Mary Ryan's off-the-grid behavior jump-starts lawsuits from colleagues at the board of utilities.

Circuit Court 

Mary Ryan's off-the-grid behavior jump-starts lawsuits from colleagues at the board of utilities.

Mary Ryan is running late again.

Her colleagues cringe as she swoops into the Kansas City, Kansas, meeting room of the city's electric company wearing jeans and swinging a bulky purse.

"What time is it?" Ryan demands, interrupting the Board of Public Utilities meeting.

"Three minutes after six," board President John Petty answers. Ryan jerks her chair from the table, drops the purse and plops into the black leather seat.

"Well, that's three minutes too fast!" the tardy board member barks.

Board member Loretta Colombel attempts to move the meeting along.

"Mr. Petty ..."

"Didn't I say something about synchronizing the clocks in this building?" snaps Ryan. Two weeks earlier, Ryan had insisted at a board meeting that all the clocks in the BPU building read the same time.

"You know, we've all been here since ..." Petty begins.

"I don't care how long you've been here! What time is it?"

"Three minutes after six. I'm going by that clock right there," Petty tells Ryan.

"Well, that clock's wrong!"

As Petty facilitates the meeting, utility General Manager Leon Daggett and four board members study their agendas, and a videotape recorder rolls. Ryan reaches beneath the table and hauls the bulging purse onto her lap. She rummages noisily until she finds a pair of wire-framed John Lennon sunglasses with round lenses. She places the dark spectacles over her eyes.

As the rest of the board discusses budget matters -- a $4.2 million repair expense from a fire at the Nearman Creek power plant last year and $2.4 million in bills from an explosion at the utility's Quindaro plant -- Ryan, who hasn't brought her agenda, faces straight ahead. She drums her fingers relentlessly on the dark wood of the long, walnut conference table. Her microphone broadcasts her impatience: Thump-thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump.

The noise reverberates while others attempt to speak. Colombel, sitting beside Ryan, glances at her. Ryan continues to drum forcefully, occasionally slapping her palm on the table. She turns and glares coldly, silently at Colombel from behind the dark lenses.

The board discusses $3 million in incentives that BPU has promised to Kansas Speedway Corporation. Ryan brings up a $25,000 cash sponsorship payment she says local driver Jennifer Cobb will receive to race a car with the BPU logo at the track's opening day on June 2. In fact, the payments to Cobb totaled $10,000 and came from the BPU's marketing budget (not the racetrack incentive package) to fund several promotional appearances. Still, Ryan expounds on her theory for a minute or two.

"I could drive that race car myself and toot my horn," Ryan proclaims. She leans forward and peers at the others through her Lennon shades, scanning their baffled faces. "Why don't you let me drive that race car? I think I could manage. And I wouldn't charge BPU $25,000 for my services." After several minutes of flamboyant declarations from Ryan, Colombel finally interjects.

"Point of order, Mr. President. Could we continue ..."

"SHUT UP, LORETTA!" Ryan roars.

The Board of Public Utilities of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County maintains the city's municipal waterworks and electrical plants. Only 15 percent of utilities in the United States are government-owned. The BPU's six board members each receive $250 a month to serve.

The board hires the utility's general manager, controls a $230 million budget and sets policies for BPU operations that affect 60,000 electricity and 50,000 water customers. Wyandotte County voters elect the board members to look out for rate payers' interests.

Ryan was elected to the board in 1997 and re-elected on April 3 of this year. She is a sharp critic of Daggett, who was hired as the BPU's general manager in 1995. Ryan has accused Daggett -- without providing substantiation -- of wasting BPU dollars and plotting to sell the BPU to a private utility. After Ryan changed seats and narrowly defeated fellow incumbent John Feeback for the No. 2, at-large position on the board this spring, her efforts to protect BPU rate payers took several odd turns.

She talked at length in meetings, insulting Daggett and prolonging thirty-minute agendas to nearly two hours.

Lately, board member Loretta Colombel claims, Ryan has arrived unannounced in front of her colleague's home, demanding to talk about Daggett, Mayor Carol Marinovich and BPU business. Colombel says Ryan has dropped by Colombel's workplace, minutes after Colombel left, to interrogate staff members about her habits and whereabouts. Sometimes, as Colombel stepped from her car in the driveway at home, she would glimpse Ryan cruising by.

