Every once in a while, I think I should start paying more attention to Jackson County politics. The Kansas City Star will update a lawsuit or a controversial contract, and I'll make a silent pledge to start working the phone.
The other day, I made a trip to the courthouse. I wanted to brush up on an incident that started behind a closed door, went to court and now sits before the county ethics commission.
In 2005, then-Legislator Robert Stringfield hired two aides, Bob WitbolsFeugen and John Pennell. The hirings annoyed Stringfield's colleagues in the Jackson County Legislature because Pennell and WitbolsFeugen had developed reputations as citizen agitators.
WitbolsFeugen was an especially unpopular choice. His interest in county government had been forged by tragedy. In 1997, WitbolsFeugen's 18-year-old daughter, Anastasia, was found shot to death in a cemetery near Interstate 435. The crime fell under Jackson County's jurisdiction. Investigators suspected Anastasia's boyfriend in the crime. WitbolsFeugen believed that there was another story. Ultimately, a friend of the boyfriend's went down for the murder.
After filing a complaint against the sheriff's office, WitbolsFeugen started keeping on top of public bodies with the same zeal he'd devoted to pursuing his daughter's killer. He became a sharp-elbowed expert on Missouri's Sunshine Law. He successfully sued one commission for holding an illegal meeting, only to win an award that was a fraction of his legal expenses.
A stickler for process, Stringfield liked WitbolsFeugen's tenacity. Stringfield's fellow legislators, though, hated the idea of sharing office space with a guy who liked to hold annoying signs at public meetings. On May 16, 2005, Legislator Scott Burnett brought up the hiring during a closed session. According to court records, Burnett expressed his concerns about staff safety and e-mail security.
State law permits governments to discuss personnel matters out of public view. Burnett, however, had failed to put the item on the agenda. WitbolsFeugen appealed to the county prosecutor. A written opinion from James Kanatzar, then a deputy in the office, said improper notice made the discussion a violation of the Sunshine Law, albeit a soft one — Kanatzar called it an "oversight."
Grim and fussy, Stringfield sued his colleagues (and the county clerk) on what amounted to a technicality. The eight legislators might have convinced Stringfield and his not-so-merry band of records refs to drop the matter with an apology and a small fine. "That's all they had to do, was admit they did it wrong," WitbolsFeugen tells me today.
Instead, displaying the pettiness and immaturity embedded in so many politicians' DNA, they cut Stringfield's office budget and countered with an accusation of malicious prosecution.
Thus began another round of paper throwing. WitbolsFeugen filed a complaint with the Jackson County Ethics Commission, which later ruled that legislators should pay for the countersuit out of their own pockets. Then, of course, the true cost of the countersuit became a matter for dispute.
Stringfield and Legislator Dan Tarwater once tussled — and not verbally —after a public meeting. The combatants apologized and embraced a week after the scuffle.
The drama seemed to wear down Stringfield. He asked WitbolsFeugen and Pennell to begin working from unnamed "remote locations" in an effort to create a more peaceable environment at the courthouse. He decided not to run for re-election. He dropped his lawsuit.
The ethics commission is still trying to determine which legislators have paid attorney's fees for the countersuit, which was also voluntarily dismissed; a hearing is scheduled for July 25.
Looking back at what happened, the reporter side of me admires Stringfield for insisting on transparency from county officials, a few of whom have been in office since Reagan was president. They're a bunch that needs minding. In 2005, former County Executive Katheryn Shields tried to hold budget meetings in secret, forcing the Star to instigate its own open-meetings lawsuit.
But rooting for Stringfield was tough. I had interviewed him once at length and found him dull and humorless. He used the phrase "policy, procedures, process and the law" like a cudgel. I wanted to tell him that Robert's Rules of Order was a manual, not a guide to life.
Stringfield also ran with the sort of folks who pay their own money to play radio host on low-watt stations. One such voice in the wilderness, Bill Wilcox, used to waste my time with story suggestions that were impossible to verify or were just wrong. In 2006, Wilcox tried to convince me that the Chiefs and the Royals were moving to Kansas. Just last week, he described an assault that sheriff's deputies supposedly perpetrated on him and his wife at a meeting of the Legislature in February. "I've got some nerve damage in my shoulder," he said. I'll get right on it, pal.
Meanwhile, it's business as usual at the county.
The number of legislators with federal convictions doubled in the most recent election, when James Tindall regained a seat. (A jury found Tindall guilty of making false statements on a 1992 tax return; Henry Rizzo spent a few months behind bars in 1991 for check kiting.) In April, newcomer Theresa Garza Ruiz introduced a bill that tried to put an end to the cheesy tactic legislators use to ensure their names are first on the ballot. (They file their paperwork before the courthouse opens.) The measure failed, seven votes to two.
Last September, a task force led by a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor came forward with a new ethics code. The presentation got a nice write-up in the Star — and promptly found its way to a shelf. The full legislature has yet to take up an ordinance to make the code enforceable.
For a moment, I got worked up about all this. Then I realized: It all sounds very important, but it's not.
County government is mostly a pass-through organization. Sure, the jail and the prosecutor's office are essential functions. But once the big-ticket items get their funding, county officials' "real" work seems to consist of peeling off a few grand here and there for friends and pet causes.
What I learned from paying closer attention: County government is, at its highest level, a mostly inconsequential exercise conducted by tedious people.
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