The Dump List: The 2016 players we’d set out by the curb if we could

It’s been obvious since at least April, when Prince died, that 2016 wouldn’t be just any old lamentable year. No, 2016 was now a garbage year.

And then it got worse.

Every Trump tweet, every WTF celebrity death, every battlefield bulletin made a bad thing worse. This was now a colossal monster-mudder dumptruck of a year, its course set for the heart of the landfill and its throttle picking up speed with every news cycle. And the stink isn’t going to drift away in the new year. The 12 months that pushed the lazy colloquialism “dumpster fire” into the mainstream — denoting a shit avalanche that turned out to feed into precisely that kind of conflagration — will issue toxic plumes into the next decade.

Kansas City isn’t Aleppo, of course. It’s not Mar-a-Lago or Paisley Park, for that matter. The worst of the year’s local news stories were less sweeping debacles than they were small-batch tragedies, ugly garnishes to KCMO’s absurd murder rate. Our regional political squabbles and campaigns were also scaled smaller than those that dominated front pages around the country, though their results haven’t left us any better off. 

So yeah, even this all-time rotten year could have been worse. Still, some of our area trash was distractingly, upsettingly, stupidly trashy, and we’d just as soon put it out to be hauled away forever. Assuming the truck ever shows up…

Waste Management

The Deffenbaugh landfill is located in western Shawnee, on top of a large bluff that oversees the confluence of Mill Creek and the Kansas River, with Interstate 435 and Lake Quivira on the east and Johnson Drive to the south. From the bluff, a person has an expansive view of rolling hills and forests, making it, despite the proximity to the metro’s garbage, catnip for developers. The population in the area has grown exponentially over the past few years.

For most of that time, the landfill had managed to co-exist with the thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class homes and new businesses sprouting up. Odor problems, when they happened, were sporadic and quickly mitigated.

But Deffenbaugh was sold in March 2015 to a subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste disposal company in the United States. And the new ownership has not shown Shawnee’s neighborhoods and businesses — or its City Council — much respect. Soon after the transaction, a gut-churning stench began to seep up and out of the dump. The smell clung for miles.

Complaints rolled in — more than 100 in the last three months of 2015. Three came from Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler, who lives eight miles from the dump.

Residents began showing up at city government meetings to voice their complaints. Mayor Mike Olson of Lake Quivira attended one of them and shared a petition from his constituents, expressing their concerns.

Meanwhile, Waste Management wasn’t limiting its provocations to Shawnee. It steadily began to piss off many of its customers around the metro by allowing its pickup services to devolve toward chaos. Trash and recycling trucks were often no-shows on their established routes throughout the area. The company used a novel PR strategy to push back at its new market, blaming its woes on a shortage of qualified local drivers who could pass drug tests. The city of Prairie Village was unmoved by this explanation and dropped the company’s service in favor of a company that had actually bid a higher price.

Jim Murray, senior district manager for Deffenbaugh, could not be reached for this story, but at a public meeting last summer he blamed the extreme odors on 300 tons of wet yard waste. Left unexplained for now is what special magic Deffenbaugh used over the years to contain the smell as well as it did.

By September, with the putrefaction still percolating, three western Shawnee residents, Julie Johnston, April Wittenauer and Joseph Clark, had had enough. They hired Liddle & Dubin, a Michigan law firm that handles environmental-contamination class-action lawsuits. The firm’s website says its lawyers have won several multimillion-dollar judgments. The attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court in Kansas City, Kansas, on Sept. 26.

The lawsuit noted that there are thousands of owners and renters within the proposed class area, which has a circumference of about two miles. The residents’ injuries include “exposure to pollutants, horrific odors and air contaminants,” the lawsuit said. “The foul odors experienced by area residents constitute a stench so overwhelming that no reasonable person should be expected to endure it.”

The odors have caused residents to remain inside their homes and not use their yards, and have caused “embarrassment and reluctance to invite guests to their homes,” the lawsuit said. According to the lawsuit, Deffenbaugh “intentionally, recklessly, willfully, wantonly, maliciously, grossly and negligently failed to construct, maintain and/or operate the landfill and caused the invasion of Plaintiff’s property by noxious odors, air contaminants and other airborne pollutants on intermittent and recurring dates.”

