Kansas City's roads are full of potholes. Its street lights need repair, and its sewage treatment facilities are antiquated. At the same time, the city's downtown is undergoing a multibillion-dollar construction and renovation boom, mostly through public dollars.
The seeming paradox presented by the willingness to take on major debt for signature projects while basic services went begging led to a surprise outcome in this year's mayoral contest. Mark Funkhouser, who had served as the city's auditor for 18 years, prevailed despite an open campaign by city hall insiders to elect anyone but him.
After years of criticizing city hall performance, earning a reputation in some circles as a public scold, Funkhouser promised to implement the ideas he had long championed in his watchdog role. "As a person who had studied government for decades and had a Ph.D., I was eager to try out stuff," he says. "Does it really work the way I think it works, or am I full of baloney?"
One reason the voters bought into Funkhouser's pitch was that after nearly two decades in local government, he was still credible running as an outsider. Many of his recommendations and criticisms had been rejected by a long series of mayors and city councils; more than one mayor wanted to have him fired. The role of reformist critic seemed to fit in a city growing disillusioned with the way things were going.
Still, the 57-year-old Funkhouser was an unusual candidate, to say the least. Tall, thin, bearded and gangling, with a penchant for arcane fiscal detail, he could easily have come off as pretentious or simply obscure. But when he talked about the intricacies of infrastructure repair or tax-increment financing, he managed to hold the attention of both the media and the electorate. He said repeatedly that the previous administration had not only loaded the city with debt but diverted sales tax revenue from the police, fire and transportation departments.
Funkhouser's critics countered that he might shut off the downtown revival development entirely, just as Kansas City was beginning to gain national attention for it. Funkhouser insists he has nothing like that in mind. He says the only way the city can dig itself out of the hole it has gotten into is for the downtown to succeed. Toward that end, he has appointed a task force that is set to come forward this month with a draft of Kansas City's first comprehensive economic development plan.
As a mayor who campaigned relentlessly on reform issues, Funkhouser is vulnerable to sniping at even minor public-relations gaffes, and he has already made several of them, from his bigger-than-usual inaugural gala to the fact that his top aide is double-dipping, collecting $250,000 per year from both salary and retirement pension income.
Funkhouser may never be a popular mayor in the traditional, hail- fellow sense, and he knows it. But if he can do something about the potholes and the streetlights, the voters will consider eccentricity a small price to pay.