Kansas City’s seldom-seen ethics commission is looking more and more like a broken institution

The headline blared from The Kansas City Star in December: “KC ethics commission faces busy year.” But of all the adjectives that could describe the watchdog’s 2010, “busy” reads like a dark joke.

Designed to keep watch over city government, the ethics commission in Kansas City, Missouri, has yet to meet in 2010. Its first meeting is scheduled for August 25, but that might get canceled. A commission requires commissioners, and four of the seven members resigned in the wake of the recent “reve­lation” — that’s what the Star called it, anyway — that some of them had taken sides in the upcoming mayoral race.

City leaders want you to believe that change is in the works. The City Council passed an ordinance last month that bars ethics commissioners from supporting city candidates. “This is good government here,” Councilman Terry Riley announced.

But the new rules put a coat of Bondo on a totaled system. The ethics commission is intended to serve as a check against conflicts of interest, campaign-finance irregularities and other foul play. Historically, though, it has kept a quiet watch. Composed of volunteers, limited in its authority and susceptible to political pressure, the ethics commission has done a better job of padding résumés than keeping politicians in line. “It’s never worked,” Councilman Ed Ford says. “I can’t remember it ever being an effective body.”

But its ineffectiveness has reached a new low. Since 2008, the ethics commission has done nothing but abandon one investigation and not act on another.

Part of the blame rests with Lajuana Counts, who chairs what remains of the commission. A federal prosecutor, Counts has largely been an invisible figure since Mayor Mark Funkhouser made her chairwoman in mid-2008. (The mayor appoints all the members; terms last five years.) She has convened precisely one meeting, prompting questions about her level of commitment. “I don’t know how much time she has to give to it,” Marsha Campbell, a former commissioner, says.

Counts says she relies on the Office of the City Attorney to alert her to issues that need to be addressed. “Nothing comes to me directly, or to the commission members,” she says. “It goes through the city. I don’t know about anything until they let me know.”

But the commission doesn’t have to work so passively. Two years ago, the City Council asked the city auditor to send all his reports to the ethics commission. The commission can now launch investigations based on those reports, which analyze the city’s practices.

The mayor and the City Council also refer matters to the ethics commission. And two recent referrals fell into a black hole.

In 2008, Councilwoman Deb Hermann asked the ethics commission to investigate how the city had selected a company to provide copiers and other document services. The selection process was a mess, and Riley was right in the middle of it, steering the contract in the direction of a campaign contributor. “Call me before u vote. Please!!” he wrote in an e-mail to a member of the committee that selected the vendor.

The ethics commission met February 5, 2008, to discuss the copier contract. The decision to look into the role played by Riley, who is black, broke down along color lines. Four white commissioners said his actions deserved scrutiny; two black members disagreed.

Despite the majority’s sentiment, the investigation never took off. Not long after the commission decided to take action, its chairman, former City Attorney Walter O’Toole, resigned. O’Toole didn’t say why he stepped down, but the racially divided vote likely played a role in his decision.

After O’Toole’s departure, the investigation ground to a halt. Counts replaced him and could have taken it up herself. You can imagine her sitting down with City Attorney Galen Beaufort, the commission’s main contact at City Hall, for a chat about unfinished business. Instead, 16 months went by before she called her first meeting, and when she did, the copier incident wasn’t on the agenda. “I don’t know what happened with it,” Counts says.

Dan Porrevecchio, a commissioner who voted for the review of the copier contract, still thinks it needed to be examined. “What happened?” he asks. Former commissioner Campbell says, “It was a hanging chad.”

The copier contract isn’t the only opportunity that the commission has mishandled in recent years. In late 2008, Ford sponsored a resolution asking the commission to look at Funkhouser’s handling of an open-records request, as well as the role that the mayor’s former communications director, Joe Miller, played in a political campaign.

It took almost a year, but the ethics commission finally decided at its November 2009 meeting — again, the first called by Counts in 16 months — that the allegations deserved a review. The city’s internal auditor, Roy Greenway, prepared a 600-page report about the activities in the mayor’s office. (Greenway has a reputation for being — how do I put it? — thorough.) But nine months later, not a single witness has been called to testify because the commission hasn’t met since then. The Funk allegations are on the agenda for the August 25 meeting, which Counts acknowledges is unlikely to take place.

Counts says it’s a challenge to find times for commissioners to meet. But other boards and commissions in Kansas City find a way. The citizen-led Public Improvements Advisory Committee makes recommendations on how to spend the 1-cent sales tax for capital projects. The group meets weekly at times during the year. “Bottom line is, a commission that doesn’t meet can’t fulfill its obligations,” Ford says.

Regular meetings won’t solve everything. The ethics commission has other, built-in inadequacies. For one thing, it lacks a big hammer. It can’t issue fines or send people to prison. “About the only thing we can do is embarrass someone,” Campbell says.

The “reforms” that the City Council passed last month may not help. The ethics commission may even become less effective, if that’s possible. The new restrictions on political activity, Porrevecchio says, are “well-intentioned but shortsighted.”

Porrevecchio says the ethics commission needs people with a grasp of political nuance. Otherwise, the commission may find itself being led down rat holes. “Anybody can say anything about anybody and cause an investigation to occur,” he says. Campbell says the ethics commission “has potential for great mischief.”

Trouble is, the people who can tell a legitimate complaint from the caterwauling of cranks and opportunists tend to be the same people who give to candidates or get involved in political clubs. Porrevecchio belongs to the Citizens Association, which endorses candidates. Campbell made a campaign contribution to Sly James, who’s running for mayor. Both stepped down from the ethics commission after the council enacted the new rules.

Jay Stock, a former ethics commissioner who was “caught” supporting Hermann, notes that council members routinely vote on issues involving campaign donors.

“What’s the difference?” he asks. “Where does the difference lie?”

The difference is that the City Council makes the rules.

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