Sunday, December 09, 2007

Funk's First 7 Months - a balanced perspective

A few commenters have asked my perspective on the first several months of Mark Funkhouser's administration. I've been tempted to avoid the request, because there is a vicious, vociferous gang of critics who have lost the ability to modulate their outrage at Mark and anyone who does not advocate public flogging for him. In typing this post, I realize that my motives, my rationality and probably my lineage will be attacked by anonymous commenters. But I hate to let the bullies silence a balanced perspective, so here goes.

Addressing the Big Issues:

First off, it's impressive that we're talking about big issues. No previous mayor has done such a forthright job of focusing attention on an agenda of major issues, rather than jumping between issues du jour. It's right there on his business card: Council, Finance, Downtown, Neighborhoods, Housing, Education, Crime, Sewers, Transit and Citizen Satisfaction.

By focusing on those issues, Funk and the council stand a chance of making lasting, systemic improvements rather than applying bandaids to the papercuts that happen along the way. His attention to the council has allowed him to lead as the first among equals, and achieve a majority on the votes that he needs. I am NOT claiming that Mark is buddy-buddy with the entire council, but I am happy to see that he's found ways of achieving concensus by focusing on common interests.

Finance is where Mark is likely to achieve his most important impact on KC. Let's face it, very few citizens and only a few city hall denizens really "get" city finances. Our prior mayor gave money out to clients of her friends like she had a printing press in the basement. Funk's job is to restore a sense of discipline and to find a way to pay the bills. In gaining passage of the Economic Development and Incentive Policy, Funk and the council have at least defined a rational set of policies. Now, if we can stick to it, we might begin to build our way out of our predicament. When you're in a hole, stop digging - Mark has stopped the digging.

Downtown was underway long before Mark took office, and it would be dishonest to claim its success or failure thus far depends on him. One telling anecdote about his character came in the handling of the Hannah Montana ticket shortage. Rather than taking the politically expedient route toward popularity and slamming AEG for not making more tickets available, he met with Brenda Tinnen, the Sprint Center General Manager, and learned what a good job she is doing. He wound up working with her and developing a positive relationship that can only help downtown succeed. By eschewing cheap political points, he helped KC and downtown stay on the road to success.

Neighborhoods and Housing, specifically on the East Side, have been a focus of Mark's tenure. The overwhelming passage of the Sales Tax Renewal was due to the shift in money to the neighborhoods. He is quietly and effectively directing the focus of the city to neighborhood support. Most recently, he appointed Alexander Ellison to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Housing Policy, to work on developing housing policies for the city. It's almost embarrassing that Mark gets to claim credit for moving the city toward a more engaged response to the declining housing stock in our city, but such is the history of neglect toward the impoverished in KC.

Funk's coming Educational Summit will be an attempt to assess where we are and find positive areas of common agreement in educating Kansas City's children. Here is an issue that Mayors have historically taken a "free pass", since they do not control any of the dozen plus school districts that educate Kansas City's children. "That's not my job, talk to the school board" has been the historical response of prior mayors, but Funk is seeking to engage and provide some positivity. At the very least, the TIF policy has slowed the redirection of tax money from the schools and into the hands of real estate developers.

Crime is another area where the Mayor's role is limited. He has a seat on the Police Board, which Mark has taken seriously, but, in all honesty, I'd have to give him a grade of "incomplete" on this issue. Light rail, economic development, housing, education - these are all important issues which could have an impact on crime in Kansas City, but there's been no breakthrough or major development regarding crime in Kansas City.

What kind of a Mayor lists sewers on the back of his card as a priority? Our declining infrastructure requires that we begin work on upgrading our sewers, but most mayors have preferred attending ribbon cuttings than working on this non-sexy issue. Mark and the council have formed a Water Services Utility Funding Task Force to assist the Water Department in coming up with solutions, but it's going to be a long process. Again, hurray for getting us onto the right path, even though he hasn't solved the problems by a long shot.

Regarding Transit, the big issue is light rail in Kansas City. Despite the efforts of some naysayers to claim Mark is somehow against light rail in Kansas City, Mark has successfully guided the council toward repealing the misguided Chastain plan, and is working on leading us toward a regional plan. Regardless of whether such a plan is going to get approval in Topeka and Jefferson City, we will make real progress toward mass transit in Kansas City during his first term. By the end of 2008, we'll have a real plan, and that will be a huge success that has eluded this city for way too many years.

