As far as Mike Burke is concerned, the race for mayor in the Spring 2011 city elections began in earnest this month when Mayor Mark Funkhouser held the first of a series of “Tele-Town Hall” meetings.
Referring to an article in The Kansas City Star, Burke said the mayor’s office has contracted with Communication Strategies of St. Louis to spend $20,800 in city funds for three such meetings, which each involve 30,000 robo-calls and an opportunity to be on the phone with the mayor.
According to The Star’s article, the idea came from Mark Siettmann, a contract employee in the mayor’s office who has worked for political consultant Jeff Roe, who is managing Funkhouser’s re-election campaign.
“This is sort of a new method of trying to reach out for us,” Funkhouser chief of staff Kendrick Blackwood told the Star's City Hall reporter, Lynn Horsely.
Burke, an attorney and former councilman who is running for mayor, said that although these events are being paid for with tax dollars and are described as mayor’s office activities, they involve lists of frequent voters and are generally used in political campaigns.
“The mayoral race is fully underway, as far as I can tell,” said Burke, who is one of two announced challengers to Funkhouser. The other is attorney Sylvester James.
Burke kicked off his campaign on Veterans Day with a fund-raiser at the Steamboat Arabia. He said he has so far campaigned mainly by discussing the state of the city with people throughout the city.
“The two questions I get asked are, “Will you bring your wife to work at City Hall?” Burke said. That refers to the controversial involvement of Funkhouser's wife, Gloria Squitiro, in city government. "My answer is no. N-O," Burke said.
"The other question is, 'What is your position on the city manager?" Burke said.
Funkhouser abruptly suspended six-year City Manager Cauthen, who later in the day was removed from office by a one-vote City Council majority.
“What concerned me was the way it was handled,” Burke said. “Particularly the photo in The Star of the city manager being escorted from City Hall by a security officer. That sends a terrible message when we’re trying to recruit top talent to work in City Hall. And I think we need top talent at City Hall.
“We have a number of department heads who are eligible to retire,” Burke continued. “How do you attract top talent to the city with a picture like that?"
Burke said he is also concerned about the effect of City Hall political turmoil on city economic development and attracting and keeping jobs in the city.
“Everywhere I go people are talking about jobs leaving the city, and they are fearful for their own jobs,” Burke said. “Unemployment in the city was 12 percent last month. I think people are looking for a mayor who sends a positive message that we want to bring jobs to our city.
“And they want a mayor to go on a national stage and say, ‘Kansas City is the place to invest,’” Burke continued. “The mayor needs to be the No. 1 sales person for the city. The mayor should be our top ambassador to the world.”
Burke said that while Kansas City is a good city to visit, and has unique attractions, “We are bleeding conventions right now—Sam’s Club has left, the Wal-Mart managers, two of our largest conventions, have left because we can’t accommodate them. SkillsUSA has announced they’re leaving.
“They all say it’s lack of hotel space,” Burke continued. “The main thing is that we need more hotel space downtown, and it is not to compete with Atlanta, Chicago and Las Vegas. Our competition is for the medium-size conventions of between 1,500 and 2,500 rooms per night.
“When we try to get those conventions, the cities we compete against can offer that number of rooms within walking distance of the convention center,” Burke said. “But for us to get 2,000 rooms for a convention, we’re looking at seven or eight hotels and an elaborate busing system to get to the convention center.
“When meeting managers see that, they go elsewhere,” Burke said. “The issue is not whether we need a convention hotel with 1,000 rooms. The real question is how it is financed and what is the city’s role in the financing. That is what is under study right now.
“We can’t put the city in a position of guaranteeing 100 percent financing,” Burke said. “That won’t work. There is a consultant and a task force. I’m awaiting those results.”
Burke said that Kansas City’s slide among peer Midwestern cities will be a major issue in the campaign for mayor.
“One thing I’m repeating everywhere I go is that this is the most important city election in our lifetime,” Burke said. “The reason I say that is that cities we used to consider minor league such as Denver and Omaha and Oklahoma City are now our competition to be the leading city in the Midwest.
“They’re attracting our young college graduates,” Burke continued. “The way they’re doing it is the civic community and the political leadership have forged common goals for their cities. In our city the political leadership is in disarray.”
Burke said a recent city auditor’s survey of Kansas City residents showed that public confidence in city government is at an all-time low.
Burke produced a copy of the recent auditor’s survey, which rated public opinion as to the overall quality of leadership provided by the city’s elected officials. Sixteen percent of respondents were satisfied; 27 percent were neutral; and 57 percent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
“That was a huge jump over the previous year,” Burke said.
Burke pointed to another aspect of the auditor’s survey which concerns him, this one surveying city employees.
“Do you agree or disagree the mayor and the city council present a good example of ethical conduct?” the auditor asked city employees.
The responses were that 18.3 percent of city employees surveyed agreed or strongly agreed the mayor and council set a good ethical example; 28.6 percent of respondents were neutral; and 53.1 percent disagree or strongly disagree that city elected officials set a good example of ethical conduct.
“I think that’s a sad commentary on the morale at City Hall,” Burke said. “That’s what the next mayor is going to have to turn around. We have to restore citizen confidence in city government and city employee confidence in the leadership at City Hall.”
Burke, 60, is a lifelong Kansas City resident. He grew up near 53rd and Holmes, near the UMKC campus, and attended Rockhurst High School. He went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in Washington DC. He then obtained a Georgetown law degree.
Burke returned to Kansas City and has since practiced law here. Currently, Burke is managing partner of the King Hershey firm, which has offices at 2345 Grand Blvd.
Since returning to Kansas City, Burke has lived in the Northland, where he was elected to serve out Ed Quick’s unexpired council term when Quick was elected to the Missouri Senate. Burke and his wife, the former Melinda Stoeger, have a grown son .
Burke's campaign treasurer is Joanne Collins, a former councilwoman and mayoral candidate. His political consultant is Pat O'Neill.