Two Guys From KCK
© Jack Cashill
The most conspicuous glow emanates from the Village West area around the new Kansas Speedway. Now the number one tourist destination in the state, Village West has realistic ambitions of becoming the number one destination in the Midwest.
There is, however, a subtler and purer side to the story, and it involves two guys I had never heard of before producing a documentary on the subject, which debuted this past month on KCPT-TV.
I say “purer” because the Village West story has a fair share of critics, and I heard from several of them after the documentary aired.
Were the critics to tell the story—which would pretty much be the way Hollywood might tell it—the good guys would not be the developers who put the deal together. No, in the movie version, they would be played by the likes of Charles Durning or Ned Beatty as double-dealing, triple-chinned, four-flushing knaves.
The heroes would be lean, proud homesteaders—say, Sally Field and Robert Duvall—forced out of their properties through ambitious use of eminent domain despite their rural twangs and appeals to justice.
There is, however, an irony afoot here: If Hollywood were to make a movie about the Supreme Court, the heroes would be those five progressive justices—George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts—who blessed Ned Beatty “takings” at the expense of Robert Duvall in Kelo v. New London.
Those two movies probably ought not play on the same double bill. Before consolidation, this would not have been a problem. There was not a single functioning movie theater in the entirety of Wyandotte County.
If there is any consolation to the Wyandotte County homeowners, it is this: had KCK not gotten its act together, they might have been dispossessed for that transparently daft pre-consolidation give-away known as “Oz.”
ABOUT THE STORY of the two guys from KCK, however, there is no ambiguity, no complexity, no irony. It is a good story, and it needs to be told.
In the early 1990s, when Wyandotte County was little more than a punch line to an unfunny joke, Kevin Kelley and Mike Jacobi each independently came up with an idea. That idea was a simple one: to consolidate the preposterously overlapping governments of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
Although KCK comprised very nearly the entire county, its government and the county’s sat across the street from each other, busily duplicating each other’s service and driving up the tax rates for the city and county’s rapidly dwindling population.
“Everybody was leaving,” says Jacobi. “The taxes were skyrocketing, and evaluations were plummeting. Every demographic that you could look at was bad. Very, very bad.”
Kelley, the owner of a small manufacturing firm, wrote an editorial arguing for consolidation. At about the same time, Jacobi, a retired military officer, was speaking to local civic groups, making the same pitch. Serendipitously, they read about each other.
“I called Mike,” remembers Kelley with a smile, “and we decided the city and county government aren’t going to change themselves, so maybe we can try to change them.”
“We formed a bond that endures to this day,” says Jacobi of Kelley. “I will die with that bond.” Jacobi, who had seen a fair share of serious action in Southeast Asia, was not a man to take such bonds lightly.
That bond fortified a four year slug through local bureaucracies. Scarcely a day went by that Kelley and Jacobi weren’t doing research, giving speeches, making phone calls, or going to community meetings. For much of that time, in fact, this teeny coalition of the willing began each day with their own two-person conference call.
Kelley and Jacobi understood they would need political help if they were to succeed. A consolidation bill had to work its way through the state legislature before it could go to the voters. The problem was that those closest to the bill were the ones most opposed to it.
After a century or so of political in-breeding, the Democratic machine of Wyandotte County welcomed change the way Dracula welcomes the dawn. If consolidation passed, all current office holders would be out of office and have to run again. Then too, there would be fewer offices to run for.
What is more, outsiders would have a chance to become part of the new government, and that new government would have a chance to take a fresh look at the cluster back-scratch that passed for contract bidding.
Still, a few legislators from the county suggested they were going to support the cause. When the day came to vote in Topeka, however, one of the pair’s presumed supporters showed Kelley just how the county’s classic cronyism could trump a good cause most any day.
“You know, I’m sorry,” he told Kelley as he walked in to vote, “but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
The consolidation bill failed. This meant it was dead for at least a year. It was nighttime again in Wyandotte County. Remembers Kelley, “I thought, ‘if we can’t get our own people to help us, how are we going to get the rest of the state to help us.’”
At the time, Kelley just happened to be writing his masters thesis on city/county consolidation. One of the things he learned in his research was the need to have a consolidation champion—an elected official or a political candidate to carry the movement forward.
“A couple of guys on the street ain’t going to convince anyone of anything,” says the self-effacing Jacobi.
So Kelley and Jacobi developed a pledge to send to all the then candidates for mayor on the subject of consolidation. Many of them just signed it and sent it back without much thought. The one that took the longest came back with the John Hancock of the soon to be elected KCK mayor, Carol Marinovich.
“Coming from an education background,” she recalls. “I always believed in doing my homework.”
Once elected, Marinovich, a Democrat, went to work lobbying the business community, the media, and the Republicans who controlled the state house and senate. Marinovich did not shy from the task.
With a boost from then Johnson County Republican senator, Mark Parkinson, the consolidation bill passed in March 1996. Republican governor Bill Graves signed it into law and appointed a consolidation study commission.
The governor then helped Marinovich thwart a last minute effort by some Wyandotte County legislators to keep the commission’s recommendations from going to the voters. That battle won, the leaders of the consolidation drive now had to win over the people who mattered most, their fellow citizens.
Kelly and Jacobi kept plugging away and were awarded for their four-plus years of effort on election day with some 60 percent of the vote. “It was really the strongest sense of community I ever felt,” remembers Kelley.
Says Marinovich, summing up the pair’s surprising success, “I believe Kevin and Mike were simply motivated for the community. I think the opposition really had a hard time understanding that.”
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