Friday, December 14, 2007

Elephant 2.0

It’s no longer the elephant in the room. The Mayor’s decision not to support the renewal of the City Manager’s contract has set off a firestorm in Kansas City politics. I would refer you to Mark Forsythe’s excellent post on this topic, and just end this short blog with this: There will be no change in the dismal state of our City government without serious reform and new ideas. That means a new CM.

I thought that’s what the last election was about. Change.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Elephant in The Room

I attended Mayor Funkhouser's Town Hall meeting tonight, and I'd like to give you my take on the whole thing and perhaps get some feedback if anyone is actually reading this thing.

A man stood up early on in the question session to address what he called the elephant in the room. The audience probably knew that he was referring to the Francis Semler affair, just as we seemed to get the allusion to Mrs. Semler earlier in the evening by the Mayor himself. The speaker voiced his support for Mayor Funkhouser's position, and received applause from the audience. After that, there were no further references to that issue. So, elephant it may be, but not something concerned citizens in south K.C. seem interested in talking about.

If it is the elephant in the room, that's only because the matter has been blown up into a big media ta-doo for political reasons.

The real elephant, the mother of all elephants, is something more fundamental, and I saw it in virtually every issue being brought up that people really wanted to talk about. That's why I got up to say what I said near the end about the bureaucracy being a huge dead weight dragging down the implementation of reforms that I think the Mayor and a majority of the Council want to see happen. I've heard it said that most City Hall employees voted for Mr. Brooks and now they have no incentive to see "A City That Works", and I know from my foxhole experience in the Red Bridge battle that we are up against stiff resistance to change and public involvement. In his response, the Mayor talked about the culture at City Hall, but my head was still spinning from having made a speech in public, so maybe I can hear from you about what you heard at the meeting.

As far as Red Bridge is concerned, Terrence Nash explained another elephant in a different room: the project is essentially an illegal act. The Council said one thing, and the Public Works department has done something different. No, not different: opposite. Teresa Edens talked about the survey, which is just pure evil if you ask me. (I haven't been so incensed about anything since Bill Frist was Senate Majority Leader.)

Arnold McMann was the first speaker of the evening, and brought up the issue of accountability of public funds. That was the first of many issues that for me keep coming back to the need to do a "full Gorbachev" on this City: glasnost, perestroika and democratization.

Maybe the Mayor and his family should refrain from trips to their dacha in the Ozarks until we get things sorted out.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Your Honor, May I Approach The...Oh Screw That.

I was sitting with my fellow Citizens Against Billboard Blight in the audience for today’s meeting of the Planning and Zoning committee. We were there to testify for an extension of the moratorium on new billboards. A representative for the billboard industry, Mr. James Bowers of White, Goss, Bowers, March, Schulte & Weisenfels, was there to propose some changes to the moratorium. (Thanks to councilman John Sharp, chairman Riley, and the other committee members, he was unsuccessful.)

I hope you can see this on channel 2 or via the City website, but Mr. Bowers (wearing a bright orange tie) is running around behind the bar like he is just another City staffer.

That sight says it all: The corporate lawyers have written the laws for so long here that there is no visible separation between them and those elected to write the laws.

Citizens should demand that our council members put them in their place.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Changing Habits

Blogging regularly is a habit, and one that I have not adopted. As you can see, it has been almost two months since my last post.

Old habits die hard, and when they are institutionalized, even more so. That is the obstacle to reform that the new mayor and city council face. Developers have come to expect that tax breaks will be a part of any deal they can work out, for example. I have become marginally familiar with the civil engineering community in this town, and I have seen enough to know that we are mired in the traditional approach to building roads, which is based on the assumption that traffic will grow into the future like compound interest, and all we can do is predict the rate of growth, and attempt to provide the amount of pavement it will take to move that traffic at the highest possible speed.

In more progressive circles, that traditional approach is being displaced by a more balanced one, whereby the objective of moving traffic is only one concern among the many that relate to roads and their surroundings.

Thursday night, I attended a public meeting that focused on a neighborhood street that is being used as a cut-through by non-neighborhood traffic. Speeding is the main problem. Last year, the public works department constructed an island in the middle of the main intersection there. The result was called a roundabout, though it did not include many of the features associated with roundabouts, and as a result, the raised section of the island was repeatedly hit by passing vehicles. The conclusion I drew from this was that our public works department hasn't studied the subject of traffic calming.

On Thursday night, public works showed that they have since done some research on the subject, as they displayed four techniques right out of Traffic Calming 101.

However, the meeting itself was a mess. About 100 people showed up, and it was quite antagonistic at the start. Public Works only wanted the attendees to look at the alternatives and vote for one. No questions. No discussion. And the displays gave only the briefest introduction to the proposals.

This confirmed to me that the skills needed to successfully engage the public for the purpose of building our public infrastructure are poorly developed in Kansas City.

Developing those skills would be the primary goal of the Friends of Red Bridge policy initiative: Context Sensitive Solutions. The Federal Highway Administration is pushing for its adoption, and many state transport agencies are adopting it. Missouri is a laggard, and Kansas City needs to take a leadership position.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A New Day for Kansas City?

Later today, the new mayor and city council will be sworn into office. Only three of the thirteen members were in the previous council. Gone entirely is the core faction that ran this city for eight years.

So, we have a chance to change a lot of things. The most important thing is to bring true democracy to city hall -- a place that is, in my opinion, no better today than in the Pendergast era.

