Archive for the ‘Theresa Garza Ruiz’ 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.

Phone Banking 101 – Working for Crystal Williams and Theresa Garza Ruiz

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Yesterday evening, I took a few hours and assisted two great candidates for County Legislature. It occurs to me that phone banking is an activity foreign to the overwhelming majority of citizens – or, perhaps more accurately, being on the calling end of one is. What’s it like?

Honestly, it’s a pleasant way to spend time, once you engage the gregarious side of your personality. You are given a rough script to work from, and a list of names, with address, age and gender. It’s tricky, sometimes, to guess at pronunciation of names. Generally, the older the person, the more likely they are to be home.

Probably the most surprising aspect of phone-banking is how non-political it seems. You’re not on the phone to argue with anyone; we were simply calling to identify people leaning our way so that we can focus our GOTV (Get Out the Vote) effort. (It’s just as well I wasn’t looking for an argument – not a single person I spoke with in 2 1/2 hours of calling said they would be voting for the opponents – not one!)

Most people listen politely to a few talking points and say whether they are leaning one way or the other, or are undecided. For the undecided folks, I discussed some of the candidates’ strengths, but you need to be careful about that, so as to avoid taxing their patience and to convey the genuine enthusiasm you feel for your candidates. People don’t want to hear you read canned talking points.

Despite the limited purpose of the calling, you’ll find yourself drawn into some great conversations. I had the true pleasure of chatting for a while with one of former Congressman Alan Wheat’s volunteers, and I had a fun time listening to a passionate advocate for dog parks – in Mission Hills.

There’s still time to get involved and help Crystal Williams and Theresa Garza Ruiz in their battle against Jackson County cronyism. There are still shifts available for phone-banking, and they could really use some help from people willing to get outside in the heat and go door-to-door. Call 816-365-6174 if you have a few hours to spare between now and Tuesday.

Sheriff Evicts Insiders – The First Victory in the Cleansing of Jackson County Legislature

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

First, big kudos to Sheriff Mike Sharp, who has taken a stand against the literal insiders who have used courthouse access to unfairly gain early access to getting their name first on the ballots. In prior years, incumbents would use their courthouse passes to get in and file for themselves and friends while the hopes for reform sat outside in the cold.

Finally, Mike Sharp has put an end to that odious and unfair practice. Using his role as chief of security for the courthouse, he decided to take names at the courthouse door starting at 5:00 yesterday.

I had written about the unfairness of the prior system before, when Theresa Garza Ruiz proposed a simple and fair fix to the insider game. Greg Grounds joined her in seeking to eliminate cronyism.

Heny Rizzo voted for special insider privileges.

Dan Tarwater voted for special insider privileges.

James Tindall voted for special insider privileges.

Scott Burnett voted for special insider privileges.

Dennis Waits voted for special insider privileges.

Fred Arbanas voted for special insider privileges.

Bob Spence voted for special insider privileges.

Not surprisingly, even under the new system, Henry Rizzo managed to find a way to use his position to engage in petty cheating. He loathes Theresa Garza Ruiz because she has consistently sought to bring openness and reform to the Jackson County legislature. With that in mind, he let Ruiz’s opponent cut in line to get his name on the ballot before her.

Can you believe that? Most people grow out of that kind of behavior in 1st grade, but Henry Rizzo and his friend apparently did not.

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.

Spend a Couple Dollars Tonight – It’s Bargain Night in Politics

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Want to make someone happy for $25 or $50? Tonight’s your night.

Like some sort of third world currency, the value of your political dollars varies month-to-month, even day-to-day. Right here in Kansas City, your political dollar is at a peak, but the value will come crashing down before the end of the week.

Why? Because the June 30 reporting deadline is today. What a candidate receives today will show up in a week or so when the campaign filings are done, and political insiders will dissect those reports not only for total figures, but also for depth, breadth and identity of support.

It’s about intimidation. A candidate who shows early strength in fundraising looks formidable. A candidate who turns in a lackadaisical fundraising report looks vulnerable. It’s still early enough that potential opponents still think they could take on a vulnerable candidate, so tonight’s the night that could determine the difficulty of the 2010 elections for a lot of candidates.

