do contact one of our legislators about this issue, they will try to fool you with bad arguments, half-truths or outright lies. They may claim they are covered by the Code, or that the Missouri Ethics Commission has laws that apply to them. Ask them if they will be subject to ethics discipline if they show up to a meeting drunk, and that should stop them in their tracks.

5. Start talking to someone about running for the Jackson County Legislature. I mentioned above that the County doesn’t get much press scrutiny, and the flip side of that coin is that none of the Legislators is all that well-known or popular. On top of that, every single one of them signed onto a law that exempts them from local ethical oversight! How simple will it be to pound on that fact in an election? How many voters (and donors) will respond to a simple promise to support an amendment of our Ethics ordinance so that it will apply to the legislators? How will any of the incumbents get around the fact that they supported the exemption? If you know someone who ran for office, but didn’t make it, this is a grand opportunity for him or her to give it another try, with a built-in advantage. Call him or her and suggest this opportunity to run in 2010.

6. Write a letter to the editor. If you want to lift a line or an argument from this blog, have at it. The Star doesn’t have anyone assigned to cover the County fulltime, so, if this issue is going to make it into ink, the letters page is the most likely candidate.

7. Talk about the issue to everyone you know with an interest in politics. Right now, this issue is generating a fair amount of buzz in the political community, and a few things are rumored to be coming up soon to keep it there. That’s the kind of pressure that politicians respond to, so keep up the good work!