Sunday, July 06, 2014
Mike Woolston, Wallace-Bajjali and the co-opting of Joplin's tornado recovery
That report, as you recall, led to a 5-4 vote to fire City Manager Mark Rohr. When the report was initially released, there were 10 blank pages, the pages in which the allegations against Rohr were spelled out.
The Joplin Globe Editorial Board made a solid argument that the people, the ones who actually paid for the report, had every right to know its contents. The Globe went as far as to take its case to court and won what was described as a victory for open government and even had one journalist (admittedly a former Joplin Globe reporter) tweeting that the Globe should be considered for the Pulitzer Prize.
The court's decision was handed down just four days before the April election, but in time for the newspaper to print a considerable amount of the information, since the decision not only gave the public access to the report, but also all of the transcripts of Loraine's interviews with witnesses.
That never happened.
The Globe confined its reporting, for the most part, to the allegations against Mark Rohr and devoted even more space to Rohr's responses to those allegations.
That played in with the portrait the Globe was trying to paint of the whole Loraine investigation being a witch hunt spearheaded by the so-called Gang of Five or Bloc of Five who voted to fire Rohr or by City Attorney Brian Head.
To its credit, the Globe put the entire report, complete with depositions and exhibits, online, where as far as I can tell, most of the items have been viewed by slightly more than 500 readers, far less than would have seen it if the items had been featured in the newspaper.
Except to the 500 or so readers who examined the documents, the entire Loraine investigation was about Mark Rohr.
Certainly a great deal of space was devoted to the former city manager, but to this day, the Globe has ignored the most important news that was contained in the report- the way in which Joplin's tornado recovery has been taken out of the hands of elected officials and placed under the control of people who do not answer to the voters.
It also completely ignored, an unusual decision given that he was up for re-election at that point, the damning evidence that was collected against City Councilman and self-styled "Tornado Mayor" Mike Woolston.
For some reason, the idea has been foisted upon the public that Woolston did not do anything wrong because he was not collecting commissions on the property that he was steering to his friend Charlie Kuehn of Four State Homes.
What was ignored and was pointed out by Loraine was the secretive way in which Woolston was working with Rohr and master developer Wallace-Bajjali to convince people to sell their property, even ones who had already rebuilt after the tornado.
The depositions of William and Dana Parker detail some of Woolston's activities. They talked of people "who were concerned because Mike Woolston kept knocking on everyone's door wanting to sell their property, even if they'd already rebuilt, sell it, so we can tear it down.'
They talked of an October 2012 neighborhood meeting in which Woolston became upset by questions that he was asked. Dana Parker told Loraine, "He (Woolston) told us at that time we were stupid for rebuilding, that we had no business rebuilding." They were told the properties were needed for commercial development.
Mrs. Parker said, "We asked why they couldn't put a grocery store out on the area of Sunset Ridge, which was more where the storm started and he told us at that time that those people were too important- we couldn't do that to them."
"Exact words," William Parker said.
The question that should have been asked and has not been is what business was it of Woolston's whether these people wanted to rebuild and stay in the tornado zone? The City Council had made no decisions. The Zoning Board had made no decisions. At some point, Woolston and others had decided what was going to be done with that area.
The report details the steps that were taken by the city government, in the person of Mark Rohr, to convince people it would be in their best interest to sell, including condemning a driveway on a property where rebuilding had not begun as an "unsafe structure" and putting in a sidewalk running path.
Woolston mounted a door-to-door campaign that was outlined in the depositions to convince people to sell, something that was not included in his job description as a city council member. When he was asked who he was working for, he responded, "I am not at liberty to tell you," though later he confided it was Four State Homes, a company that has done quite well with buying up to the properties and selling them to the Joplin Redevelopment Corporation so they can be used as part of Wallace-Bajjali's development plan.
The impression that is given throughout the depositions is that Woolston was using insider knowledge to benefit a friend's business and also to push a redevelopment plan that had not received the approval of any governmental body.
The report was ridiculed by its critics because of Loraine's insistence that Woolston was hurting the City Council and not representing his constituents properly by abstaining from voting on issues that concerned the development.
Loraine was critical of Woolston because at a time when he should have been using his considerable knowledge of real estate to benefit the council and constituents, he was abstaining because he had become so greatly involved in the project.
In the deposition of Tim Parker (no relation to William and Dana Parker), the issue is clearly stated. "Why aren't other realtors coming to our door saying I want to buy this? Why is it that only that one that had the inside knowledge?"
Tim Parker also told of a conversation with an employee of Four State Homes. Parker told him he expected him to be quite busy since Four State Homes had bought all of those plots. At that point, Parker believed that the company would be building houses on the properties.
"He said, 'No, my boss bought these for investment purpose,' which struck me as odd because it is just a residential area just like mine. I realized later in the paper that those properties had sold to the City of Joplin through the Redevelopment Corporation for about three times their appraised value."
There is much, much more information contained in the Loraine Report that the Joplin Globe has decided to leave buried in its online archives.
To this day, Globe readers who have never looked over the documents have every reason to be convinced that the Loraine Report was a hatchet job against Mark Rohr. It wasn't. The firing of Mark Rohr was not the major step that was suggested by Loraine. He found evidence of behavior that was at least bordering on the unethical from Mike Woolston and he strongly suggested the city cut all ties with Wallace-Bajjali.
Mike Woolston was re-elected to the City Council. The Globe is still making excuses for Wallace-Bajjali and the co-opting of Joplin's tornado recovery continues unabated.
SUBSCRIPTION- What the Joplin Globe won't tell you, you can find in the Turner Report.