Finally, on Citizen Satisfaction, people are enthusiastic about Kansas City again. Parking has worked out for the Sprint Center. Mark has held numerous public forums, and listened and responded to average citizens in a way that would have frightened our upper-class prior Mayor. Listening to citizens who are not heavily involved in Municipal Government, I hear good things and a lot of evidence that Mark is viewed as a champion of "regular folks".

Listening to insiders and the people who are accustomed to arranging high-dollar TIF with a phone call to the Mayor's office, I hear a lot of dissatisfaction, which, frankly, pleases me. I had the pleasure of listening to a TIF lawyer from one of the large firms in Kansas City complain that "the process is so much tougher now." Awwww. I've heard arrogant "leaders" in a tizzy about a gossip column interviewing the Mayor's wife. I've seen bloggers devote literally hundreds of posts to slinging whatever mud can be found or imagined, and I've noticed the slackening amount of attention those posts draw. I've seen "savvy insiders" get exposed as blustering fools by huffing about schemes like "recall". In short, I've seen the people who fought hard to defeat a populist candidate complain that they're stuck having to deal with a populist Mayor.

Stumbles Along the Way:

No balanced perspective on Funkhouser's first 7 months can ignore the stumbles along the way. Though they seem kind of petty compared to the progress on major issues discussed above, Mark has given the nattering nabobs of negativity too much material to chatter about.

The Semler appointment should never have been made. In appointing a wonderful new Parks Board, chaired by the superb pick of John Fierro, Mark failed to fully vet Frances Semler, a rose-growing grandmother from the Northland who seemed harmless enough until her views on things other than parks and roses seized the spotlight. I still argue that Semler is a less pernicious appointment than Tim Kristl was, but that's a form of amoral relativism.

All told, though, it's kind of encouraging that the major strike against Funk after 7 months is one appointment to a board that, prior to that appointment, would have drawn a blank stare from all but the most insanely informed citizen if asked to name a single member. It's been a pretty darned good run thus far, and there are signs that Mark is growing in the sort of instinct necessary to avoid the sort of gaffes that get the perennially petty so worked up.

Looking Forward:

I've heard Mark compared to Jesse Ventura, and, while the analogy is intended to be insulting, I don't think it's totally inept. Both come from outside the usual breeding stables for political candidates, and both won with creative and populist campaigns pitted against a stagnant political elite. Both "politicians" have a tendency to step in "it" on occasion, and neither seems convinced that their highest priority ought to be avoiding controversy.

Ventura, of course, decided against running for a second term in the face of an increasingly negative political outlook. It turned out he was all style, and no substance.

Funkhouser presents the flip side of that coin. Mark is all substance, and very little style. It turned out that his quirky campaign and odd charisma eked out a victory over Same Old Same Old. Now, he is in a position to do the work he really wants to do. He's managing to get legislation passed. He's managing to keep focus on the big issues in our city. He hasn't been so seduced by a shiny soccer stadium at Bannister that he is willing to give away the Super-TIF farm (can you imagine how Kay would have gushed in her hurry to put on her ribbon-cutting outfit?), though he is working toward making it happen.

I'll go ahead and issue a prediction here. Mark will be reelected in 2011 by a margin greater than Barnes' 60-40 trouncing of Stan Glazer. He'll do so by continuing his dedication toward real improvement in our city, and by his constant contact with the voters of Kansas City. He won't be a stranger reintroducing himself after a four-year absence - he'll be a familiar (and distinctive) face they'll recognize from dozens of community forums and appreciate for his common sense focus on making the city work for them.

At least that is what it looks like at this point in time. There's a whole lot that can and will happen between now and then. So far, so good.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still have my doubts about Funk (car, selmer, mammy, etc ..).

But thanks for giving some info on the more positive aspects of his tenure. If you really want to help the mayor, I think you should give out more info on the good things and be less defensive against the bad.

