Archive for the ‘Jackson County Ethics Blackout’ Category

Nixon Makes a Mistake – Garza-Ruiz Got it Right – Give Guadalupe its Money

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

In one of his first acts as County Counselor, former Judge Steve Nixon faced the task of interpreting the long-delayed Jackson County Ethics Code and applying it to the County Legislature. In a memorandum issued last week, Nixon misinterpreted the statute and reached the wrong conclusion – an unfortunate mistake by a newbie to the job.

Here’s the background. The Guadalupe Center is a wonderful social service provider on the West Side that has been helping Latinos since 1919. It’s long been a shining star of Kansas City nonprofits, and the County has long provided funds for some of its programs because they are well-managed and cost-effective.

Guadalupe Center recently hired Genaro Ruiz from Congressman Cleaver’s office to serve as one of three Associate Directors. Genaro Ruiz is married to Theresa Garza Ruiz, a county legislator who fought hard against an attempt to exempt the legislature from the provisions of the Ethics Code.

When contracts between the County and Guadalupe Center came up for renewal, Garza-Ruiz immediately recused herself and filed an affidavit pledging to “not participate in any discussion, debate, deliberation, or other decision-making process with regard to possible County funding of this agency . . .”. This language mirrors precisely the language found in Section 908 of the Ethics Code, which provides: “Except as otherwise provided by law, no public servant shall, in such capacity, participate in the discussion, debate or deliberation, or otherwise take part in the decision-making process on any agenda item before the County Legislature in which the public servant or a partner in interest has a conflict of interest.”

Garza-Ruiz got it right, but Nixon thinks that more is required. His opinion is that the situation is ruled by Section 910, which provides “The County is prohibited from entering into any contract with a business in which a public servant or a public servant’s partner in interest has a controlling interest involving services or property of a value in excess of $1,000.00″. It’s an understandable mistake.

But it is a mistake. The general prohibition on contracting with public servants stands as the general rule, while the section on how a legislator is supposed to handle herself when a conflict arises governs the specific situation faced by Garza-Ruiz. The relevant principle is generalia specialibus non derogant, meaning that the specific controls over the general. Generally, contracts with legislators’ partners are forbidden, but, specifically, not when the provisions of disclosure and recusal are followed. Indeed, if not for the general prohibition, the specific instructions on how to deal with it would be useless. (As would the provisions of Section 109, which even allow the conflicted legislator to remain in the room during a consent agenda vote after disclosing a conflict.)

Conflicts of interest are serious matters, and I respect Nixon’s efforts to provide strict guidance to the legislature. The timing of his opinion is unclear in the newspaper reports, and it is entirely possible that he issued his opinion before knowing of Garza-Ruiz’s recusal, in which case his advice would have been technically correct.

This tempest in a teapot must have brought some glee to those who opposed Garza-Ruiz’s crusading in favor of ending the Jackson County Ethics Blackout, and I’m not blind to the irony inherent in using the ethics code to harass Genaro and Theresa, two of Kansas City’s most upstanding politicos.

The insiders have had their fun and laughs about this, but it’s time to grow up and stop the horse-play, before somebody gets hurt. There are people served by the Guadalupe Center who could lose important services, and the West Side of Kansas City could suffer as a result.

Are the Wheels Starting to Come Off Mike Sanders’ Bandwagon?

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Mike Sanders has led a charmed political life since he stepped into the Jackson County Executive’s office. The Star, for whatever reason, prefers to focus its attention almost solely on the City government. Whenever scant attention has been drawn to the County, it’s usually because of some flamboyant nonsense undertaken by the legislature, such as the attempted labor sell-out by Henry Rizzo, or the Jackson County Ethics Blackout, when legislators brazenly attempted to exempt themselves from the Ethics Code they imposed on everyone else.

In other words, it’s not hard to stay out of the local circus spotlight when you have Mayor Funkhouser, the City Council, and the Jackson County legislature performing daily tricks on the trapeze.

Not that Sanders has been complaining about the lack of attention. Most of Sanders’ accomplishments have been achieved by avoiding the glare of sustained attention. The COMBAT tax appeared on a ballot carefully selected to draw a low turn-out, in an off-year election, a year before it was due to expire. Similarly, the changes to the Jackson County charter were accomplished before the prior charter called for a public review, and were pushed through on a low-turnout primary ballot.

Sanders has been pretty much having his way, but remaining quiet about it.

It’s easier to keep successes silent than failures, though, and Sanders may be reaching the tipping point where he could be dragged into the spotlight.

