Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mark Rohr, the Joplin Globe, and the myth of the tornado heroes

One of the biggest problems that has faced the city of Joplin over the past five and a half years has been the myth that has been created about how this community handled the aftermath of the May 22, 2011, tornado.

The national media created the myth. It appears that the investigative bent of the cable news networks and the rest of the nation's media never arrived as it did in Katrina a few years earlier.

The coverage was all human interest, which is, of course, a staple after every natural disaster. Otherwise, no one ever bothered to examine the performance of government at the federal, state, and local levels in the days, months, and years after the tornado.

Each time an anniversary of the disaster has arrived, the media does not investigate what happened, it just relives the horror stories of May 22 and focuses on what has truly been a remarkable recovery.

To be fair, those parts of the story need to be told and John Hacker and I have shared many of those in our books about the tornado. The spirit and resilience of the people of Joplin captured the attention of the nation and with good reason.

The volunteers who came from across the nation and even from overseas played a major role in the recovery and deserved to have their stories told.

And in many aspects, our governmental entities did what they were supposed to do. That is something that was pointed out in media coverage and is featured prominently in the books Hacker and I have done and on the Turner Report.

With few exceptions, however, the failings of government and support organizations have remained untouched by local media, with the exception of the Turner Report and KOAM.

While the local media, especially the Globe, concentrated on the successes, their lack of scrutiny helped lead to the disasters that were Wallace Bajjali, might-as-well spending, and the removal of Mark Rohr as city manager.

When Rohr was fired as city manager of League City, Texas, earlier this month, I read comments on the Joplin Globe and KZRG websites that defended the former city manager, again bringing up the "good-old-boy" network that they saydefied the people and ran Rohr out of town.

That same message was pushed in two letters to the editor in the Wednesday Globe.

Dianne Slater of Joplin wrote of Rohr's firing. "When he did what he was hired to do and received the accolades of the people, he was fired. Not because he didn't do an outstanding job, but because a few arrogant old men were jealous- he stole their thunder.'

Dean Powell of Pittsburg also defended Rohr. "I have had a soft spot in my heart for former City Manager Mark Rohr since I watched him guide Joplin through its devastating tornado a few years back."

Powell's next paragraph comes to the heart of the problem.

"I have never even met Rohr personally, so really all my opinions are based on newspaper and television coverage of the recovery efforts."


The local media, primarily the Joplin Globe, created the myths that we had supermen in charge in Mark Rohr in the city and C. J. Huff in the school district. Their successes were chronicled, as they should have been, but the problems they encountered were covered up.

In the case of Mark Rohr, the Globe even felt it necessary to take Rohr's side and do his dirty work for him.

The newspaper was following a pattern it had established in 2008 with its coverage of matters involving Mayor Jon Tupper. Using what was clearly information provided by Rohr, the Globe published negative stories about Tupper that eventually led to Tupper's removal from the City Council.

In that case, at least, there was evidence that provided reason for getting rid of someone who was an obstacle to Rohr.

That was not the case when the Globe began pursuing Councilman Bill Scearce when Scearce was challenging Rohr's actions and behavior. This time, unlike with Tupper, Scearce had not done anything to provide Rohr with an opening.

So Globe Editor Carol Stark had to go back two decades to begin pushing the story of an FBI investigation of a gambling operation that had been run by people who were renting offices from Scearce. The newspaper breathlessly reported that the investigation, which had closed years earlier with the conviction of the people who were running the operation. The Globe bombarded the FBI with Freedom of Information requests, wrote that the federal agency was stonewalling by not immediately responding to those requests and planting the idea that federal agents were going to swoop in at any second and take away Scearce in handcuffs.

All because Scearce dared to question the way Mark Rohr was running the city.

When Scearce held a news conference to defend himself against the Globe's allegations, he made it clear he was going to make a statement and would not be answering any questions. A recording of that news conference, which the Globe felt sufficiently proud of to post on its website, features reporter Debby Woodin badgering Scearce after the statement had been read, while he was distributing copies, and shouting a series of questions, that were more worded like accusations.

Finally, Scearce snapped at her, "Didn't you hear me? Don't you understand English?"

That was apparently what the Globe was waiting for since its coverage of the Scearce press conference focused more on how rude he was to Debby Woodin than the content of his statement, which made it clear how the Globe was interfering in city matters.

The Globe also began pushing the idea that there was a voting bloc on the City Council that was standing in the way of progress. It was the same bloc that eventually voted to fire Rohr. To this day, the Globe has never explained how the majority of the Council can be a "bloc," while the four who were in the minority were valiantly defending the reputation of the city.

