Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser says he stands for these things. Yet last week, the parks board he appointed straddled those ideals and dropped a steaming load on them.
On August 28, Board of Parks and Recreation Department commissioners trashed a well-organized citizen effort to set aside part of Sunnyside Park in Waldo for use as a dog park.
Some quick background: Kansas City prizes its parks and boulevards, but the system functions better on paper than it does on the ground. Too many parks just aren't very useful or inviting. Earlier this summer, Funkhouser appointed a new parks board and told it to improve people's satisfaction with the parks. In its first real test, the new board has failed.
Of more than 200 city parks, only one, Penn Valley Park, has a place for dog owners to take their pets for off-leash exercise. Nine months ago, Deb Hipp (full disclosure: She's a former Pitch writer but she hasn't worked for the paper since 2003) began organizing the effort for Dog Park No. 2.
Waldo seemed a good place for it. Rectangular-shaped Sunnyside Park has tennis courts, ball diamonds and a spray ground. But dog owners say that they and their furry friends are the park's most frequent visitors. The day before last week's parks board meeting, midtowner Diane Bulan counted five canines and three humans at Sunnyside Park. "We're the ones who are using the park and we want to use it legally," Bulan tells me.
Hipp put in countless hours on behalf of the Sunnyside dog park. She enlisted volunteers, circulated petitions, found sponsors and held raffles. An architect, Jeremy Schlicher, came up with a design that strived for environmental friendliness as well as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The plan looked appealing to me. In fact, a few months ago, my wife and I gave $10 to the cause (even though we live in Raytown).
On August 20, a parks official informed Hipp that the department was prepared to move forward with a public hearing on the Sunnyside dog park. Hipp and her supporters had reason to believe that the parks board valued their input. When the new commissioners took over on June 12, they made a point of moving the public-comment part of the agenda to the beginning of their meetings, so that, they said, citizens wouldn't have to sit through administrative minutiae and recognition ceremonies before having a chance to speak their minds. Now, the parks board claimed, the public would come first.
Last week, that turned out to be a lie.
A new dog-park policy, which effectively disqualifies Sunnyside Park from getting one, was slammed onto the agenda at the 11th hour. It wasn't posted online. Hipp says Mark McHenry, the parks director, wouldn't share the new resolution with her when she called the parks department for more information.
When Hipp and others arrived for the meeting, the board president, John Fierro, told them that the board would not accept any public comment on matters related to the new policy, which says dog parks belong in large "regional" parks such as Swope Park.
The 30 or so dog-park supporters who learned what was happening in time to attend the afternoon meeting were outraged. Hipp interrupted Fierro to express her frustration.
"You're totally changing the rules of government to put through an amendment that is going to totally cheat us out of our chance for a public hearing, and that is just wrong," Hipp said, sounding more shocked than belligerent.
Amid cries of "shame!" Fierro pounded his gavel and called for order. Fierro said proponents and opponents of the park had made their opinions clear at prior meetings. Then the commissioners, without discussion, approved the new policy. It says dog parks should avoid residential neighborhoods — you know, where dogs and their owners live.
The new rules put an abrupt end to a massive effort by the regular folks Funkhouser is always championing. His parks commissioners decided that the Sunnyside Park plan was just too radical. They bowed to the wishes of a few sticks in the mud who want their neighborhood park to remain a front lawn that they don't have to mow — even if it attracts bums who pitch tents and bathe in the spray ground.
"It's just not good for a dog park," says Eula Inloes, president emeritus of the Here's Waldo Neighborhood Association. Inloes and other objectors believe that Sunnyside Park is too small and too close to private residences for dog play, even though Schlicher's design takes up less than four of the park's 22 acres.
Inloes, I have to say, sounds like your textbook old coot shaking a fist on the front porch. Of Hipp, she says, "This person came in a year ago and started this ruckus and divided the neighborhood." This person may be relatively new to Waldo, but she has lived in midtown for 25 freakin' years. Or maybe we should listen only to people who remember the Andrews Sisters.
The parks board blew it when it agreed with what McHenry called "a lot of opposition" after last Tuesday's meeting. (When I mentioned to McHenry that the supporters claimed to have superior numbers, he quickly got away from trying to quantify the debate. "Sometimes you simply need to make a decision," he told me.)
But far worse than the decision was the way the board reached and delivered its verdict.
Hipp and everyone else who worked for the dog park did all the right things to win approval. And when it came time for the parks commissioners to act, they hid their intentions and shut off debate. The dog park deserved a vote on its merits, not some chicken-shit new policy slipped onto the agenda at the last minute.
Fierro and the other commissioners should have anticipated the hostile reaction that they got in response. Commissioner Aggie Stackhaus actually seemed to enjoy the spectacle. Two park proponents say they overheard Stackhaus tell a fellow board member, upon entering the packed chamber, "I'm loving every minute of this." During the meeting, someone in the audience shouted a threat of a lawsuit. "Go ahead," Stackhaus mouthed.
Dog-park proponents view Stackhaus, a former city councilwoman, as their principal villain. They say Stackhaus conferred with Inloes at a Waldo Homes Association meeting this past spring, before Funkhouser appointed her to the parks board. (Inloes confirms that she and Stackhaus are friends.) Dog park supporter Laura Mikkelson tells me that Stackhaus glared at her when she addressed the parks board on August 14. "It was very obvious by her body language that she was against the dog park," Mikkelson says.
Stackhaus puts off people with more than her body language. Another park supporter, Carmen Root, says she knows Stackhaus from the time Root worked for the Main Street Corridor Development Corporation, and Stackhaus was on the board of directors. Root says that when she called Stackhaus about the dog park this summer, Stackhaus snapped at her and told her to get her information somewhere else.
That conversation left Root in tears. "A person who acts like that shouldn't be in public office, paid or appointed," Root says of Stackhaus.
Most of the dog-park supporters left the board room after the new policy was approved. I watched the commissioners finish their meeting. Stackhaus put on a performance that screamed I need attention. She talked louder than anyone in the room, worked her eyebrows like semaphore flags and thanked one presenter three times, as if her appreciation were the most heartfelt.
I thought I was watching the previous parks board — those elites Funkhouser wanted to cast out of the temple — when Liberty Memorial booster Carl DiCapo spoke to the commissioners about a new restaurant opening inside the World War I Museum. Stackhaus cooed at DiCapo — despite the Liberty Memorial Association's underhanded money grabs and broken promises that Funkhouser had documented as auditor ("The Shaft," February 22, 2007). "Cheers and congratulations!" Stackhaus gushed after DiCapo invited the board to a gala for the new restaurant. (Stackhaus and the other commissioners gleefully marked the event in their calendars.)
The meeting concluded with the commissioners going into a closed session, which cleared the room. Ostensibly, the commissioners were talking about legal issues. But when the discussion lasted more than 15 minutes, I edged closer to the door, trying to listen through the cracks. The scraps of conversation I picked up sounded like a strategy session to control fallout over the dog park. At one point, the commissioners decided that Fierro was going to speak for the board (which he and McHenry did in a brief discussion with reporters afterward).
While eavesdropping, I thought I heard Stackhaus say, "I'm not answering the phone."
Sure enough, she didn't return my call for additional comment.