Your small check tonight could save a candidate tens of thousands of dollars down the road.

Not surprisingly, there are fundraisers aplenty tonight. If you’re wanting to help out strong young Democrats, you should seriously consider dropping by Wine., 112 West 63rd Street, tonight, where Kevin McManus will be launching his campaign to succeed Kate Meiners after she is termed out, or coming to the “Party on the Porch” being thrown by “lots of fabulous women” for Jackson County’s best legislator, Theresa Garza Ruiz.

I hope to make both. I love a bargain.

Theresa Garza Ruiz WAY Ahead of the Game – Day 89 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote about Theresa Garza Ruiz standing up against the “old dogs” on the Jackson County Legislature in her latest newsletter. It’s an impressive act of political courage, and one which I believe will draw her favorable attention.

Perhaps even more impressive is that Theresa Garza Ruiz had the foresight to write about Ethical Home Rule months before the Jackson County Legislature decided to exempt itself from local ethical oversight. Way back in July of 2008, Theresa Garza Ruiz wrote a fascinating history of the development of Home Rule from the 18th Century up until present times. You should really go read it if you want proof that all our county legislators are not knuckleheads installed by dying political machines.

She also outlines the crux of the issue that consumes county-watchers during this Ethics Blackout:

The Ethics Commission is part of our county charter. In order to change any portion of our charter, it must come before the voters. The commission’s ability to thoroughly investigate a complaint is well within its power and is outlined in our home rule.

With that quotation, Garza Ruiz warned the legislature not to embark on its current path toward monarch. They ignored her, and now we are stuck without an Ethics Commission and with a public opinion of our legislators that has sunk to sewer level.

Why in the world is Theresa Garza Ruiz not the Chair of the Legislature? We would be in a far better position if she were . . .

(Honestly, I hadn’t intended to do a post today, and was planning on saving this piece until a weekday, but an old friend sent me a link to this awesome Cobra, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use it.)

Theresa Garza Ruiz Gets It – Day 88 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Yesterday, I received an e-Newsletter from Theresa Garza Ruiz, the Jackson County legislator in the first district at-large seat. Her newsletter included the text of a column she wrote for The Examiner, expressing her feelings about her vote on abandoning Ethical Home Rule for Jackson County.

Theresa Garza Ruiz agrees that the Ethics Blackout is wrong, and she call on the “old dogs” to fix it. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, and signals hope that significant change will be coming to the dark underworld of the Jackson County legislature.

Ms. Garza Ruiz writes:

For far too long, Jackson County government and “ethics” have been somewhat of a running joke throughout the metro area. Honestly, when were these two items used in a good light in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence?

In spite of the progress the county has achieved in the past few years, I can understand why critics are skeptical on whether our hearts are truly into overhauling the rules that govern us. In my book, the fact that a Jackson County ethics code was even passed speaks volumes, but then I’m optimistic.

When decent people are faced with having to compromise due to situational choices, then an ethical dilemma has been presented. Ethical dilemmas can involve right-versus-wrong situations or right-versus-right situations – also known as no-win situations.

So, there it is. The ethics code is not perfect.

In an of itself, the admission that the code is imperfect is what I would call “Praising with faint damn”. By excluding the legislature from Ethical Home Rule, the County Legislature has undercut the Jackson County Charter and established a arrogant, almost monarchic attitude toward ethics in Jackson County. “The ethics code is not perfect” is kind of like writing “The economy is not perfect” or “The intelligence on Iraq was not perfect.”

But, thank goodness, Ms. Garza Ruiz was just getting warmed up. She next turns her focus on the wretched good-old-boys who have long viewed Jackson County Government as their fiefdom and family employment agency: “With no disrespect intended, as that old saying goes, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Not that it’s impossible, it just takes time.” So far, its been 88 days of time trying to get the old dogs on the Jackson County Legislature to learn the new trick of being ethical. Seems like Ms. Garza Ruiz is getting impatient in her role as the “dog whisperer” of ethics.

