Warning, volunteers who choose to serve Kansas City, Missouri: A member of the City Council might subject you to an oral exam.
A few weeks ago, Councilwoman Jan Marcason asked for a meeting with the sculptor and Crossroads District entrepreneur known as Stretch. Marcason wanted to talk to Stretch after Mayor Mark Funkhouser tapped him to serve on the city's Tax-Increment Finance Commission, a tax-break-granting agency that the mayor has criticized for catering to the whims of developers.
Stretch was an interesting choice. He's brash. He shapes what remains of his hair into spiky waves. He hates it when people refer to him by his legal name, Jeff Rumaner.
But his selection made sense. In addition to being part of the artistic community that Kansas City claims to cherish, Stretch is a developer. He has opened two restaurants, Grinders and Grinders West, and built an outdoor music venue on the eastern, grubbier side of the Crossroads.
In short, he's a risk taker, and agencies such as the TIF Commission exist to make it worthwhile to take a chance on Kansas City.
But Marcason felt that Stretch needed vetting. So she spent 90 minutes with him at his studio. She then reported her "findings" to the council. At a public meeting, Marcason expressed her concern that Stretch was not committed to "prevailing wage" and the practice of setting aside subcontracts to women and minorities.
Stretch had failed Marcason's test in part because he did not know the proper jargon. "He told me that he was not asked what his MBE/WBE philosophy was, and I had to explain what that stood for," Marcason told the council on September 10.
MBE stands for "minority business enterprise." WBE is an acronym for "woman business enterprise."
Stretch tells me that he understands that developers who seek incentives have to abide by the city's policies, including those related to affirmative action. He feels that Marcason's line of questioning was sneaky.
"She doesn't like the mayor, and I'm an easy target," he says.
Ultimately, the council approved Strech's appointment by an 8-4 vote. Marcason voted with the minority.
I'm not ready to let it go, however. Because I've been looking at an MBE/WBE deal that casts doubt on everyone's commitment to minority hiring.
May 1, 2008, was "a great day" for Kansas City.
That's what Councilwoman Cathy Jolly declared as she introduced an ordinance establishing a contract with a company called American Traffic Solutions.
The company, which is based in Arizona, installs cameras at intersections. The cameras bust motorists who run red lights. The incriminating image arrives in the mail — along with a $100 ticket.
Jolly said the cameras would increase safety. Eighteen intersections throughout the city are now being monitored.
A few days after the City Council authorized the contract with American Traffic Solutions, the city's Human Relations Division approved the company's plan to hire minority and women subcontractors.
These utilization plans, as they're known, are standard on city contracts of a certain size. The American Traffic Solutions deal is valued at $3.2 million.
In its plan, American Traffic Solutions pledges to award 13 percent of its contract to MBEs and 8 percent to WBEs.
Actually, the company found a single MBE whose participation would allow it to meet the 13 percent goal: an African-American-owned firm called G&H Consulting.
G&H Consulting is not a construction or electrical company, however. It does not build sophisticated cameras.
Its president is Gayle Holliday, a politically connected consultant.
Her scope of work, according to the utilization plan? Public relations and collections.
PR seems an interesting way to spend $421,200. And as I found out later, interesting actually means unrealistic.