The Globe's handling of the Loraine Report also showed its penchant to go above and beyond in defending Rohr. When the report was revealed at a city council meeting, 10 pages were not included because they involved personnel matters.

The newspaper sued the city and received accolades from the national media for the way it stood up for the public's right to know and eventually came out on top in the judge's ruling.

Its handling of the missing pages, once they had been released, proved that the major interest was in protecting Rohr. Nearly all of its coverage of what was in the report was viewed from Rohr's perspective and the newspaper began a drumbeat of criticism of the Loraine investigation for veering from its initial mission to investigate Scearce's connection to the gambling ring and Councilman Mike Woolston's involvement in the sale of land in the tornado area.

Though the newspaper had the complete report days before the April municipal election, it devoted a minimum amount of space to the report's revelations about Woolston's activities, which were, at the least, a conflict of interest, despite the fact that Woolston was up for re-election.

Instead, the criticism mounted for the council members who had voted to fire Rohr, two of whom, Jack Golden and Tricia Raney, were also seeking re-election.

When Rohr returned to the City Council after his firing and delivered a rant against the council members who fired him, describing their "corruption" and indicating that they would go to hell, the Globe almost treated it as if it were Douglas McArthur speaking to Congress after he was fired by Harry Truman.

Nowhere did the newspaper live up to its obligation to provide its readers with context- this was not the first time Rohr had been fired and had blamed it on a "good-old-boy" network. It was not the first time he had leveled accusations of corruption against the people who fired him. It was a pattern.

So it came as no surprise when a state audit of the city showed conclusively that Rohr, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob O'Brian, Mayor Michael Seibert and others had conspired to install Wallace Bajjali as the city's master developer and when the audit also provided ample evidence that Woolston was connected to Wallace-Bajjali's land-flipping scheme that cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands the Globe attacked the audit, picking at a couple of small errors to give the indication that the operation of the City of Joplin under Mark Rohr was what Dr. Pangloss in Candide described as "the best of all possible worlds."

In the past five and a half years, the Joplin Globe has done everything it can to preserve the myth of the supermen who led the city after the tornado. It has become more vital than ever for the newspaper to protect that myth because it is in too much too deep.

To suddenly veer toward the truth would be an admission that the Globe has been misleading the public.

A growing number of the people have already come to that conclusion.


Steve Holmes said...

Joplin is small enough that all the movers and shakers swim in the same pool. That creates the "go along to get along" mentality. The person you're tempted to confront about potential wrongdoing might be your partner tonight in "Dancing with the Joplin Stars."

It is tempting to say aggressive reporting simply can’t be done at a small-market paper. The talent and the will just aren’t there. That’s a insult to small-market papers making it happen. What do the following publications have in common? The Asbury Park Press (New Jersey); Record (Woodland Park, N.J.); Bristol Herald Courier (Virginia); Sun Herald (Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi). In the past twenty years, they have all won or been finalists for the pinnacle honor of print journalism, the Pulitzer Prize,– and they are all based in communities smaller than Joplin.

Anonymous said...

What about the things that Rohr and company did that impeded recovery from the tornado?

Anyone here remember waiting in a line for 10s of minutes or more to get a permit to be allowed to go back to your dwelling location and salvage what you could? A stupid and fairly quickly dropped measure that is telling of how control was uppermost in too many people's minds, like the school district being first and foremost concerned with telling its surviving staff that if they talked to the media they'd be fired (by robot call and then Besendorfer's mouth at the first general meeting).

And I remember something about requiring driveways and the like to be demolished, which was both unnecessary, especially for those rebuilding in place, and therefore wasn't covered by insurance.

No doubt there's more, but not known to me because I was able to relocate to live with my elderly father, coincidentally just outside the city limits, until I recently moved back to the city.

Anonymous said...

@ 8:03

You forgot the nuisance list for homeowners, but nothing for commercial sites like Taco Hell on Main Street that wasn't demolished for over a year. Randy caught most all of the shenanigans going on with the city, school, and COC and the other grifters. I remain curious as the what was promised Barr and CJ Huff that allowed them to forgive school taxes on the TIF. WTF? It is a SERIOUS credit to Turner and Hacker for what their book exposed in Joplin's elite. Silver Lining, indeed. Here's to hoping the FBI is neither incompetent or uninterested in prosecuting Woolston. We all know the county prosecutor won't as reported herein.

Anonymous said...

You forgot the nuisance list for homeowners, but nothing for commercial sites like Taco Hell on Main Street that wasn't demolished for over a year.

