Sunday, November 12, 2006

funky town

I owe a lot to Mark Funkhouser . He taught me more about the nature of modern-day big-city power than anyone else.

When I was a full-time reporter, Funkhouser was my favorite source. He loved good investigative reporting, and he wasn't afraid to support it. He would actually call after I'd written a particularly hard-hitting story to commend me. (On the other hand, after I wrote one of the Pitch's first forays into spoof stories, he lambasted my effort -- in front of the entire city council at a business meeting -- as "absolute drivel.")

Funkhouser wasn't a dirt-disher, though. He'd never call me and whisper the latest City Hall gossip in my ear, like so many (thankfully) did. And I hardly ever quoted him. In fact, he was quite coy. He'd never give any info until I asked the right questions. And even then his answer was usually to read such and such report or audit.

But after I got to know my way around, I could come to him and tell him everything I knew and say something like, "This TIF policy seems like legalized graft." And he might say, off-the-record of course, something like, "That's right! It is!!" (Meaning, of course, that the city's tax incentive program is perfectly legal;-)

Two of his reading suggestions completely solidified my understanding of Kansas City. One was a book called Regime Politics, which is actually about Atlanta. And the other was the Holy Grail of Kansas City documents:

The Financial Condition Forum of 2002.

Can you hear the choir of angels?

Yeah. This report is all that.

It offered everything I needed to explain to my readers how this dumb city works. (Or, more accurately, doesn't work.)

And it's written in the most clear, unbureaucratic language. Like this:
There are difficulties unique to Kansas City’s governance structure. The Mayor and City Council’s ability to provide leadership is reduced by the diffusion of power in Kansas City government. One participant characterized the structure as “cul-de-sacs of power.”

I loved that "cul-de-sacs of power" detail. Used it in several stories. Nice way to say "fiefdoms."

And this is even more direct:
The city’s financial condition is precarious and unstable, and the situation is worsened by a lack of direction and priorities.

And this, too:
The future might be a problem, according to another participant, who said the city is like a large corporation that could go down the tubes with a couple of bad decisions.

Can you believe that? A government report that actually says "down the tubes."
Kansas City, like other older urban cities, balanced its recent budget by using reserves and deferring maintenance.

Ok, so that's a little wonky. What that means is we're spending our savings and letting our house go to shit just to keep up our lavish spending habits. As in:
The condition of streets has gotten worse over the past twenty years and infrastructure has decayed.

But here's the money quote. The part where they lay out in brutally honest terms how this city is run:
Through the course of discussion, the (forum participants) listed the most powerful influences on the political environment, saying that politics is largely driven by five elements, all of which have their own political agendas:

  1. Investment in my area or community (district) [meaning, council members' pet projects]
  2. Proponents of the “big idea” or sexy idea [meaning the Jack Henry crowd and their costly schemes, like a tenant-less arena]
  3. Labor unions
  4. The development community
  5. To some extent, neighborhoods
That's right, dear reader. You and I are dead last on that list. And we only have power "to some extent."

Ah, Mark. I'm sure the reporters in town will miss you! I know we mere taxpayers will.


trAcy said...


i'm going to miss Dr. Funkhouser, even though i was never brave enough to call him or shake his hand.

this is the worse time for such an insightful brain to be leaving our debt-laden, helmless city.

and of course, the perfect time for such a brilliant mind to go be free and do what it should.

Anonymous said...

Just think, if anyone should know how much water our boat is taking on --below the water line where it is hard to see--it is Mark Funkhouser. It might be time for a lot of us to think about moving somewhere else, before City Hall sinks and takes us with it.
Mark Funkhouser will have plenty of examples for the book he is writing, it will make interesting reading for the rest of the country, to see just how far Kansas City has slid.

Anonymous said...