Orange was the campaign color of the Funkhouser campaign. That has real meaning. See why Funkhouser chose orange as his campaign color. We need a little of the spirit of the Orange Revolution in Kansas City. The old guard has no concept of what that is about. It's up to us to make sure that the new council, and city hall, do.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Well-Deserved Toast

I just saw Becky Nace on Ruckus, where she was a guest panelist. Becky was very popular among the Friends of Red Bridge (about equal with Mark Funkhouser), and she mentioned Red Bridge on the show, saying the outgoing council shouldn’t have passed that ordinance because the incoming council will just reverse it.

She received a lovely toast from host Mike Shanin for her openness and straightforward answers. I’m sure the Friends of Red Bridge would join in that. On our issues, Becky just got better and better, from the day she made the motion to hold the ordinance in committee, through many meetings of the Operations Committee, and finally in the full session of the City Council.

So, here is my very public THANK YOU to Becky Nace. If you would like to thank her, too, please send a mail to her.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Progress Then and Now

The serious setback suffered by the “BridgeZilla” project on Red Bridge Road hopefully will represent a watershed moment for transportation projects in Kansas City. Ten years ago, the community would have stood little chance of blocking the placement of a freeway-size bridge in the middle of our bucolic Blue River valley. Even in 2007, luck and timing played a crucial role. Nevertheless, two enabling forces can be seen behind this victory for communities over commercial interests. One is the internet: E-mail and the web made it possible to organize hundreds of our neighbors into a powerful grassroots organization. The other is the growing belief that over-engineered projects do not constitute “progress”. In the past, the driving force behind an opposition to a project like BridgeZilla might have been simply a sentimental attachment to the rural character of the Blue River valley. But it’s not a resistance to change that gave the Friends of Red Bridge the passion and dedication needed to fight City Hall; it is a vision for a future that we need to start building now. This vision is hard to articulate for many reasons: It is wide in scope, sometimes counter-intuitive, and a grave threat to the power status quo. For example, one might blink at the statement that this is about global warming or the fiscal solvency of our government, though it surely is. It may seem crazy to say that a narrow, curvy road with a railroad crossing is safer than a wide, straight road with no obstructions, but proponents of the New Urbanism would find it so. Does the project solve the problem of flooding, or make it worse? Well, how many rain gardens will it take to handle the runoff from a road more than twice the size of the old one?

The realities of the 21st century are only beginning to dawn upon the engineers and planners that shape our communities. For the Friends of Red Bridge, the challenge now is to find the right people to bring that New Vision into reality.

Implications of the Excelsior Springs Tragedy

The petition to put the project on hold was a smashing success, but it had me running around like crazy for a week. Now, I’d like to catch up on the blog. For starters, two editorial-type comments -- one that I wrote before the petition, and one after.

I knew when I heard about the fatal accident in Excelsior Springs a couple of weeks ago that Chuck Eddy would try to exploit that tragedy to push through his pet project -- not because there is anything more than a superficial similarity between the railroad crossing there and the one on Red Bridge Road, but because the man is totally without any intellectual honesty or integrity and will say anything to advance his cause.

Ironically, that incident points out the danger of a straight road: the driver’s attention strays, and his speed increases. Where the Union Pacific line crosses Red Bridge Road, the roadway curvature forces cars to slow down and focuses their attention. But the biggest difference between the two crossings is that Red Bridge has a crossing gate. This combination has resulted in a far better safety record than the other U.P. crossings in this area.

Well, here is an editorial I wrote about crossing safety, and submitted to some local papers:

The recent loss of life at a railroad crossing in Excelsior Springs shows how out of whack our government’s priorities and methods are for promoting public safety. Even in the aftermath of this tragedy, the Missouri Department of Transportation is sticking to their standards that tell them it is a safe crossing and does not meet the criteria for the installation of guard arms. Instead of taking this relatively inexpensive measure to greatly improve the safety of railroad crossings, transportation agencies are more interested in the big-money projects that usually have a negative impact on safety. Likewise with the Red Bridge project, we have one of the safest railroad crossings in the region, yet nearby crossings that could benefit from safety upgrades go wanting because spending priorities have been set by commercial interests, not by the community. The galling irony is that proponents of the bridge claim that it will improve safety. They have no data to back up their claim, only theories that have not been vindicated by many decades of real-world experience.

I am not aware that any paper published it yet. Well, that’s what we have the internets for!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Petition Drive

As you can read at, the condemnation ordinance was adopted on Thursday. It doesn't take effect for ten days, though, and in that time, we intend to gather the required 100 signatures of registered Kansas City voters on a petition to declare our intent to file a referendum petition.


The bottom line is that we can prevent our neighbors from facing condemnation of their land until after the new (and vastly improved!) city council is sworn in.

And then, with the leadership of our new Sixth District council members John Sharp and Cathy Jolly, we will have the threat of “BridgeZilla” removed from our lives.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Better late than never

Months and months ago, my Friends of Red Bridge friends Sharron and Teresa, and I were telling Cathy Jolly about the story of our campaign against a massive new bridge slated to be built in the heart of southern Kansas City's most beautiful parkland.

The volume and detail of what we were telling her was overwhelming. Even I felt that. Cathy must have, too, because she asked if we had kept a diary.

No, we hadn't , we confessed.

“Please start”, Cathy said, and we all realized we should. But the usual procrastination and preoccupation with stuff that has to be done NOW kept us from it.

Well, no longer.