A city agency's simmering implosion is making life uncomfortable for the people who run it. But there's plenty of embarrassment to go around. Members of the City Council in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, may want to take this moment to re-evaluate their fixation on gamesmanship.
As I wrote in November, the Kansas City Port Authority paid lawyer William T. Session almost $500,000 over the first 10 months of this year — a nice payday from a relatively small city agency. But for Session, billable hours have been but one path to Port-provided prosperity.
It turns out that Session once operated a construction company. And in 2007, that company received a sweetheart contract to excavate and grade land that the Port Authority had recently sold to a developer.
The excavation contract stunk up the Economic Development Corporation, the Port Authority's parent agency. But Trey Runnion, the chairman of the Port Authority, gave Session a pass.
In return, Session helped Runnion stay in power. Earlier this year, the lawyer wrote a "legal opinion" arguing that the City Council had the authority to give Runnion another term as Port Authority chairman. It was bogus; the city charter clearly states that it's the mayor who makes appointments to boards and commissions. But Session surely knew that the legal bills wouldn't pile up quite so high without Runnion at the helm.
Mayor Mark Funkhouser was unsure about reappointing Runnion, who was tapped by former Mayor Kay Barnes in 2003. So Runnion smartly worked around the mayor, persuading the mayor's archenemies — City Council members — to pass a resolution giving Runnion another term.
Funkhouser and council members have been jamming fingers in one another's eyes since he stubbornly refused to cut ties with Frances Semler, the Northland grandma who, upon her appointment to the parks board, was revealed to be a Minuteman sympathizer. Bad blood continued to stir with the mayor's insistence that his wife, Gloria Squitiro, serve at City Hall as his gatekeeper and confidante.
The mayor has picked some lousy battles. But the council members' Funk hating has become so ingrained, so instinctive, that they now oppose him without even thinking about what it means for the city. Exhibit A: the Port Authority.
It's a relatively obscure agency, created in 1977 with the vague mission to promote development on the riverfront. Then, in 1993, gambling was legalized in Missouri. Suddenly the Port Authority counted "casino landlord" among its duties.
The Port Authority has accomplished important things over the years. Berkley Riverfront Park was built from the house's edge on blackjack. The area between the Heart of America and Paseo bridges, once a city dump, has been cleaned up. The former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base is now a working distribution hub.
But there has always been a layer of sleaze coating the Port Authority's affairs. Former Chairman Elbert Anderson took bribes from a casino company. And the agency's extensive legal work tends to go to lawyers who attend the same cocktail parties as the sitting mayor. Mike Burke, a Barnes supporter, billed millions over the 11 years that he lawyered for the Port Authority.
Burke resigned as the Port Authority's general counsel in March, after announcing that he was running for mayor. After he left, Session, who had also done work for the agency, assumed a larger role.
Session was mistrusted by some members of the staff at the the Economic Development Corporation, Port Authority's parent agency. His ethics came into question in 2007, when his name showed up in the city's directory of minority- and women-owned businesses.
Developers who work with city agencies are expected to subcontract with companies run by minorities and women. An EDC staffer named Sandra Rayford monitors compliance with affirmative-action goals. One day, she decided to investigate how the work was being distributed at Richards-Gebaur. She was puzzled to find that Session, who advised the Port Authority on matters of the law, also ran an excavation company, TWS, that just happened to be pushing around dirt at a project on the airbase. On a no-bid contract, no less.
The apparent conflict of interest appalled Rayford. So she spoke up. To her surprise, Runnion said he was comfortable with the arrangement because property that TWS worked on had been sold to a private developer. Later, when Rayford met with Burke, he told her that the Port Authority board had considered the role of TWS and deemed it appropriate.
Rayford put all of this in a memo, which formed the basis of a front-page Kansas City Star story on December 12. Funkhouser sent the article, which said TWS was paid at least $9.7 million, to U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips, inviting her to investigate.
Maybe the feds will care. Maybe they'll just shake their heads in amusement. But the City Council is taking the matter seriously, blustering about audits and investigations.
The problem is, it was the council that somehow managed to miss — or, worse, ignore — the Port Authority's mess until it showed up in the paper. And it was the council that, just a few months ago, fought to give Runnion another term as the boss.
Fourth District Councilwoman Beth Gottstein introduced a resolution in August to reappoint Runnion to the Port Authority. "I'm trying to move good government along," she said during a City Council meeting, which featured more sniping between Funkhouser and his 12 non-disciples.
Session's misdeeds — and Runnion's enabling of them — hadn't yet been described in The Pitch or the Star. But Gottstein was still out of line, as City Attorney Galen Beaufort carefully pointed out. The resolution was illegal, he said. It was the equivalent of a congressman nominating a U.S. Supreme Court judge.
But the City Council's 12 members were so eager to stick it to Funkhouser that they passed the measure anyway. The mayor cast the lone "no" vote.
Now, in the wake of the scandal, the City Council has suddenly found salvation, calling for an audit of the Port Authority. Councilman Bill Skaggs is even suggesting that the council can disband the agency altogether. (Through a spokeswoman, Runnion declined comment; Session told The Pitch that he didn't see the obvious conflict.)
And Gottstein? She's running — or, at least, walking briskly — from her decision to force Runnion's appointment. I brought it up with her last week, after a committee meeting at City Hall. She mentioned the audit and then went into hibernation mode.
"I'm not going to say anything else," she told me. "I'm not going to say anything."
"Why not?" I pleaded. "It's a legitimate question."
"It's a great question," Gottstein said, "but I'm not going to say another word."
Gottstein waited for an elevator to take her away. As the doors to a car opened, I asked if the council's war against Funkhouser had, in this instance, resulted in bad policy. "No," Gottstein said. "I've worked very hard to make my decisions not ..."
" ... [to] keep that separate."
Funkhouser attended the same committee meeting. Afterward, he told me that it was time for Runnion to step down.
"He is a world-class manipulator," the mayor said, before turning his attention to the City Council. "But I don't think they thought through any of this stuff. Now they own it."