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.
An old, ink-drawn map of Lake Lotawana that hangs under a stuffed deer's head lists some of the playful names — Bandit Bay, Quantrill's Cove — assigned to different parts of the lake.
Milton Thompson, a Jackson County parks commissioner, established the Lake Lotawana Development Co. in 1928. He and his partners sold it as a place where the city's elite could enjoy the water without having to travel too far. "A development so unusual and so conveniently located as Lake Lotawana is bound to attract quickly the better class of the outdoor-loving populace," promised a company brochure.
The damming of Sni-a-Bar Creek began at daybreak on March 27, 1929, and by noon, "the stream was lapping impotently against the new impediment," according to an account in the lake's official newspaper.
The dam created nearly 1,000 lakefront lots. Early settlers included Chet Keys, an assistant U.S. attorney, and Lou Holland, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. John Thompson, who built the Chevrolet plant in the Leeds section of Kansas City, employed an American Indian to hew the logs of his lodge.
Before it was a city, Lake Lotawana was just a homeowners' association. To this day, the Lake Lotawana Community Association controls the lake (it's shaped like a map of Italy) and the streets that surround it. The city was not incorporated until 1958.
Over the years, the lake's "better class" took steps to preserve its way of life.
Tobacco wholesaler Anthony Barber owns a large amount of property adjacent to Lake Lotawana. In the late 1970s, residents fought his attempt to build a feedlot for a thousand head of cattle. Their protests prevailed, despite Barber's substantial political connections. (Harold Doc Holliday, who represented Kansas City's East Side on the Jackson County Legislature, was an especially ardent Barber supporter. Barber contributed heavily to the black political club Freedom Inc.)
Later, Barber tried to expand his rock quarry near the lake. Barber said the quarry was a model operation, but Lake Lotawana residents complained about dust and murky runoff.
In an attempt to keep Barber in check, the city of Lake Lotawana annexed a piece of his quarry. That shifted the city's western border to Milton Thompson Road, where Pat Herrington lives. An auto shop owner, Herrington quickly came to resent his new city of residence.
Herrington says former Lake Lotawana Mayor Arthur Van Hook and others lied about the benefits of being annexed. Herrington tells The Pitch that the city leaders he has dealt with care only about their "crown jewel" — the lake.
Herrington was also annoyed by the fact that Lake Lotawana police immediately began to hunt for speeders on Milton Thompson Road. Noticing the frequency of the officers' speed traps, he set up an electronic sign in his yard, warning motorists to mind their pace. The sign also editorialized: "Writing traffic tickets is not crime fighting."
Herrington's protests did not endear him to the city's police chief. Squad cars, Herrington says, used to lurk behind rock piles in an attempt to catch him committing an infraction. (Poletis says Herrington was not harassed.)
It turns out that the chief's bad side was a crowded place.
Randy Poletis had an intense desire to apprehend criminals. And a tendency to overreact.
So concluded an evaluation of Poletis in 1976, his sixth year as a police officer in Prairie Village. Poletis had joined the department in 1970, after a stint in the Army. He had grown up in Kansas City, Kansas.
He was an ambitious young officer. Before becoming sergeant, he served on a multi-agency narcotics squad that required undercover work. Poletis liked action, and he liked authority. He once suggested to his superiors that the department should institute formal guidelines for how long officers could wear their hair.
His Prairie Village police career began to unravel at a department Christmas party in 1985.
Poletis and other celebrants who didn't want the festivities to end took the party to Tasso's, the Greek restaurant in Waldo. Poletis was with his wife, Mary. By 2 a.m., he had consumed 15 beers.
At one point late in the night, a female officer, Bobbe Loomis, asked to talk to Poletis. The exchange ended with Poletis slapping her twice across the face and having to be restrained by his co-workers.
In two lawsuits, Loomis and Poletis disputed the context of the conversation. Loomis admitted to suggesting that the conversation not take place in a hot tub, which made it sound as if such a scenario had taken place. Mary Poletis heard the comment and took offense. Loomis said in a deposition that she and Poletis tried to assure Mary that the hot-tub mention had been a joke.
In Loomis' version of events, Poletis and his wife were on the dance floor for 15 minutes. Then, Poletis came toward Loomis, screamed at her and slapped her so hard, she was unconscious when he delivered a second blow.
Poletis claimed that Loomis was the instigator, that she got in his wife's face and pulled on her shoulder. Poletis said he struck Loomis in an effort to protect his wife, who had been ill.
Multiple witnesses said Poletis called Loomis a "cunt" and other derogatory names. "He looked like he was completely out of control," said one woman who witnessed the altercation.
After learning of the incident, Prairie Village's chief of police, Louis LeManske, recommended that Poletis be suspended and lose his rank.