At a Shawnee Planning Commission last summer, a senior district manager for Waste Management, responding to the odor complaints, acknowledged that the “conditions at the landfill have caused the emission of odors,” according to the lawsuit. The manager said, “Quite honestly, we dropped the ball … we didn’t perform up to the level the city was used to.”

No trial has yet been scheduled.

Tony Berg

The McClatchy Co., corporate parent of The Kansas City Star, last January tapped Tony Berg to take over as publisher for departing Mi-Ai Parrish. (She left for The Arizona Republic, where she was celebrated later in the year for a very public response to threats received after the paper endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. This was a surprise to Kansas Citians, who had heard nary a peep from Parrish during her low-impact time here.) Berg was an ad-department VP back then, just 38 when he got the job. And thanks to him, all of us who read the Star are so much older now. 

As the daily’s lead business decider as well as a nominal member of its editorial board, Berg is entirely accountable for a travesty that reshaped KC’s media landscape in 2016: the slow-motion sacking of the whole editorial board. And it seems to have been death by blunder rather than a coldly calculated slaying. Berg simply shook the Star’s opinion section like an old Etch A Sketch until it was dead blank. Steve Paul took a buyout in the spring, having headed the board only a short time before he became the latest Star journalist to get one of McClatchy’s Godfather offers. Next out was Barbara Shelly (who now contributes to The Pitch and wrote other entries in this story, but not this one), another buyout. No plan emerged for who would lead the editorial board, despite Election Day’s loom. September marked Yael T. Abouhalkah’s last day as the paper’s sanctioned Sam Brownback troll. Lewis Diuguid took a look around, saw that his was the lone shadow, and set out for his own permanent winter.

Meanwhile, someone stepped away from the bridge long enough for Laura Herrick — one of 2016’s contributors to the Midwest Voices column, an annually rotating buffet of amateur op-ed writers who display an amusing range of IQs — to publish something headlined “Women can take action to prevent rapes.” It was inexcusable victim-blaming, and it was up to Berg (Abouhalkah and Diuguid were still on staff but away at the time) to put his byline on a retraction. His makeshift apology was its own kind of equivocating insult, featuring this bit of dudely harrumphing: “I appreciate the point the writer was trying to make about responsibility, particularly when alcohol is involved. But as an older brother to two sisters, I believe when a person is sexually assaulted, it’s not their fault. Period.” 

By the time the election rolled around, Berg had made a big deal out of hiring Pulitzer-sharing writer Colleen McCain Nelson to take over the editorial board, though not until the new year. Berg’s Star then took a knee, sitting out the election with cheapie editorials bought from a service (none cheaper and more servicing than the howler of a Roy Blunt endorsement) and bigger-than-usual doses of syndicated horseshit by Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg, a rightward feint that began to feel maybe semi-permanent. 

Is it too early to send Berg to Arizona? 

Jim Hinson

Four years ago, when Jim Hinson became Shawnee Mission School District superintendent, his arrival was greeted with excitement. He was described by a board member as “charismatic and dynamic.”

Two major missteps last summer and fall tarnished his brand, perhaps irreparably. 

In November, Hinson embarrassed the district nationally when he ordered teachers and district employees to refrain from wearing safety pins at school. The pins had emerged as a symbol after the presidential election; they signified the wearer’s solidarity with marginalized groups including women, minorities, Muslims and the LGBT community. Countless persons were using the gesture to show themselves eager to unite with the disenfranchised.

But Hinson said the pins were divisive, that they represented partisan political speech, and he planned to deal with teachers the same way he dealt with an employee who brought a Confederate flag to a classroom after the election. (Soon the ACLU sent a letter to Hinson criticizing his action and asking him to reconsider. Stay tuned.)

Before that, this past July, the Shawnee Mission Post discovered that Hinson and two of his deputies had secretly received big raises in 2015, at a time when the district was facing serious financial struggles.

At the time the school board gave Hinson and his two employees raises, administrators feared there wasn’t enough money to give all teachers raises. That didn’t keep Hinson from making sure he got a 9.5 percent raise — to $254,280, from $232,280. When Hinson was hired, in 2013, his salary was $217,950. That’s an average increase of $9,000 for each year he has worked for the district.