Ryan became preoccupied with Daggett's personal life, telephoning his ex-wife's attorney in Ohio to dig up private information, says Daggett. She also grew suspicious of Colombel, whom she accused of aligning with "an inner circle" of "good old boys." A lawsuit accuses Ryan of falsely declaring that BPU officials "were committing all kinds of crimes and illegal activities."

"She would start with totally false statements," recalls Colombel. "When we voted on something, she'd say, 'Oh, is that a friend of yours? What do you get out of it?'" Ryan accused Colombel, who owns a restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas, of having clandestine catering ties with BPU. "Mary wanted to know how much money I made off BPU catering contracts," says Colombel. "When I became a board member, I didn't want anything to look improper. I don't do any catering for BPU. My word and my personality just wouldn't allow that.

"Mary started checking my utility bills for the restaurant," Colombel adds. "She helped spread the rumor that someone else [at BPU] was paying my utility bills for me. But I was on a payment plan just like any other business." Finally, Colombel confronted Ryan. "I told her, 'You know, Mary, if you've got a question, you could ask me.'"

Ryan suspected -- based on unrevealed evidence she claimed to have from undisclosed sources -- that Colombel and Marinovich were conspiring with Daggett to sell the BPU to a private utility company. Such a sale would potentially raise utility rates (BPU electricity rates are 35 percent less than those at investor-owned Kansas City Power and Light). Ryan was determined to ferret out the lowdown on Colombel and the BPU.

Ryan's confrontational behavior became a distraction during Wyandotte County's rancorous and ugly spring 2001 election season. Political foes flung insults and accusations far and wide on anonymous billboards and in low-budget newspapers as city and county residents fought over tax incentives given to the speedway and other programs begun by Mayor Carol Marinovich. The Sunday afternoon before the April election, as Colombel and her elderly mother returned home from morning mass and grocery shopping, Ryan drove up in her truck, demanding to talk about BPU business. Colombel and Ryan (who wouldn't come in the house because she had to keep an eye on two panting dogs in the truck) sat down on the front porch.

"She started talking about the campaign, slamming people, saying the mayor was selling the BPU, that the mayor was lying to the people," recalls Colombel. "She wanted to fire Leon [Daggett]. She said she was getting the FBI involved and the district attorney. This went on for an hour. I finally told her I didn't believe it, and I was going inside."

"You're in on it!" Ryan shouted, according to Colombel. "You don't know what you're getting into!"

After the elections, on April 17, Colombel left an inaugural reception to meet a few friends for cocktails. When she returned home around 11 p.m., Colombel spied a white pickup truck coasting slowly down her street. The driver, Ryan, blew the horn and leaned out the window. "You're socially unacceptable!" she screamed at Colombel, who mentions the incident in her lawsuit. According to Colombel, Ryan was angry because she'd left the reception early.

"Wait a minute!" screamed Ryan as Colombel turned the key in her lock. "I want to talk to you!" Ryan stood on the darkened street, telling Colombel about board members she claimed (without proof) were receiving kickbacks. After a few minutes, Colombel hurried into the house. Ryan climbed back in her truck. Neighbors flipped on their lights and peered from behind closed curtains at the BPU board member in the middle of the street. Several minutes later, Ryan sped away.

After Colombel's late-night encounter with Ryan, there seemed to be no escape. The white pickup truck and its driver, always accompanied by at least two dogs, appeared often and unexpectedly. Ryan would drive past Colombel's house just as she pulled into the drive, Colombel says. When Colombel was out for drinks with friends, Ryan parked for an hour behind her car.

The disruption to Colombel's private life made her uneasy. "I just said, '[There have been] enough of these instances,'" recalls Colombel. "The woman's following me." A comment Ryan made at the May 2 board meeting further unnerved Colombel. During an informal discussion, Colombel passed around snapshots of herself on the shooting range, from a day of training she'd received at the FBI Citizen's Academy in Leavenworth, Kansas. Ryan was intrigued.