Finally, Ms. Garza Ruiz ends on two high notes:

The ability for any Ethics Commission to deal credibly and forthrightly with the issues that come before it depends on a governing body’s willingness to reform its own ethical rules and behavior. As I said before, greater scrutiny and public awareness can help set a higher standard and force change from our leaders and our governmental institutions. In the end, no matter what’s on the books, it still boils down to personal integrity.

As for the ethics commissioners who resigned, I was disappointed upon hearing the news. It was a good group of solid, decent, hardworking individuals dedicated to upholding the public interest.

In those two paragraphs, Ms. Garza Ruiz draws a line in the sand and dares her fellow county legislators to remain on the wrong side of it. Where Dan Tarwater attacked the citizens who served, and Dennis Waits accused them of playing politics, but Ms. Garza praises them. Old dogs snarl and bite when people want to look inside their doghouse, but friendly dogs welcome them.

More significantly, Ms. Garza Ruiz sets out the terms of the changes she seeks. By speaking of “a governing body’s willingness to reform its own ethical rules and behavior”, she is saying that the bogus reforms being bandied about by corrupt insiders that do not result in Ethical Home Rule will be insufficient.

It is wonderful to see an elected official embrace – even encourage – scrutiny of the Jackson County legislature designed to “force change from our leaders and our governmental institutions.” It’s going to happen, and Theresa Garza Ruiz is going to wind up on the right side of Jackson County history over this issue. Ethical Home Rule will return to the Jackson County Courthouse, and the smart legislators are getting on board.

Thank you, Theresa, for the leadership and encouragement. We’re glad you’re not joining of the pack of old dogs.

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.

Reduce the Size of the Legislature? – Day 68 of the Jackson County Ethics Crisis

Friday, February 13th, 2009

I was discussing the Jackson County Ethics Blackout with a man who really knows the County, and he came up with a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind. “One of the problems,” he pointed out, “is that we don’t have enough work to keep 9 legislators busy, so they have too much time on their hands, and they bump into each other. If we really want an effective legislature, we should reduce it to 7 legislators.”

My friend is correct.

Take a look, for example, at the committee structure. It’s a classic of make-work and overlap:

Anti-Drug
Dan Tarwater, Chairperson
James D. Tindall
Henry C. Rizzo

Budget
Henry C. Rizzo, Chairperson
Bob Spence
Dan Tarwater
James D. Tindall

Finance & Audit
Dennis Waits, Chairperson
Bob Spence
Dan Tarwater

Health & Environment
James D. Tindall,
Chairperson
Greg Grounds
Dennis Waits

Inter-Governmental Affairs

James D. Tindall, Chairperson
Henry C. Rizzo
Bob Spence

Justice & Law Enforcement
Theresa Garza Ruiz,
Chairperson
Greg Grounds
James D. Tindall

Land Use
Fred Arbanas, Chairperson
Bob Spence
Theresa Garza Ruiz

Public Works
Bob Spence, Chairperson
Greg Grounds
Theresa Garza Ruiz

Rules
Greg Grounds, Chairperson
Henry C. Rizzo
Dan Tarwater

(There’s enough material in this bizarre set-up to keep me writing for another month. Notice that Tindall and Rizzo, both with criminal records for their financial misdeeds, show up on both the Anti-Drug (COMBAT funds) and Budget Committees?)

Do we really need all nine of those committees, or do they exist solely to give each legislator an opportunity to chair a committee? Really, couldn’t the work of the “Anti-Drug” Committee be handled by the Budget Committee and the Justice and Law Enforcement Committee, with the added benefit that we would not have $20 million tax dollars passing through the hands of a committee where the majority has a rap sheet? Similarly, couldn’t the Land Use and Public Works Committee be combined into one entity, especially since Theresa Garza Ruiz and Bob Spence are the majority on both?

Do we even need a Health and Environment Committee? Or Intergovernmental Affairs? Shouldn’t everyone be paying attention to those issues?

There’s an old phrase that “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, and I think it applies to the Jackson County legislature. We have too many committees doing too little work, and we have both of our big money committees including Tindall and Rizzo.

Does anybody in Jackson County think that this unwieldy and strangely staffed committee structure is a good idea?

Even more to the point, does anybody think that we should trust these people to handle our money when they are adamant about avoiding local ethics oversight?