Monday, March 21, 2011

Can Mike Burke keep city agencies from backsliding?

Posted By on Mon, Mar 21, 2011 at 1:15 PM

click to enlarge Mike Burke has seen the cesspools form at city agencies.
  • Mike Burke has seen the cesspools form at city agencies.

During his campaign for mayor, Mike Burke has accused Mark Funkhouser of hanging a "closed for business" sign on Kansas City. Funkhouser went into office on the promise that he would make developers work harder for incentives.

Things slowed to a crawl, all right. How much the economic downturn and the mayor's pigs-at-the-trough rhetoric were at fault is anybody's guess. But the Blame Funk crowd might want to keep one thing in mind when lamenting the lack of activity at the city's economic-development agencies, and that's the agencies' potential for corruption.

Scandal lifted one of these agencies, the Port Authority of Kansas City, out of obscurity late last year. Reporters found out that William Session, one of the agency's lawyers, had moonlighted as an excavator on land that the Port Authority had sold to a private developer.

The deal looked terrible to everyone but Session and his enablers. Eventually, the chairman of the Port Authority resigned, and the Session Law Firm lost its gig as the agency's general counsel.

Session's extracurricular activities were appalling but not surprising to those who have watched city agencies double as patronage machines over the years.

Session began working as one of the Port Authority's lawyers when Emanuel Cleaver was mayor. Session also did some work at another city agency, the Tax-Increment Financing Commission, during Cleaver's reign.

One of Session's TIF Commission assignments involved the Costco/Home Depot redevelopment in midtown. In 1995, Session evaluated bids to do environmental work at the site before it became a dispensary for 36-roll packages of toilet paper.

Session decided that the job should go to Kingston Environmental, even though Kingston's initial bid of $193,634 was not the lowest. Kingston was able to adjust its bid to $170,234 before Session made his recommendation to the TIF Commission.

The curious-looking bid process was described in a 1998 audit of the TIF Commission. (Ah, the days when Funkhouser was a crusading bureaucrat.) It did not go unnoticed that one of Kingston's owners, William "Doc" Worley, was a Cleaver supporter.

click to enlarge William Session embroiled the Port Authority in scandal.
  • William Session embroiled the Port Authority in scandal.

Befitting his status as a donor, Worley served on a number of city boards and commissions while Cleaver was mayor. He was on the Port Authority's board in 1995, when the agency hired none other than Bill Session to monitor compliance with the agency's Economic Empowerment and Opportunities Program.

The Session deal was made in the shadows. A 1998 audit of the Port Authority (Funk again) could not find a record of the Session Law Firm's appointment in the agency's minutes, much less evidence that the job had been bid competitively.

The takeaway from this is that Session and Worley were essentially grading each other's work while their mutual friend held the city's highest office. (Session represented Cleaver after questions arose about the unpaid taxes on a car wash that Cleaver owed.)

Burke knows as well as anyone that this sort of junk goes on. He became the Port Authority's lead lawyer after Kay Barnes became mayor. The arrangement gave off the whiff of patronage -- Burke had supported Barnes -- though Burke notes that his firm, King Hershey, landed the gig after a competitive bid process. King Hershey made a reported $2.8 million from the Port Authority between 1999 and 2010. (With Session out of the picture, King Hershey is back handling the Port Authority's legal work again.)

Burke is mindful that it looks bad when a new mayor's friends are put in positions to get paid. Burke says the Port Authority and other city agencies need to develop systems for hiring lawyers and other professionals. He thinks it might make sense for the TIF Commission, which spends a small fortune in legal fees, to hire an in-house lawyer to perform more mundane tasks, such as making sure meeting minutes are kept correctly.

If he becomes mayor, Burke would also like to give the city's boards and commissions less of a been-there-done-that look. "We need to make sure that we have our community as a whole represented on the board and commissions," he says.

Burke's diversity drive would include an effort to get more young people involved. Too often, he says, you look at boards and philanthropies and see "a lot of the same people doing the heavy lifting."

And, in some cases, the heavy taking.

UPDATE: This entry originally stated that Cleaver answered questions about the car wash in 2005. The matter first arose in 2004.

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