"I'm definitely going to learn how to use a gun," Ryan announced, but added that she'd need more than one day to learn to shoot. "I want to be accurate when I shoot." The other board members laughed nervously.

"No, I mean it," Ryan continued. "If someone's trying to kill me, they're gonna.... I'm gonna leave a bloody trail, believe me."

Earlier that evening, Ryan had reported that she feared for her life. Maybe the BPU could pay for a cell phone, Ryan said. What if someone fired a gun or tossed a bottle through her picture window? A vandal had already scaled the 12-foot metal fence of her backyard dog pen, Ryan claimed, and tampered with her home's telephone box. The police had been out to her house to investigate, she said.

"You think your phone is being sabotaged, is that what you're saying?" asked newly elected Mary Gonzales.

"Yes."

"And when you get it repaired, it's sabotaged again?"

Yes, Ryan replied. Her home telephone hadn't worked in six weeks, she claimed. And recently, the purported saboteurs had grown bolder.

"This time they came in my basement window and climbed my basement steps," Ryan told the board. "He, she -- or they -- burned, or used acid on the cord of my telephone." Ryan was convinced that someone was paying people to terrorize her. If they'd gotten into her house one time, she worried, what would happen the next? (No police report could be found for such an incident among records at the Kansas City, Kansas, police department).

Referring to herself in the third person -- a typical affectation -- Ryan continued: "I'm sure some of you listening to this are thinking, well, there is board member Ryan ... going to the funny farm, the way she's acting. But I have had things happen, folks. If I get shot tomorrow and end up in Mount Calvary, please remember my request tonight."

Most board members brushed off Ryan's "bloody trail" comment. "That's just Mary rattling off, the way I see it," says Petty in an interview. "Every once in a while, she gets on a tangent and makes no sense whatsoever."

But on the drive home, Colombel replayed Ryan's comments at the meeting again and again in her mind until selective memory shaped and reshaped the words. One sentence haunted her. "I'm gonna leave a bloody trail." On May 16, Colombel filed a lawsuit and requested a restraining order against Ryan. The lawsuit alleges that in addition to harassing Colombel, Ryan lied to the president of the Kansas City, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce by saying that Colombel's restaurant was the front for an illegal drug operation operated by Colombel's sons.

"Until then, I just let her comments roll off," says Colombel. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who called me and said she told them I was selling drugs out of the restaurant and my sons were drug dealers. She can say anything she wants about me. I'm a big girl. But don't mess with my family."

With its diagonal parking, economic desperation and conspicuous piety, downtown Kansas City, Kansas, resembles the spawn of a western Kansas farmers' ghetto mated with a poor, racially diverse urban center. White Christmas lights adorn shabby buildings year-round on Minnesota Avenue, where Loretta's Café resides just two blocks from BPU headquarters. "Praise the Lord," proclaims the marquee at the vacant Pleasant Green Theatre at Eighth and Minnesota. Just down the street, praying hands caress the sign of the Jesus Loves You bookstore.

Above the door of Colombel's restaurant, atop a 3-foot pole, a pink metal globe with 24 white lights beckons. A white sign with "Loretta's" in script and "CAFÉ" in block letters juts over the sidewalk. The old-fashioned eatery -- wedged between a Rent-A-Center and a used car lot -- seems to be from a different time, when people hurried less and talked to one another more.

Behind the counter inside, a talkative dishwasher stacks clattering plates and chats with customers. Men in plaid shirts, coveralls and farm caps sit at the long counter. The lunch crowd eats meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They smoke cigarettes and drink black coffee. At the cash register, Marge, a 74-year-old white-haired grandmother, bags to-go orders. The cook knows the customers' names as well as their palates.

"Cream gravy, Tom?" he asks a man in a booth.

"Yeah."

"Everything?"

"Yup."

A week before Colombel filed her lawsuit, Leon Daggett, BPU general manager, had filed a lawsuit of his own. Like Colombel, he alleged that Ryan damaged his reputation around town by spreading gossip and falsehoods about his personal and professional life.

Daggett, who came to the BPU with 30 years' experience running public utilities, earns an annual salary of $142,000. He inherited a $9.4 million deficit in 1995 and has had to mend strained relations with industrial customers.