Most alarmingly, Sanders wound up on the wrong side of the Rizzo/Williams battle for the county legislature. Back when it appeared that the CCP Executive Committee might actually stand for County Progress and endorse Crystal Williams, he circulated an Orwellian email falsely portraying Rizzo as a supporter of ethics, despite Rizzo’s attempt to exempt the legislature from compliance. Later, when Rizzo tried to salvage his primary campaign against Williams by including Sanders’ picture on a mailing, it was too little, too late.

Other missteps are adding to the concern. He is pushing a “regional rapid rail” scheme, despite the unlikelihood that local voters would willingly saddle themselves with tens of millions of dollars for construction costs to create a system that will cost millions more, every year, to operate. It’s a nice dream, but the money’s not ever going to be there.

Speaking of money, only a compliant, spendthrift Kansas City Council saved Sanders from major embarrassment during the latest budget battles. Once again, the Council donated taxpayer money to the County to pay for the stadiums, despite the fact that the City is not obligated to do so. Had our City Council chosen to fund our city instead of giving money away, Sanders would have had a tough time explaining why he hadn’t ironed out an agreement before the issue came up again.

(See Update Below.) Most recently, the blame for the Kerr/LeVota debacle appears to be sticking to his teflon. The buck for the Jackson County clerk’s office stops at Sanders’ desk, and whether it was corruption or outrageous incompetence, it was a backroom blunder. Now that Phil Levota has generously and effectively smoothed over the problem, only the uncomfortable questions remain about whether it was corruption or incompetence in Sanders’ clerk’s office.

Mike Sanders has crafted a reputation as a quietly effective executive who makes things happen in the back rooms of Jackson County. Frankly, while I prefer transparency, I have a grudging respect for someone who can get things done without drama.

The past several months have been costly to Sanders’ reputation. Can he regain his magic touch, or have we seen the first cracks in a crumbling foundation?

UPDATE: As one of the commenters pointed out, I was wrong to lay the blame for the corruption or incompetence in the clerk’s office on Mike Sanders’ plate. The clerk is actually the clerk of the legislature; the incompetence or corruption is not Sanders’ fault. Thank you for the correction!

Is Rizzo Finished at the County?

Monday, July 5th, 2010

A month away from the primary, Henry Rizzo is trying to push a gift to big labor through the County Legislature. It’s not surprising that Rizzo is working against the best interests of the taxpayers – it’s just surprising that he’s trying to do it now, in the midst of an election it looks like he’s losing.

Is this labor’s last fling with Henry Rizzo, before the real Crystal Williams whips him in the primary?

Who’s Using New Media in Local Politics?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Most local politicians are taking a fairly mainstream and conservative approach toward using social media and the internet. The smart ones are using a balanced approach, while some, like Henry Rizzo, don’t even have a website. The information age might not be helpful if the more people know about you, the more they prefer Crystal Williams. I wrote a column about local politics and new media at the KCFreePress.

CCP Endorsement Meeting Tonight

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

The Committee for County Progress will meet this evening to vote on endorsements in upcoming elections. All dues-paying members are allowed (encouraged, even) to show up and vote on this momentous decision.

“Momentous” might be overstating it, just a little.  As Paul LeVota pointed out at the organization’s End of Session Party, none of the elected officials in the room had won the CCP’s endorsement in their first contest.  Jolie Justus, Jason Kander, even Paul LeVota, the Democratic Floor Leader, had been cold-shouldered for other candidates with more insider connections, though less popular appeal.

True to form, the Executive Committee of the Committee for County Progress is encouraging the membership to support county insider and old-school politico Henry Rizzo over Crystal Williams, a first-time candidate and breath of fresh air, as well as Fred “Been On the County Legislature Since it Was Formed and Even Got a County Golf Course Named After Me” Arbanas over Terry Riley, who has shown himself to be an effective voice for change in the City.

If the CCP membership decides to follow the Old White Male recommendations of its Executive Committee, perhaps a name change would be in order.  Caucus of Conservative Patricians, anyone?

Crystal Williams Already Cleaning Up Jackson County Politics – Diane Williams Dodges the Oath

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Yesterday, Diane K. “Crystal” Williams resigned from the race for the 2nd District At-Large seat on the Jackson County Legislature.  What prompted the sudden change-of-heart?

