Monday, May 16, 2011

Commission Tales 4: Damage Control

Books and magazines on the shelves, a desk littered with pens and papers, and a telephone with a red light flashing for messages unheard.

In 1987, the Kansas City Jazz Commission kept an office in the Lincoln Building at 18th and Vine. But our executive director had left for a job in California. The new vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and I were looking over what we’d inherited.

The audit report was out. Our former treasurer was being prosecuted. Our executive director was gone. But we had an office. An office with a phone which kept flashing an annoying red light.

The vice chairman opened a desk drawer and rifled through some papers, then pulled one out. Startled, she blurted out, “Look at this.”

It was documentation for nearly half of the Jazz Commission expenditures which the City Auditor’s audit, and the article on the front page of the newspaper, and the news stories on TV, said were undocumented.

I called the auditor the next day. He said that he took the documents the outgoing executive director gave to him before leaving for California, and whatever expenditures were not covered by those went into the audit report as having no documentation.

Wasn’t any effort made to find the rest of the documentation? I asked. We found paperwork for half of what the audit said was undocumented with just a couple minutes of scrounging through the office. Why didn’t the auditor’s office call us and ask us to look for the remaining documentation?

After the executive director left, the auditor said, no effort was made to find anything more. All the “missing documentation” could be in the Jazz Commission office, he conceded. He never explained why neither he nor his staff called us before the report was released to see if we’d care to check.

And in part due to that, the Jazz Commission was being raked across the public coals.


An editorial in the newspaper chastised the Jazz Commission. An editorial cartoon pictured us as buffoons falling out of a pub crawl bus.

The Jazz Commission’s first chairman sent a message, through a mutual friend, that we needed to meet with the editorial board at The Kansas City Star.

Fortunately, two members of our executive committee knew what the editorial board was. I wasn’t one of them.

But they quickly explained that this was all of the staff writers, editors and cartoonists who contribute to the newspaper’s editorial pages. One of the executive committee members who already knew this arranged the meeting.

The vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and I went. We were ushered into a conference room in The Star’s building at 18th and Grand, and The Star staff members entered. We were greeted warmly.

I brought copies of the documentation we found in the Jazz Commission’s office and handed them out. I explained how this accounted for half of the expenditures which the audit report claimed were undocumented. Then we discussed the Commission, our goals, our plans, what would happen if we never received our city funding.

The conversation was friendly but professional. One Star staff member, before asking a question, wondered if the discussion was on the record. Since a reporter in the room was taking notes, everything I said assumed it was (which was also the consensus of the room).

The next day a story ran towards the back of the newspaper, near the obituaries. About two thirds of the way through it said we claimed to have documentation for some of the questioned expenditures. A few days later, an encouraging editorial supporting our efforts appeared. That helped. Future editorials would grow even more supportive.

At the end of the meeting, we chatted informally for a few moments, then The Star staff filed out of the room.

I looked around the table. All of The Star staff members had left the paper, the documentation, which I’d distributed. They took all of the pens and pads they brought into the room, but a single sheet of paper sat before each of their chairs. I stopped a moment, then walked around the table and picked each one up.

Oddly, I felt compelled to leave The Star’s conference room in the same shape as I found it.


Behind the scenes, the council member who first befriended us and the chairman of the budget committee talked, but the chairman still wanted to give our funding to another civic group. I heard details which led me to suspect that the chairman and the mayor’s assistant who leaked the audit report to the press were also discussing the Jazz Commission. But I couldn't confirm that. Neither would speak to me.

Then one afternoon I received a phone call. A friend had an idea. This might work. This might lead to the Jazz Commission’s funding being released.

I was invited to the meeting of another commission.

The story concludes in the next blog post.

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