Poletis appealed that decision to the city's Civil Service Commission. The hearing revealed tension that went beyond a beer-soaked bar fight. LeManske told the commission that he had begun to carry his service revolver because he was fearful of Poletis. (The suspension was upheld, but Poletis retained the rank of sergeant.)
A few months later, LeManske suspended Poletis for firing warning shots, which was against procedure. In the fall of 1986, after Poletis was accused of mishandling evidence, LeManske recommended to the mayor that Poletis be fired.
Poletis tells The Pitch that he became the object of retaliation. His lawyers had notified the city of his intent to file a civil rights lawsuit at around the time that the warning shots were fired. A judge dismissed the case in 1989. "I tell you why I lost," Poletis explains. "I wasn't part of a protected class of people. I wasn't gay. I wasn't black. I wasn't a female. And the judge said I didn't have a right to have a lawsuit."
Loomis, meanwhile, sued the police department for sexual harassment and discrimination. She claimed that Poletis, in addition to hitting her, had said women should not be police officers. She settled with the city for a reported $85,000.
On January 26, 1987 — a few days before the Prairie Village mayor accepted LeManske's recommendation — Poletis started at the Kansas City, Missouri, police academy. There, too, the chief sought to fire Poletis.
Poletis ran into trouble for flouting the city's residency requirement. He rented a midtown apartment, but he and his wife spent their days and nights in Prairie Village. Further complicating matters, Poletis allowed the apartment landlord to claim that Poletis was disabled and eligible for public assistance.
The police board fired Poletis on April 20, 1995, finding his testimony on the residency matter "not credible." Poletis appealed the decision and also sued the manager of the apartment building. Both cases were dismissed.
Who would issue his next police badge? The blots on his résumé were in danger of overshadowing the commendations that Poletis had earned in his 25-year career.
Poletis accepted an offer from Lake Lotawana three days after the Kansas City police board hearing concluded.
Lake Lotawana needed a police chief to manage a force of three full-time officers and two reserve officers. The board of aldermen voted to hire Poletis on the recommendation of the city's new mayor, Stephen Nixon (now a Jackson County judge). Asked later about the decision to hire Poletis, Nixon said he liked how the interview went. He did not recall checking any references.
As the new chief, one of Poletis' first tasks was to resolve a dispute between neighbors. He dealt with the matter by having one of them committed to a mental ward.
A resident named George Hedges wrote a letter to Mayor Nixon a few weeks after Poletis became chief. "We need to talk at length as soon as possible," Hedges wrote. "My schedule is flexible. It would be prudent if the police chief was present in the interest of time."
Hedges' problems began on Memorial Day weekend, 1994, when he complained to his neighbor, Jim Snodgrass, about the noise from Snodgrass' stereo and bug zapper. Not satisfied with Snodgrass' response, Hedges cranked up the volume on his television.
Residential lots in Lake Lotawana are only 50 feet wide, which puts a premium on neighborliness. Hedges and Snodgrass were unable or unwilling to coexist in peace. A police sergeant took a statement from someone who thought he saw Snodgrass go onto Hedges' property and use a camera flash in his window. Snodgrass complained that Hedges made threats through a lattice.
Poletis weighed the evidence and decided that Hedges required a 96-hour stay at Western Missouri Mental Health Center.
A part-time librarian in his early 50s, Hedges was not the picture of stability. He took medication for depression and panic disorder. Around Christmastime of the same year, he wrote a letter to the Lotawana Express stating that his "next stop" was a funeral home. He informed Nixon's predecessor that he carried a handgun. "At this point, I can safely predict the real possibility of a tragedy," he wrote in a letter to that mayor.
His strife with Snodgrass was not imaginary, however. Curtis Dowdell, a former Lake Lotawana police sergeant, said later that he thought Hedges and Snodgrass shared equal blame. Dowdell had told Poletis that he considered Snodgrass to be a "redneck."
With fault apparent on both sides, the police judged Hedges to be the danger. The mental-health professional who signed the order for the detention relied on statements by Snodgrass, Poletis, Dowdell and another officer.
Hedges spent a long weekend at Western Missouri. Upon his release, he found an attorney. Arthur Benson II argued in a federal lawsuit that Poletis had never made a full investigation and instead determined that it was the man who happened to be gay — Hedges — who required the police escort to a mental facility. Benson argued that "the untruths of Poletis" led to the commitment.
Poletis gave Benson opportunities to question his truthfulness. In a deposition that was taken on November 21, 1997, Poletis said he quit the Prairie Village police force because he had been passed over for a promotion. LeManske, who retired in 1991, corrected the record. "He was terminated," LeManske said in his deposition.
Poletis also testified that he didn't know Hedges was gay. (Hedges is now deceased.) But Dowdell said in a deposition that he recalled Poletis making reference to Hedges' sexual orientation.