Deputy Superintendent Kenny Southwick received a 15 percent raise, making his annual salary $195,500. Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership Michelle Hubbard received an increase of nearly 9 percent, pushing her salary to $178,576.

The Post said it learned about the raises after filing an open-records request for salary information. The public didn’t learn about the raises until the Post story; the board never discussed its decision publicly.

Vicki Sciolaro

The chairwoman of the 3rd Congressional District for the Kansas Republican Party appeared on CNN after a recording surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Epitomizing unthinking Republicans whose pleasure zones respond only to tickles of resentment-peddling Fox News hosts, Vicki Sciolaro brushed aside Trump’s comments as “irrelevant” and tried to pivot toward Roe v. Wade.

“Hillary Clinton doesn’t care about murdering babies, dismembering abortions,” she said, extending the A in babies like your least favorite aunt.

When the host, Brooke Baldwin, tried to return to Trump’s comments, Sciolaro said Trump was wrong. “But here’s the thing, he’s not running to be the pope,” she said.

While forgiving of Trump’s behavior, Sciolaro nurses a grudge against Bill Clinton. She groused that his scandals led her children to believe that American presidents conducted business in the “oral office.” (Sciolaro’s kids apparently dreamed of jobs in Jay Leno’s gag room.) Exasperated, Baldwin finally raised her hands to her face, as if to say, “Make it stop!”

Sciolaro’s performance was so ghastly that the executive director of the Kansas GOP released a statement afterward, saying Sciolaro had provided “personal opinions” on Trump’s candidacy and did not speak for the party. It was the second election cycle in a row in which a 3rd Congressional District committee leader caused embarrassment. In 2014, the vice chairman resigned after tweeting that “offending Muslims is the duty of any civilized person,” adding, “especially with a .45.”

Mike Sanders

Mike Sanders said he wanted to spend more time with his family when he made the surprise announcement that he was resigning as Jackson County executive. It was a puzzling move. In 2014, Sanders had asked voters for a third term. A year later, he wanted out. It was like a kid announcing that he needs to pee 20 minutes after the car pulls away from a rest stop.

But maybe the move wasn’t so puzzling. A few months before he resigned, The Pitch reported that the FBI was asking questions about his office’s involvement in awarding a $75,000 county contract to a woman who was the communications director for the Missouri Democratic Party at the same time that Sanders was its chairman. (No charges were filed.)

In any case, Sanders kept a hand in county business. Shortly after quitting, Father of the Year received a $60,000 contract to provide the county with legal services. The deal was sold to the public on the grounds that Sanders was the right man to help the county finish negotiations for the purchase of a Rock Island railway corridor. Residents who had hoped Sanders would bring that kind of expertise to the job when they voted for him in 2014 were asked to see him instead as a $10,000-a-month consultant. Worse, this personnel shuffle was done in secret. County counselor Stephen Nixon hired Sanders without telling Frank White, who had stepped in as county executive, or the members of the county legislature.

Sanders declined to comment about the deal, a ducking of responsibility by a man who had repeatedly asked the public to place its faith in him.

Bob Dole

In 2012, Bob Dole returned to the U.S. Senate with his wife, Elizabeth, to support a United Nations treaty that would ban discrimination against persons with disabilities. A majority of Republicans voted to reject the treaty, including the senators from Dole’s home state of Kansas. When the treaty failed, Democrat Harry Reid accused the Republican Party of being “in thrall to extremists and ideologues.”

Frail but still sharp, Dole did not seize the opportunity to renounce the obstructionism and wingnuttery clogging the arteries of his party. Instead, he continued to spend his senescence making quips and cozying up to power.

In May, Dole endorsed Donald Trump — who had titled one of his books Crippled America, offending disability advocates — when other Republicans were distancing themselves. Dole continued to stand by Trump after he appeared to very publicly mock a reporter with a disease marked by limited flexibility of the joints.