In March, Daggett and Ryan clashed when he directed BPU employees to steer clear of her during work hours. "She would call and ask customer service people what times people [at the BPU] came to work, checking on them," says Daggett. "She would come up here and go from office to office talking to employees, insulting people." According to Daggett, Ryan walked into one employee's office and called him Daggett's "butt boy." On one visit, Ryan left her truck running at BPU headquarters for nearly two hours, filling the enclosed garage with fumes, Daggett says.

When the BPU purchased a $42,000 SUV for Daggett as a company vehicle -- which, as opposed to leasing, the BPU says will save $20,000 over a three-year period -- Ryan demanded to see the paperwork. After examining the invoice, Ryan accused Daggett of stealing $3,000 in sales tax, although the paperwork didn't support her assertion.

"She told that to a lot of people," says Daggett, who adds that after the BPU attorney explained the documents to Ryan, she realized her mistake. "But by then, she'd told thousands of people that I stole the money. People would run into me and say, 'Hey, you're that horrible guy.'"

"How come your father's a crook?" Daggett says other kids asked his children at school.

"Mary told people that I had a houseboat at the Lake of the Ozarks that BPU bought, and I'm supposed to have all kinds of extra houses," says Daggett. "Right now, I don't even have a house." When one of Ryan's dogs disappeared, Ryan suspected the worst. "[Wyandotte County district attorney] Nick Tomasic came up to me one day and said, 'Good God, Leon, she thinks you stole her dog,'" says Daggett. "Mary went to the DA and told him I stole her dog."

Ryan has had a few documented legal problems. As of September 20, Ryan remained the only candidate in Kansas -- out of 1,800 who ran for public office -- who hadn't yet filed a campaign financial report for the April election. Ryan was required to file two reports, one in March and the other in April. The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission can fine Ryan up to $10,000 for failure to file the campaign reports and can also notify the district attorney and the state attorney general. If those offices file criminal charges for the Class A misdemeanor, Ryan could face a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.

In July, the Kansas City Star reported that Ryan's Kansas driver's license was suspended due to a traffic accident she had in April after her car insurance lapsed. A bench warrant was issued for Ryan's arrest after she failed to appear for a July 11 court date.

In the first accident, which occurred around 11 p.m. April 6, Ryan apparently had pulled over to sleep on a residential street. When an unknown person startled her awake, Ryan drove away. "The next thing she knew, she struck a parked vehicle," states the police report. "She believes that she fell asleep."

Six weeks later, Ryan and Daggett were to attend a Kansas Municipal Utilities Conference on Monday, May 14. Ryan hadn't checked into her hotel on Sunday, and on Monday morning, Daggett's secretary called him at the Hyatt. Someone had found Ryan's purse and BPU briefcase behind a building at Eighth and Ann in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

A BPU security officer reported Ryan's disappearance to the district attorney, and Daggett attended the conference alone. As Daggett loaded his car Wednesday for the drive back to Kansas City, he received a call from the BPU. Ryan and three of her dogs had traveled to Wichita without the briefcase or her purse and gotten into a wreck, he learned. She was at a hospital in Wichita with a neck injury. Her dogs were locked down at animal control.

But even with her injury, Ryan was eager to participate by telephone in the board meeting that Wednesday night. At one point, propped in her hospital bed 180 miles away, Ryan objected to a proposal made by board member Jim Head.

"My answer to Empty Head is 'No, no, no!'" Ryan's voice crackled over the speaker phone. During that meeting, Ryan insisted that the board check the state statute for removal of elected officials, though she never explained her reasons.

"We need to know what dereliction of duty means," Ryan told her fellow board members that night. "And if we're guilty of dereliction of duty, we need to be thrown off that board."

By the time Ryan had her second traffic accident, BPU board members and staff had grown concerned about her curious behavior. Ryan had hunted down Wyandotte County district attorney Nick Tomasic at home to tell him about the diabolical telephone tamperers whom she believed invaded her basement. The telephone company had been to Ryan's home and set up a temporary hookup outside, she said.

"She called one time and said she was up in a tree because her phone was broken," recalls Colombel. ("Can you hear the rain?" Ryan asked Daggett's secretary from her perch.) "She thought that people were breaking into her house and stealing yard ornaments. If she'd hear gunshots, she'd think they were shooting at her."