She was scheduled to answer questions under oath in a deposition this morning.  The lawsuit filed by the real Crystal Williams exploring the circumstances behind Diane K. Williams’ choice to run as “D. Crystal Williams” threatened to expose the involvement of Henry Rizzo in this unsavory political dirty trick.  Faced with the choice of answering questions honestly or covering for Henry Rizzo, Rizzo’s dirty trickster chose door three, and fled.It’s impressive that the real Crystal Williams has already begun chasing the charlatans out of Jackson County politics.  In response to a race-baiting, lie-filled withdrawal letter published on the city’s joke blog, the real Crystal Williams showed real class, focusing her attention not on Henry Rizzo’s slimy tactics, but on the voters of Jackson County -

I am pleased that this issue is now resolved.  I am committed to open and accessible county government, focusing on real solutions designed to improve the lives of Jackson Countians.  That is what the voters of Jackson County deserve, not game playing by people who should know better.

The real Crystal Williams is the real deal, and it’s wonderful to see somebody committed to defeating the filth of the Jackson County Legislature without sinking to their level.  Henry Rizzo should be ashamed of himself.

Olfactory KC – To Heck with Folgers – Let’s Come to Our Scents

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Kansas Citians are disappointed to hear that the Folger’s Plant will be decamping to New Orleans. Some PR opportunists are even mounting a futile Facebook campaign to get the plant to stay, and thousands of the gullible have joined. Kansas City doesn’t want to lose that aroma.

Viewed correctly, this is not a civic loss, it is a civic opportunity.

Kansas City could be the first major American city to choose its own scents to match its mood. And we could do it for a minuscule fraction of the money that we spend on other schemes that produce far less obvious results.

The science of scents has progressed a long way, and Kansas City could be unique in embracing the opportunity presented. With a few industrial sized scent diffusers placed strategically throughout the city, we could choose our scent day by day, to reflect our mood and our agenda.

There are thousands of choices. Imagine the scent of gunpowder filling the air on Independence Day. Cotton candy when the circus comes to town. Horse manure on days when the Jackson County legislature is in session. Sulfur when the Raiders are in town. The possibilities are endless.

A quick online check shows that you can easily find thousands of scent varieties for $120/gallon – you could probably get it cheaper if you did it by competitive bidding. Figure 20 gallons of this potent stuff sprinkled throughout the downtown loop would be a heavy dose – we might be able to get by with less. Multiply that by 365 days a year, and you come up with a total of $876,000 – an embarrassingly small total for a civic initiative in this town. Add in the capital cost of 20 gigantic scent diffusers, (I don’t know – maybe $10,000 each?) and you barely clear a million dollars – civic chump change. We could even repurpose those Sky Stations . . .

Compare this to the millions and millions we’re spending on the Power and Light District, and you will see that we can replace Folgers’ aroma at a fraction of the cost, and there wouldn’t be racially-charged dress codes to deal with. And maybe, if we’re lucky, this investment would distract those city council people who are foolishly considering a disastrous multi-million dollar risky investment in a useless downtown convention hotel. (Something smells really bad about that deal.)

5 Reasons I am Voting NO on COMBAT

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

I will be voting NO tomorrow on the extension of the COMBAT tax. I’ve struggled with this decision, but a vote for COMBAT is a vote for arrogance in County government. Here are my reasons.

1. County Government Cannot Be Trusted with a $20,000,000 Slush Fund. Make no mistake – County government has cleaned up its act over the past several years, but the lack of news coverage focusing on it has caused it to care less and less about the public trust. For instance, the committee that handles the COMBAT funds has 2 out of 3 members with genuine criminal records – crimes centered on financial misdealings. I acknowledge that voters of a district can elect who they want, but for the Legislature to place those two people on a $20,000,000 committee seems to be an intentional poke in the eye to those of us who care about good government.

2. The Vote Yes Campaign is Trashing Our County. The utter contempt that the bigwigs have for those of us who live here in their fiefdom is shown on the latest “vote Yes” mailer. On it, in a bright orange box, is a quotation from a recovering addict – “Without COMBAT, Jackson County would be like Iraq . . . with drugs.” In an age where our County and City are trying desperately to lure business, tourism and Johnson Countians to our community, the politicos are conjuring images of bomb craters and shell casings. It is irresponsible, dishonest and frankly disgusting to issue such a statement, and I cannot imagine rewarding such behavior with a “yes” vote. If for no other reason, caring Jackson Countians should vote “no” as a rebuke to everyone involved in this effort.

3. $800,000 Timing Mistake. Why are we having this election now, when the tax does not expire for another 17 months? Because some backroom politicians decided that holding a special election now, at a cost of $800,000, would be a clever move at keeping turnout low, rather than holding the vote during a regular election. It’s arrogance, people – we’re voting tomorrow because some bigwig decided we should, and damn the taxpayer expense.

