The new reconstruction: How the federal government is taking over Kansas City
By Jack Cashill
No one knows how it happened.
Hell, very few know that it's happened.
But it has. Oh my, has it ever. Indeed, not since the last disillusioned Yankee regulator stashed his fabled carpetbag on the Chesapeake & Ohio headed north has the Federal government weighed in on a region the way it does now on Kansas City.
Among those who do know the score is U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Robert Larsen. Youthful and engaging, but with the subtle air of authority that comes with the territory, Larsen knows all too well. Last year, Judge Whipple appointed him “Special Master” of Kansas City’s Housing Authority, an unfortunate title whose implications of power are not lost on his largely African-American bailiwick.
Since his appointment, Judge Larsen has met just about every bureaucrat, bunko artist and would-be good-deed doer in Kansas City. They all want a piece of what Larsen has but doesn’t want and didn’t seek: the action, the power, the money. But none of them sees what Larsen sees, the unhappy metamorphasis of “a democracy into an oligarchy,” or if they do see, they don’t seem much to care.
Once a boon to the area, above inquiry, above reproach, the Federal presence in Kansas City has begun to collapse in on itself like a dying star. The Kansas City School District operates under an unprecedented Federal court order. Local responsibilities like foster care, juvenile detention, and the jails--as Judge Whipple’s exasperated plea suggests--continue to shift to the federal courts. The banks, the universities, the power brokers all have been subjugated as never before and make headlines for their submission. And with much less fanfare, area businesses of every stripe endure the routine inquisitions of the EPA, OSHA, EEOC, FDA, DOT, USDA, the IRS and more.
But no agency reflects the erosion of local control quite like the misbegotten Housing Authority of Kansas City. Indeed, were a campaign to be mounted against the Federal presence in Kansas City, the Housing Authority would be its poster child. Over the past generation Federal law has progressively stripped this state-created, city-directed public corporation of its ability to support itself. As a result, it has turned to HUD for subsidies. With two offices in the metropolis, one an “area” office, the other “regional,” HUD has been able to monitor its growing Kansas City “investments” especially closely. In April of 1992, HUD passed from every-day monitoring to a full scale take-over.
Legal Aid of Western Missouri has been busy monitoring as well. Subsidized by a federal agency, the Legal Service Corporation, Legal Aid retains a not-for-profit status so that it can sue other government agencies. In January of 1989, Legal Aid sued the Housing Authority on behalf of the tenants of T.B. Watkins Homes. In response, the United States District Court issued a series of consent decrees mandating that the Authority transform T. B. Watkins and later Riverview Homes into a “safe, decent, and sanitary condition”--a tall order under the best of circumstances. These consent decrees detail how this is to happen and authorize Legal Aid to review the progress. The court has also obliged the Authority to pay Legal Aid $200,000 in fees--roughly the cost, one housing official claims, of rehabilitating 37 apartments.
Burdened by its own regulations, HUD did no better managing the housing projects than HAKC and turned the Authority back over to the City. Judge Dean Whipple, disgusted by the whole affair, threw the Authority into receivership last July--the only Authority in America so designated--and appointed Larsen to oversee its management. Upon taking over, Larsen called in the federal troops--specifically the FBI and IRS--to help restore order. The Urban Affairs Committee of the Missouri House now naively offers its services “to resolve mismanagement at the Housing Authority"-- as if the Authority suffered from lack of government attention or the State had power to do anything about it.
MARK BREDEMEIER serves as general counsel for Landmark Legal Foundation, an advocate for free markets and individual rights nationwide. Having seen federal encroachment from every angle, Bredemeier believes the area’s distinct vulnerability to be its lack of “entrepreneurial or creative civic leadership.” Bredemeier attributes this to “a civic inferiority complex” which prods local leaders to seek public, even federal, solutions for local, private problems.
The city’s response to the Housing Authority imbroglio bears Bredemeier out. AsThe Star relates, only after “seven months of public silence,” did Mayor Emanuel Cleaver address the judicial take-over of the Housing Authority and then with a feckless proposal promptly brushed-off by Larsen. “I was trying to be both helpful and involved,” said the humbled Mayor. Some civic leaders actually welcomed the judicial seizure of the Housing Authority. Says Julie Levin, Managing Attorney of Kansas City’s Legal Aid office, “I have no philosophical problem with it whatsoever.”
As has been most evident in the School District case, the area’s distinct political geography also contributes to its vulnerability. Alienated from its state and its metropolis, divided internally by county and school district lines, the city offers liitle political resistance to Federal pressure. The two-state metropolis offers even less as no one political champion--mayor, governor, senator, or representative--can lobby for all of its citizens.
Nor, to be fair, do the media seem conscious of the plight of local democracy. Typical is a recent Star article--“ Mission accomplished: new jail coming." With some enthusiasm, the reporter spotlights a local lawyer who uses the Federal courts to end-run the democratic process. Says The Star , “Now, on her own, she forces cities and counties to expand jail space. The losers have to pay for her legal work.” Hard to find in any Kansas City media is reporting that questions such intervention or applauds its opposition. Indeed, Landmark Legal Foundation, which fought Jenkins all the way to the Supreme Court, gets better press on Wall Street than it does on Grand.
Finally, the very presence of so much federal bureaucracy here all but invites intervention. With some 30,000 employees in the ten county metropolis, The Federal government boasts five times as many employees as Hallmark. In addition to the U.S. Postal Service, now an “independent establishment” of the Federal government, some 25 “major government agencies” are served by the Kansas City Service Center, everything from the IRS to the National Marine Fisheries Branch. Of these, at least 19 are designated either as “regional centers” or centers of near comparable significance. Throw in a Federal Reserve Bank, one of only twelve in America, and U.S. District Courts in both Kansas Cities, and the area begins to look more and more like the Reconstruction South. If this weren't enough, the two Kansas Cities eagerly conspire to seek out more of the same medicine, naively believing that the seductive $100 million federal empowerment zone will come in the form of a "blank check."
Does this presence really affect local democracy? Absolutely. With some understatement, publisher Steve Glorioso says of his tenure as HEW Regional Communications Director, “It was only human that we paid more attention to Kansas City.”
Judge Robert Larsen acknowledges the proximity factor in a recent judicial compliance report. “Because of its presence in the Kansas City area,” he writes, “the HUD Region VII office has a special relationship with the Authority . . . defined by the eagerness of regional office staff to insert themselves into both day-to-day operating matters and high-level policy and personnel decisions of the Authority.” Conveniently, Legal Aid has its Western Missouri office here in Kansas City too.
VIRTUALLY ALL OF THESE FACTORS, Judge Larsen understands, have come to play in the demise of the Housing Authority. In the Compliance Report, he specifically cites the meddling of a “hostile” HUD office, the “inter-jurisdictional politics,” and the “byzantine” federal regulations. If he is reluctant to cite the Federal Courts as part of the problem, he knows they are not the solution.
He senses, too, that Housing Authority may be a metaphor for a larger problem, namely the gradual collapse of the whole danged federal system of government, a collapse that the Kansas City experience might well be prophesying. “If I were the public,” he says with genuine concern, “I would ask what’s wrong with this picture?”
In Kansas City, unfortunately, not many people will ask. Not as long as, "civic leaders shame us from standing up and fighting," claims Mark Bredemeier. True, Kansas City may have more to protest than other cities, but after years of supplication, we may have forgotten how.
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