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*Past council disputes cross generations

Thursday, September 3, 2009 | 12:51 p.m. CDT; updated 10:14 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 29, 2009

* The headline of this column was rewritten to remove a pejorative term. The author of this column did not write the original headline or the new headline.

We old-timers remember, with varying degrees of delight and revulsion, Paul Albert. For the benefit of any newcomers in the audience, I’ll just say that Mr. Albert was our pre-eminent gadfly of city government. His harangues, directed mainly at Ray Beck and the City Council Ray dominated during his years as city manager, were notorious for their length and their vitriol.

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In the newspaper office, we learned to hide when we saw Mr. Albert coming. As a gadfly, he had the persistence and the bite of a horsefly.

It was easy to forget that Mr. Albert had donated to the city 20 acres that grew into one of our nicest parks out on Oakland Gravel Road. It was easy to forget that the park was to be named in honor of his mother. It was so easy to forget, in fact, that city officials began quietly dropping the “Albert” from the name of Albert-Oakland Park.  

You recall the furor that erupted. Kurt Albert, son of Paul, led the charge. There was a prolonged and bitter correspondence, multiple appearances before the Council, angry words and – eventually – victory for the Albert family. The park’s proper name is restored. A happy ending, you might think.

Not so. It turns out that Kurt Albert has a lot of his father in him.

I came to realize that during a couple of hours I spent with Kurt at his home south of town. The first clue came when he took me into his storage roomwhere long tables are covered with neatly arranged stacks of paper, most of it copied from city government files. Then we sat and Kurt made his case.

He believes that the dropping of his family name from the park was a malevolent action of Ray Beck and that several other present and former city officials have lied about it. To me, the evidence he has amassed seems suggestive but inconclusive.

Kurt is, I think it’s fair to say, obsessed. The obsession has led him to propose a city ordinance that would make it a crime for any city official knowingly to make false statements or deliver false documents to the City Council. The council has voted once not to adopt that ordinance.

Kurt, of course, isn’t giving up. He has added a section specifying that all such complaints must come from the council and that at least two members must vote in favor before an investigation would be launched.

I e-mailed three council members to ask their views on the ordinance and its prospects.  Two replied.

Third Ward councilman Karl Skala, who voted for the first version, said, “Though I still believe that a ‘truth in government’ ordinance is important, we really lost that battle the last time around.” A better approach, he suggested, might be to amend the city charter to give the council an “advise and consent” role in the promoting or demoting of department directors.

Such a change, he told me, “could allow department directors and their staffs a bit more independence while simultaneously making them more accountable to the voters through their elected representatives.”

First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz thinks Kurt’s proposal wouldn’t be effective. He wants instead “a set of performance standards and protocols for staff-council relations” that would clarify expectations and focus responsibility on the city manager.

Paul also said something I suspect is true, regardless of the merits of Kurt’s proposal: “Quite honestly, having Kurt as the messenger of anything probably dooms it to failure.”

Ray Beck is retired, and Paul Albert is dead. However, the conflict that began with them isn’t dead and isn’t likely to be retired any time soon. Kurt Albert is his father’s son.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

 


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