A caution light bounces in the wind as Terry Reed sits in the driver's seat of a black Chevy Trailblazer.
He's parked on the shoulder of East Langsford Road, one of the entrances to Lake Lotawana, a small community in southeastern Jackson County. The back of his SUV holds campaign signs for an election that's 10 days away. Reed hopes to unseat an incumbent on the board of aldermen.
Reed is a husband, a father and a business owner. Entering city politics was never an ambition. "The last thing I need to be doing is running for alderman," he says. Eventually, however, he came to believe that the city suffered from chronic mismanagement and would benefit from a new perspective.
On this overcast and windy Saturday morning, Reed is planting signs with help of his wife, Janis, and a few friends. Reed's signs feature a stork trying to swallow a frog. The frog, symbolizing waste and conflict, has its fingers wrapped around the neck of the stork, which represents the city.
Developed in the late 1920s as a genteel resort for Kansas City's upper crust, Lake Lotawana has a mere 2,215 residents. Some visit only on weekends. Owners of second homes in Lake Lotawana include billionaire and philanthropist James Stowers, Americo Life Chairman Michael Merriman and corporate lawyer James Polsinelli.
But to view Lake Lotawana as simply a place where captains of industry wear sailing clothes would be a mistake. A convicted drug dealer lives on the same street as a city alderman. A suspected methamphetamine lab caught on fire the night of a police raid. One resident accused the former police chief of tossing him in a psych ward because he was gay.
The lake has attracted people of means since before the Great Depression, but wealth hasn't always brought wisdom. Recent city initiatives have led to costly court battles. "We can hold our heads high and say we've never filed a lawsuit we didn't lose," Reed jokes.
At present, the city is dealing with a lawsuit filed by its former police chief, George Randy Poletis.
Poletis became police chief after he had been run off his two previous jobs. In Lake Lotawana, he developed a reputation for building empires and nursing grudges. Some residents compare him with Dr. Jekyll and J. Edgar Hoover. Others call Poletis a pro. "He solved every crime across his desk," Alderman David Needles says.
The board of aldermen fired Poletis a year ago. He maintains that he was a consummate professional. His lawsuit draws a direct link between his dismissal and his complaints that a city administrator acted inappropriately around his officers.
The administrator is gone, and the mayor who wanted Poletis fired decided not to run for re-election.
As Reed sits in his SUV, a pickup truck turns onto Langsford Road from state Highway 7. Reed waves at the driver, a large man with a full head of silver hair. It's Poletis, driving to his lakefront home.
A blond woman seated at a table squeezes a lemon into her wheat beer. Tonight's entertainer, Lucas Bingham, performs Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" on an acoustic guitar.
It's a Thursday night at the Canoe Club. Customers jam the tables in the dining room and on the patio. The restaurant's young co-owners — Andy Manz and Nick Calkins, friends who met at the University of Central Missouri — bus tables and remove trash in an effort to help the waitstaff concentrate on the guests.
Manz is a fourth-generation resident of Lake Lotawana. The restaurant's décor reflects his heritage. Manz salvaged wood from old cabins to create a lodgelike feel in what had been a hair salon.