Not surprised, but I forgot to say that I'd evacuated from my apartment, which was trashed but not breached so I pretty much only lost things to water and high speed debris, and didn't have any physical roots left in Joplin after I pulled out what could be salvaged.

Hmmm, not only were the commercial sites better able to fight back, there were many fewer of them, so to the extent Rohr and company were exercising their megalomania the substantially more numerous homeowners were a much more attractive target.

For the TIF district, I think we can follow Hanlon's Razor, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Huff demonstrated gross stupidity time over time, and Barr signed off on all the financial aspects of that, including the "FEMA might as well 'punish' us by not reimbursing non-replacement luxuries we didn't get pre-approved". And who was it that boasted that the TIF signoff was all but unique, that school districts never support them? That should have been a big warning sign.

Although I suppose we can note that the powers that be have done a pretty good job of making sure Huff was taken care of for as long as they could, after he, you know, ruined his career as a superintendent.... And, yeah, "Silver Lining" was something that could only come from a sociopath or something equally emphatically crippled.

The FBI from its beginning is primarily publicity oriented, that's why they were so iconic about bank robberies and kidnappings, both have major visibility and are relatively easy to solve. If there wasn't enough money stolen they won't bother, although I wonder why the Democratic state AG didn't intervene. However, the Sargent Schultz to the local power structure DA is soon moving to the bench, where I maintain he will be able to do much less damage, and maybe, just maybe his short or long term replacements will act, if the various statutes of limitations haven't run out. I'm sure they can Google the contact information of the State Auditor....

Anonymous said...

Let it go....

Anonymous said...

Some would say I am one of the good ole boys in League City simply because I demanded accountability and transparency and sought his removal because I couldn't get those things out of Rohr. Until recently our council was prone to giving Rohr 4.8 out of 5 on his reviews despite failing to provide specifics as to why he was so great. As we recently learned, morale within City Hall was an all time low. It was so bad, that one of Rohr's former supporters could no longer stand by while Rohr maintained an aura of kingly arrogance despite the motion to remove him.

Anonymous said...

League City Sounds like the sequel to Joplin with out the natural disaster. Luckily, with the help of a few people in Joplin who helped us understand what was happening here, we were able to stop our city manager from subjecting our community to the same level of financial losses and scandal as experienced by Joplin with Wallace-Bajjali. It is amazing that our city council of Time Paulissen, Geri Bentley, Dan Becker, then Heidi Theiss (now Heidi Hansing)and Todd Kinsey voted to appoint Mark Rohr as our city manager, This occured despite the fact that the city council had a field of qualified and excellent candidates other than Mark Rohr. Mark Rohr had a well documented history of bad acts as city manager. He had a pattern of behavior that demonstrated he was willing to participate in character assassination of people who he determined to be obstacles to his goals. He immediately hooked up with the worst elements of our political community to form the perfect storm of municipal tyranny. Thank goodness the citizens of League City identified this problem early, elected Hank Dugie, Mayor Pat Hallisey, Greg Gripon, Larry Millican and with the newly enlightened Keith Gross, released Mark Rohr as the city manager. It takes guts to be leaders and govern. All these men did just that. Thank you from a grateful city.

Steve Holmes said...

6:02: You got off lucky. So far, anyway, there hasn't been a major mess afterward in League City that I know of. Twas a mess in Joplin. People calling for the removal of Council members who voted to sack him. Rohr appeared before Council to vow its members will pay for their participation in firing him, in this life and in the next. Consider yourself lucky if he goes quietly.

Anonymous said...

5:35 PM: More like an annoying kerfuffle. Yeah, all sorts of harsh words, but no actions to speak of resulting from them. Rohr and his supporters have a habit of making the parting as ugly as possible, but the bottom line is that he's toast. Again.

Chris John Mallios said...

LOL Mr. Rorh was on the short end this time thanks to smart citizens taking action. I will say he was close .... But we got him before he could get going! Many city employees are VERY HAPPY to see him go. As for our city ? Well there are just a few (Those who benefit from his type of "Work" ) that are up in Arms however the LARGE MAJORITY of the citizens were happy to show him the door. Of course he wants to sue the city for his dismissal and I say Let him do it ... Discovery on his case could cost him more than he thinks.... Not all of us "good old Boys" are stupid. Some of us have shovels that work very well and can dig to get to the truth.

Anonymous said...

Anyone associated with Wallace Bajjali has to be a crook just like those two pigs were to their investors, the city of Joplin, and city of Amarillo. Costa Bajalli is a stupid baffoon who refused to pay his debts, and David Wallace a dangerous slick talking thief who refused to pay his debts. Instead crawled to bankruptcy court. I hope they still go to prison.