Television cameras and newspaper photographers crowd the front row for a packed mid-September meeting of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners. But they aren't aiming their lenses at Frances Semler. Today, the controversy is over a proposed dog park in Waldo.
Outside, reporters interview supporters of the off-leash play space and opponents who don't want dogs overrunning the park. Inside, plastic fans labor to stir the air in a cramped conference room where every chair is taken and the walls are lined with anxious dog owners.
The biggest controversy surrounding the board isn't on today's agenda.
In June, Mayor Mark Funkhouser announced that he intended to root out "community divisiveness" with a new slate of commissioners for the board. But by appointing Northland resident Frances Semler, Funkhouser got more than a skilled gardener and well-regarded neighborhood president: Semler, a 73-year-old bookkeeper, is also a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an anti-illegal-immigration group that patrols the U.S. border, pickets construction sites and favors militaristic rhetoric to warn against an "invasion" of unlawful immigrants. Instead of inspiring community inclusiveness, Funkhouser's appointment alienated the Hispanic community and many allied organizations that call the Minutemen a vigilante group.
Three months later, Semler is still a hot topic among attendees at the September 18 meeting. An elderly woman in the back row elbows her companion and whispers, "That's Frances Semler," as if she's just spotted a celebrity.
The Midwest's most famous parks commissioner isn't much to watch, though.
Her gaze is steady, and she barely glances down when she jots notes on a small pad with a purple pen. After the dog-park crowd clears out, the board considers a request to name a stretch of the Paseo after a prominent African-American pastor, gets an update on a construction project that's falling short of minority-hiring guidelines, and hears a presentation on the Ronald McDonald House's expansion plans.
Semler is quick with a sympathetic nod or smile, but she says little. When she does chime in, she speaks quietly, shifts awkwardly and ends her comments with an uncomfortable laugh.
When a parks department employee asks if she and fellow commissioner Aggie Stackhaus will ride on a city float in the American Royal Parade, Semler grimaces.
Stackhaus feigns discomfort but quickly agrees — "Pencil me in," she tells the employee. Semler shifts her eyes around the room and lets the question hang unanswered.
When the cameras are gone, though, the inconspicuous commissioner is still center-stage.
Stackhaus, Semler and parks department director Mark McHenry linger behind a table at the front of the room. As Semler gathers her notebook and purse, Stackhaus excitedly informs McHenry that their celebrity commissioner has earned another accolade: an award from conservative radio personality Laura Ingraham. McHenry looks at Stackhaus blankly. Stackhaus explains that Ingraham is the Ann Coulter of talk radio, and Semler is heading to the Uptown Theater in a few hours to receive her "Power to the People" award.
"She's the poster girl for conservatism," Stackhaus says of Semler.
Semler bats away the comment, starts digging in her purse for her keys.
"Oh, I call her modest Millie," Stackhaus says, chuckling.
Semler's opponents call her racist.
Her supporters call her a champion for the rule of law.
For now, let's just call her Kansas City's most infamous gardener.
Growing up in De Soto, Kansas, Frances Caldwell and her two sisters, Marion and Billie, and her brother, James, helped her parents tend Caldwell Farms, a family operation that won county-fair ribbons for its watermelons. Local schoolchildren who toured the fields knew Semler's mother, Nina, as "the Pumpkin Lady."