A generous view of Dole’s support for the eventual president would see a man of experience offering guidance to an unprepared candidate. Such a generous view was hard to maintain, however, when it was revealed that Dole had been working as a lobbyist all along. Shortly after Trump broke precedent by taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan, The New York Times reported that Dole’s law firm had received $140,000 from the Taiwanese government. The payments began around the time Dole buddied up to Trump. “It’s fair to say that we had some influence,” Dole, 93, said of the phone call, sounding like a dinner guest acknowledging that, yes, it was he who had cut the fart during the soup course. Wearing a MAGA hat and clutching money from a foreign government — way to go out with honor and dignity, Bob.

Kris Kobach

Kris Kobach is a handsome version of Joe McCarthy. In February, the Kansas secretary of state called the League of Women Voters “communists.” Kobach was perhaps annoyed that he had suffered another defeat in court. A month earlier, a state court had ruled that his office overstepped its authority when it introduced a two-tiered voting system. Kobach came up with the system after the the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a “proof of citizenship” law in Arizona, similar to one in Kansas. Kobach tried to squirm around the ruling by preventing people who had used the federal voter-registration form from voting in state and local elections. In September, facing a contempt hearing, Kobach finally caved and added 18,000 voters to the rolls.

Courtroom setbacks aside, Kobach continues to make irresponsible claims about voter fraud — and people continue to listen. He went along with Donald Trump after the president-elect peddled a fantasy that law breakers had cost him the popular vote. “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point,” Kobach said. His evidence was a 2008 study that was criticized and later debunked. That didn’t keep him from chewing into the news cycle.

Kobach is a provocateur who is skilled at making his hardline positions on immigration and other matters seem like the products of careful study. (He went to Harvard! And Yale!) He has taken advantage of the media’s struggles to separate policy differences from norm-crashing opportunism. A 2012 Kansas City Star profile signalled the tedium to come with the headline “Kansas Secretary of State Kobach draws praise, scorn for work.” Tomayto, tomahto.

He’s probably headed to Washington to work in some alien-hunter role in the new administration. If so, Kansans should hope that their next secretary of state re-establishes the office’s commitment to humdrum public service.

Melika Willoughby

Since joining Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s communications team a couple of years ago, Melika Willoughby has distinguished herself as the purveyor of wildly inaccurate, over-the-top claims that lend themselves to wholly justifiable ridicule.

If you imagine that a state official who bills herself on Twitter like an AM-radio evangelist — “Redeemed sinner. Pursuing Jesus. Loving the orphan. American” — should really be at the Kansas Policy Institute or embedded in Jeff Roe’s campaign operation, then you were disappointed yet again in 2016. Brownback just named Willoughby his communications director, making her responsible for delivering the governor’s good word with Kansans.

Most people in such a position strive for credibility and good relations with the media. Not Willoughby. She celebrated her promotion with yet another of her wallpaper-curling e-mail blasts ripping the “liberal” media and legislative Democrats for accusing Brownback of failing to lead in the face of an ongoing budget crisis. Curiously, Willoughby’s missive failed to mention that Republican legislators had been making the same allegation.

“The hypocrisy is deafening,” declared Willoughby, who never passes up the chance to substitute triteness for transparency, and who apparently doesn’t recognize actual hypocrisy at close range. It’s looking like a long, brutal legislative session in Topeka, Willoughby’s inexplicable ascendance at least promises a low form of entertainment.

Mary Pilcher-Cook

If ever the moment to finally oust Mary Pilcher-Cook seemed at hand, it was this past November. It was in the air: the feeling that Kansas voters might at last be fed up with Pilcher-Cook’s icky fascination with their sex lives. Conservatives were being rejected all over the state, and Pilcher-Cook faced a strong challenge from Democrat Vicki Hiatt, a retired schoolteacher.

Alas, Pilcher-Cook prevailed in her conservative Shawnee district by 950 votes. The lawmaker who has sought to outlaw surrogate pregnancies and has compared birth control to eugenics — among other things — will return to Topeka in January.

One bright note: The 2017 Legislature, chastened by the rout of many conservatives, is shaping up as a serious group intent on fixing the state’s chronic fiscal imbalance. Leaders probably won’t put up with Pilcher-Cook’s antics; she’s already been booted from her chairmanship of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Call her victorious, but see her also as diminished.