12/09/2007 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

Overall, good post. I think you're too easy on Funk about the schools issue...losing 12 schools from the District to Independence is going to have a negative affect on the district at large...at least in the short term. This may have been well beyond his control, and well on its way before he took office, but I think he wasn't seen as being hugely, visiably opposing this one.
I think he gets major kudos for the sales tax passing by such a wide margin.
Another red flag is the murder rate creeping back toward 2005 levels (in a time when overall crime has been decreasing nationally). Again, he has limited involvement here, but it's a dark spot.
His supposedly being anti-establishment principle and then allowing the parks board (that he appointed) to run so amuck (Semler, the Dog Park fiasco) is embarrassing. The hiring of Ed Wolfe and his wife's involvement at City Hall also seem more "establishment" than "mayor for the people.
I also don't understand his insistance on the light rail plan going on the ballot in Nov. 2008 vs February...I don't get it. But that may well work out for him (although I'm frustrated by the appearance of foot-dragging now.

I agree that Funk has probably done more right than wrong in the first 7 months, but he has more blemishes than you are admitting to that are cause for concern. Although, again, they may all work out for him. I'm anxoius about the next 12 months, I think we'll know a lot then.

12/09/2007 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

Overall, good post. I think you're too easy on Funk about the schools issue...losing 12 schools from the District to Independence is going to have a negative affect on the district at large...at least in the short term. This may have been well beyond his control, and well on its way before he took office, but I think he wasn't seen as being hugely, visiably opposing this one.
I think he gets major kudos for the sales tax passing by such a wide margin.
Another red flag is the murder rate creeping back toward 2005 levels (in a time when overall crime has been decreasing nationally). Again, he has limited involvement here, but it's a dark spot.
His supposedly being anti-establishment principle and then allowing the parks board (that he appointed) to run so amuck (Semler, the Dog Park fiasco) is embarrassing. The hiring of Ed Wolfe and his wife's involvement at City Hall also seem more "establishment" than "mayor for the people.
I also don't understand his insistance on the light rail plan going on the ballot in Nov. 2008 vs February...I don't get it. But that may well work out for him (although I'm frustrated by the appearance of foot-dragging now.

I agree that Funk has probably done more right than wrong in the first 7 months, but he has more blemishes than you are admitting to that are cause for concern. Although, again, they may all work out for him. I'm anxoius about the next 12 months, I think we'll know a lot then.

12/09/2007 4:31 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Brent:

I'm not sure how I see how having Gloria in City Hall is "establishment", but that's a quibble with the points you make. I'm sure she'll get a chuckle from that if she reads it.

Regarding the timing of the election, I think the point is to give him a shot at getting something through the state legislatures.

12/09/2007 4:53 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

I guess I was referring to the nepotism involved in having Gloria so intertwined...it wreaks of you have to be one of my people to be involved. You're correct, she's certainly not "establishment".

12/09/2007 5:22 PM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

Was at the Sprint Center yesterday. Parked 3 blocks away..sidewalks were salted. Not as good as Kemper, but ok. BUT waiting outside in the freezing cold with thousands of others trying to get in way too few entrance doors and NO CROWD CONTROL, no ropes, nothing. People were pissed. Last trip to Sprint Center for many unless this mess is cleaned up. Imagine if raining, oppressive heat, etc. Hope Mayor reads this and does something about it.

12/09/2007 5:31 PM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

Oh, and meant to mention that wait outside was 45 minutes long!

12/09/2007 5:33 PM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

Oh, and meant to mention that wait outside was 45 minutes long!

12/09/2007 5:33 PM  
Blogger thepaintman said...

No mayor has a stance on the school problems in KC.
It'll be a continual problem.
But some have focus on Charter Schools. A way out of not moving to Kansas.

If any Mayor came up with a realistic solution I think the school board will shoot it down.

It seems to me KC Schools are meant to fail.

12/10/2007 12:50 AM  
Anonymous the nitwit said...

"a balanced perspective"

Ha. Talk about the Sunday funnies.

12/10/2007 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Brent said...

Let's add his handling of the Wayne Cauthen >eventual< firing as a strike against him IMO.

I think Cauthen has done a good job of doing exactly what he was hired to do. Unless he was completely unwilling to change with Funk's vision, I think he should stay

12/10/2007 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Susan said...

The Star story today puts a name to the EEOC complaint. Ruth Bates, wife of former Kansas City Missouri Human Relations Director Mike Bates. These are serious people. Today I am more likely to believe the Bates rather than Ms Squitiro. They have a stellar reputation. Squitiro is a dismal individual, but her role in showing us the true Funk has been enlightening. Who Knew?

12/13/2007 8:01 AM  

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