But no matter how bizarre Ryan's behavior, she remains an elected official of Wyandotte County. Unless she is charged with a major crime by the district attorney or state attorney general or recalled through a petition drive demanding a special election, Ryan will remain on the BPU board for the next four years (although she could resign).

Pat Shaffer, a friend of Ryan's, admits that Ryan's behavior has changed since the beginning of the year, but contends that Ryan has also been mistreated by various board members over the years.

"There's no human being that should be talked to the way that lady has been talked to," says Shaffer, who recalls that in Ryan's early days on the board, she was more reserved. Ryan is a sincere person who wants to "do right by the rate payers," says Shaffer. "Mary was interested in really bringing about change. We needed change on the BPU, new ideas, new interventions for the sake of the rate payers."

Shaffer says that Ryan's behavior shifted dramatically this year, when Ryan began to flare up for no apparent reason, sometimes storming out of rooms and slamming doors. "She's just a completely different person since the election, as different as night and day," says Shaffer, who warned Ryan that Daggett's and Colombel's personal lives were none of her business.

"I told her, 'The only part you need to be concerned about is BPU business,'" recalls Shaffer. "The next thing I know, [Colombel and Daggett] filed lawsuits."

After the Pitch was unable to reach Ryan by telephone (Ryan also did not respond to a letter), a reporter visited her home to make an interview appointment. No one answered at the front door, and a neighbor explained that the door was stuck shut and that Ryan used the back door. From inside the house, a loud thunk emitted from an open window. Frantic footsteps could be heard scurrying to the back door. Two dogs in a pen by the brick patio pricked their ears. Behind a battered storm door with no screen, the back door stood ajar. The reporter knocked.

After a knock at the door, a faint, 'Yes?' came from inside. Ryan, who wouldn't come to the door, spoke briefly from the dim room. She declined an interview with the Pitch and would not make an appointment for a later date.

Five months earlier, at her swearing-in ceremony April 17, Ryan had stood at the podium smiling broadly at the twenty or so people who attended. She was delighted to have been elected after changing seats and running against a fellow incumbent.

"It would have been better had they called me Minnie Mouse, the No. 2 incumbent Mickey Mouse, and [No. 3, at-large candidate] Jim Head Donald Duck," Ryan told the public. "Then you people would not have gotten us mixed up as District 1, District 2 and District 3."

The other board members sat silently behind her. Petty scratched his head. Daggett looked at the floor and dangled his eyeglasses from his hand. Colombel gulped a Diet Coke. Ryan told the story of her sabotaged phone.

"The phone company called it vandalism. But I said, 'Please call it tampering with board member Ryan's telephone,'" she said. Ryan said she'd had heard gunshots on a street by her house one evening as she went in her back door. "I made the mistake of leaving the light on in my kitchen, so I was the target. So the car was waiting for me. Then my dog was stolen two and a half months ago." If someone took a shot at her or harmed her dogs, warned Ryan, she would pack up and move to her other house in Johnson County.

"Oh, I want to serve the rate payers [of Wyandotte County], believe me," Ryan declared. "I have many plans for BPU."

At the September 18 BPU board meeting, Ryan's seat was empty. She had missed the previous meeting and may not have known that this meeting had been rescheduled. In the audience of ten or so spectators, an official from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission waited to serve Ryan with papers. Afterward, a commission official would not comment on the contents of the envelope in his hand.

With their lawsuits against Ryan pending, Daggett and Colombel say their focus right now remains on BPU business. Ryan has "calmed down" since the restraining order was issued against her, says Colombel. But she believes that as elected officials, BPU board members should be held accountable for their actions.

"As elected officials, we should be setting the tone of what an elected official should be," she continues. "We are there to serve the public, so we need to make sure the image we project is proper and that we abide by all the laws. Board members need to be cognizant that we represent the rate payers."

The public needs to be better informed when voting for BPU board members, says Daggett. There were at least eighteen meet-the-candidate forums before the last election, but few people attended.

"When electing any public official, you have to understand the power that's involved," says Daggett. "These are really technical, intricate economic positions. People need to take time to know the candidates."

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