4. COMBAT Funds Get Wasted. Now, let me be crystal clear on this – the vast majority of COMBAT dollars get spent on good programs for great reasons. But some of it gets wasted – like paying a thousand dollars for a blogger to put a sticker on his car. The fact that one of our best legislators was criticized for being “picky” when she questioned the expenditure of a thousand tax dollars further illustrates just how uncaring our legislature is.

5. If We Vote No, We’ll Get a Better COMBAT. Here’s the key to the whole thing – we have 17 months to get COMBAT fixed and then get it approved by the voters. Right now, if you ask questions about how the program is being administered and what the plans are to improve it, you’ll be told that they’re working on it, and are in the process of revamping everything. “Trust us, we’ll make it better.” Yes, they really do hope and believe that Jackson County voters are dumb enough to trust that the legislature will make improvements after they get their way. This is the same crowd of legislators that fought Ethical Home Rule for almost 6 months. Let them make their changes first, and then come to us for approval.
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As a responsible citizen, I cannot in good conscience vote for the renewal of the COMBAT Tax at this time. I am not blind to the good it has accomplished, but one would be hard pressed to spend $20,000,000 every year without accomplishing some good. I want something better, and I think the Jackson County legislature deserves a rebuke, not a reward. I will vote NO on COMBAT.

Is the End Near? – Day 149 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009


Finally, after almost half a year in an ethical wasteland, the Jackson County legislature is reportedly prepared to accept Ethical Home Rule. Amusingly, Tarwater and Rizzo are pushing for the new deal. “We’re going to put ourselves under the ethics code,” Rizzo said in an interview. “But it will take a unanimous vote of the commission to eliminate one of us.”

The news of the yet-unwritten deal came (not coincidentally) on the same day that the Ethics Commission Selection Committee came forward with a panel of 5 new people to serve on the commission. Janet Blauvelt, Karen Graves, Fred Mills, Myron Sildon, Gwendolyn Washington will make up the new Ethics Commission, and it looks like the Selection Committee did a fantastic job of recruiting and choosing solid people. I know and admire two of the Commissioners.

It remains to be seen whether the entire Legislature will go along with the proposal. Early in the process, Scott Burnett drew a line in the sand over the false issue of “double jeopardy” by both the County Ethics Commission and the Missouri Ethics Commission. Most citizens accept the fact that they are subject to multiple levels of oversight, but Burnett somehow felt that he should be exempt. Fortunately, the rest of the Legislature disagrees with him on that point, and he apparently stands alone in his absurd claim that two levels of ethical oversight amount to “double jeopardy”.

Ultimately, this is a good day for Jackson County, though it’s a major loss for many of the members of the legislature. Rizzo and Tarwater will probably lose their seats over their efforts to eliminate Ethical Home Rule, and Scott Burnett’s term as Chair of the Legislature has been forever tainted by the half-year-long ethical blackout. If it hadn’t been for a few citizens who stood up to the good-old-boy network, they might have succeeded. In fact, they still could succeed – until the deal is passed by the legislature, only a fool would trust in their willingness or ability to do the right thing.

Thanks and congratulations should go to Pat McInerney for his quiet and determined leadership on this issue.

Make Way for CONVICTS in Public Office!? – Day 142 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

From Jefferson City comes an extremely troubling rumor – a Kansas City area Democrat is rumored to be attempting to remove laws barring felons and federal criminals from serving in elective office.

Right now, laws on Missouri’s books attempt to prevent convicts from holding elected office in Missouri.

115.348. No person shall qualify as a candidate for elective public office in the state of Missouri who has been found guilty of or pled guilty to a felony or misdemeanor under the federal laws of the United States of America.

115.350. No person shall qualify as a candidate for elective public office in the state of Missouri who has been convicted of or found guilty of or pled guilty to a felony under the laws of this state.

Unfortunately, the first law has been held unconstitutional because it was passed as part of a bill that violated the “single issue” rule for legislation. It was additionally found unconstitutional because, back in 2006, Missouri criminals were not prevented from serving in elective office, and it violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. That flaw was subsequently remedied by 115.350.

The long and short of it is that we need our Missouri legislators to pass a new and clean version of 114.348. Instead, rumor has it that a Kansas City Democrat who has ties to James Tindall is working to loosen up the rules against criminals in elected office. Those rules laws need to be tightened, not loosened.

A lot of weird stuff gets passed in the late hours of a Missouri legislative session. Please, let’s not use the legislative process to clear the way for more convicts in elective office for Missouri.