Benson did not get an opportunity to put Poletis on the stand. A judge dismissed Hedges' case. An appeals court upheld the decision, ruling that the evidence showed Poletis relied more on his belief that Hedges was dangerous than on the fact that he was gay.
Afterward, Poletis said he felt vindicated.
Poletis turned 50 around the time he became chief in Lake Lotawana. In 2000, he sought a bigger job — that of Jackson County sheriff. But two weeks before the Democratic primary, a Kansas City Star story described the circumstances under which he had left the police departments in Prairie Village and Kansas City. Poletis finished third in the primary.
Wings clipped, Poletis strengthened his position as police chief in Lake Lotawana. In 2002, he was given the authority to make hiring decisions without having to go to the board of aldermen. He was also appointed "director of emergency management," which paid him an extra $150 a month.
Poletis developed a reputation for bullying. Gary Miller, the former president of the Prairie Township Rescue Unit (which answered Lake Lotawana's ambulance calls until 2003), sat down with Poletis after Poletis became chief. "He pretty much told me he was going to run EMS [emergency medical services]," Miller says. "From that day on, we didn't have a very good relationship."
Miller felt targeted by Poletis. He says a Lake Lotawana police officer used to follow his wife home from work.
"If you didn't kowtow to him, you weren't one of his favorites," Miller says.
Poletis says the ambulance service was "broken" and in need of an upgrade. "I had no ax to grind personally against Gary Miller whatsoever," he says.
At a meeting of the board of aldermen on November 19, 2002, Lenda Sue Harter said Lake Lotawana's police budget was "stupid." Harter noted that the $504,804 budget was about half of what Blue Springs — which is several times larger — paid for police protection.
Harter blamed the chief. "Poletis was always wanting more money, more money, more money," the former alderwoman tells The Pitch.
Harter's problems with Poletis went much deeper than the personnel and equipment he sought in his 13 years as chief. Harter was friends with George Hedges.
Harter was also friendly with Jo Ann Shirley, a city clerk who lost her job in 1997. Shirley and Poletis had clashed, Harter says. Shirley and Harter used to commiserate at Shirley's house. Harter says police cruisers often waited outside the house and then followed her home.
Harter has lived in Lake Lotawana with her husband, D.J., for 20 years. Both have served on the board of aldermen at various times. They grate on some people — Harter says she and her husband "tell it like it is." At a recent board of aldermen meeting, eyes rolled when D.J. took time to list some of his accomplishments.
"Those people are fools," Alderman David Needles says. "I don't know any other way to put it."
Terry Reed says Lenda Harter can come across as a "black helicopter" type — someone quick to see conspiracy and evildoing. Eventually, though, Reed came to believe that a lot of what she said was true.
For years, Harter had complained that city leaders were careless about spending and other matters. Eventually, a lack of financial discipline took its toll. In 2007, a group of residents created the Campaign for Lotawana to try to raise $500,000 to pay the city's debt. "She knew exactly what was going on," Reed says.
Much of the city's financial trouble can be traced to its clumsy efforts to expand its borders. The 2001 annexation, for instance, led to a suit and a countersuit between the city and Anthony Barber. A settlement, reached in 2004, allowed Barber to keep operating his quarry. To this day, residents complain about noise and runoff.
In 2002, Lake Lotawana sued to keep Blue Springs from annexing unincorporated land near state Highway 7. The effort was for naught, however, as residents in that area rejected a proposal to be annexed into Lake Lotawana.
Lake Lotawana leaders, working with a development lawyer named Robert Freilich, continued to dream.
In 2004, over the objections of Lee's Summit city officials, Lake Lotawana annexed land near U.S. Highway 50. The city of Lee's Summit sued, and a judge eventually ruled that Lake Lotawana had no jurisdiction in the area.
Lake Lotawana's ambitions came at a price. Freilich billed the city approximately $1.5 million for planning and legal costs.
The city racked up more litigation costs in a misguided attempt to use tax-increment financing (an economic-development tool designed to cure blight) to pay for improvements around the privately owned lake.
The community association submitted the TIF plan to capture $5.3 million in taxes to pay for street, dam and sewer repairs. Appalled by the efforts of the quasi-gated community, officials of the Lee's Summit School District (which stood to lose the most money as a result of the tax breaks) filed a lawsuit. A judge voided the plan.
Reed complains that city leaders were too aggressive in pursuing growth. "All of a sudden, we're suing the heck out of everybody," he says.
Recent upgrades to the city's sewer system are also proving to be inadequate.
Arthur Van Hook, the mayor from 2001 to 2007, concedes that he may have lacked the expertise to deal with what the position became in Lake Lotawana's go-go years. "I was in way over my capabilities," says Van Hook, a retired technical programmer.
In 2006, Van Hook and the board took a stab at professionalism and hired Bill Kostar, a former mayor of Westwood, as a consultant. Kostar became a full-time city administrator after Edward Stratemeier, a lawyer, replaced Van Hook in 2007. But the drama was far from ending.
Upon his hiring, Kostar took stock of Lake Lotawana. The sight wasn't pretty. "They had no money," he tells The Pitch. "You could see what a mess it was."
In addition to being broke, the city had personnel issues. Kostar says the city clerk, Rhonda Littrell, would not meet with the police chief unless Kostar was present. The public works director, Patrick Pendergist, also didn't get along with Poletis, Kostar says.
The chief struck Kostar as someone who had been allowed to define his own reality. The police department had accumulated items, such as a Harley-Davidson, that Kostar thought were frivolous. (The motorcycle was later sold.) Once, Poletis suggested that Kostar ask the city for a car. "The city couldn't have bought me a hubcap," Kostar says.
Kostar also noticed that the police department had developed some peculiar habits. He says he got a call from an elderly woman who complained that she had been notified of a code violation by a police officer — with his siren lights flashing.
"No one would ever tell Randy, 'That's not what you do,'" Kostar says. "Well, that's what I did."
An uneasy relationship got worse in fall 2007, after a resident was cited for driving under the influence.
After that stop, Stratemeier asked Kostar to arrange a meeting with Poletis and Sgt. Raymond Draper. Stratemeier was responding to concerns voiced by Lenda Harter, who felt that the DUI suspect had been a longtime target of police abuse. Kostar says the mayor was simply trying to ascertain the facts. Poletis argues that Stratemeier sought to suppress the charge in order to curry Harter's favor for a proposed mill levy increase.
Next came allegations that Kostar sexually harassed officers in the police department.
Poletis says he first observed Kostar paying "special attention" to one of his officers in 2007. Later, he says, other officers reported to him that they had been the subject of unwanted attention and, in some instances, touching.
Poletis declined to speak to The Pitch about Kostar. ("I'm not going to try my case in your newspaper," he says.) His version of events comes mainly from a settlement demand sent by his attorney to city officials last spring. Attorney R. Pete Smith's letter describes incidents in which Kostar supposedly moaned with delight at the sight of an officer's buttocks and followed another officer into a restroom.
The officers made written statements, according to Smith. But Kostar says the claims are ridiculous. "The whole thing is simply absurd," he says.
Kostar believes Poletis manufactured the charges because Poletis knew that Kostar, when he was mayor of Westwood back in 1992, signed a proclamation recognizing Gay and Lesbian Pride Week. (Kostar says he is not gay.)
Not long after the allegations surfaced, an anonymous flier began to circulate throughout Lake Lotawana. It contained excerpts of newspaper stories about Kostar's decision to recognize Gay and Lesbian Pride Week as well as his eventual resignation from the mayor's post, in 2006. (Kostar told a Star reporter he had been battling depression and felt that he needed to step aside.)
The board of aldermen hired a lawyer to investigate the claims that Kostar had sexually harassed members of the police department. Ultimately, city officials concluded that Poletis' allegations against Kostar were bogus. In a September 26, 2008, letter to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, lawyers for the city say two of the officers had assured the city they did not feel that their interactions with Kostar were sexual in nature. (One of the officers declined comment; another did not return The Pitch's phone calls.)
The third officer, the one who supposedly received "special attention," eventually quit the force. The city contends that the officer never felt harassed and his real issue was with Poletis.
The fourth "victim," Sgt. Draper, complained that Kostar touched him as he tried to leave a room. He filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights after being demoted for what the city termed "gross insubordination."
Draper, who left Lake Lotawana for another job in law enforcement, maintains that Poletis ran a fine police department. "We both got screwed royally," he tells The Pitch. He declined to elaborate on his accusation against Kostar.
The board fired Poletis in April 2008, citing his inability to work with Kostar and the mayor. Poletis filed a lawsuit against the city and Kostar last September. In court papers, the city refutes the former chief's assertion that he was a consummate professional.
Kostar left Lake Lotawana on September 26, 2008; he says the city couldn't afford him. Last fall, he accepted an offer to work for the city of Lee's Summit on a temporary basis. The offer was withdrawn after the allegations contained in Poletis' suit appeared on the front page of the Lee's Summit Journal. Kostar says the reporter who wrote the story did not give him a chance to comment.
Stratemeier decided that one two-year term was enough and did not seek re-election. (He did not respond to interview requests.)
Stratemeier's successor, lawyer Howard Chamberlin, ran unopposed; he is regarded as a Poletis supporter. Poletis' critics fear that Chamberlin will seek to rehire Poletis, in part to make his suit against the city disappear.
Terry Reed got 82 votes in the April 7, 2009, election. His Ward 3 opponent, Charles Falkenberg, got 97.
The changing of the guard may give Poletis the votes he needs to return. "I would love it if he got his old job back," Alderman Needles says.
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