Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Tirrell’s lawyer sues him, then changes mind. Register trims arts coverage. McCoy v. Mauro?


Marty Tirrell‘s lawyer sued him the other day — and then withdrew the suit. Steve Hamilton said in the filing in Polk County District Court that he loaned the deadbeat talk-show shouter and serial loan-defaulter $14,750 and was promised repayment by Jan. 16 of this year. “Despite many demands,” Tirrell stiffed him, the suit alleged.

Hamilton says he and Tirrell are friends “and I want that to continue but he does piss me off sometimes in not contacting me.” He added: “Quoting Forrest Gump, that is all I have to say about that.”

When Hamilton filed the suit he didn’t realize Tirrell was still in bankruptcy proceedings in federal court.

Meantime, Tirrell and his sports-talk partner, Ken Miller, are no longer on the radio. They had been on Cumulus’ KBGG, 1700 on the AM dial, but now they’re just on Mediacom cable and on the Internet. Cumulus bosses didn’t respond to a CITYVIEW query as to why Tirrell and Miller are gone, but Cumulus has a $96,000 judgment against him from an earlier business deal.

The other day, a listener tweeted:

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa

“Did you guys get canceled?”

Miller: “We’ve decided to stay on [Mediacom] and concentrate on expanding our digital opportunities.”

Listener: “Ok good. Thought Marty might have gone to jail or something.” …

The Des Moines Register is cutting back on its coverage of the arts, basically eliminating regular previews and reviews of programs at the Des Moines Metro Opera, the Des Moines Symphony, Ballet Des Moines and the Des Moines Community Playhouse.

“Increasingly, [The Des Moines Register’s] focus is on attracting digital audience,” says Carol Hunter, the paper’s executive editor. “We track digital metrics closely for all our coverage.” And few Register readers seem to care, digitally at least, about the arts. “While realizing that arts coverage is something of a niche audience, the number of page views we have attracted for routine previews and reviews has been astonishingly low.”

Hunter says “it’s not an absolute cut-off.” She says the paper will still “cover season announcements and do short informational listings ahead of most shows…and will preview/review one or two of the most noteworthy shows, but not every one.”

Aside: Joan Bunke is rolling over in her grave. …

John Mauro, chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors, announced the other day he would run for re-election next year, something that was little noted and widely expected. Mauro has been a supervisor for 23 years — with a four-year break in the late 1990s — and has gotten just token opposition of late.

But there is talk that State Sen. Matt McCoy plans to take him on next year. McCoy dodged a question about it — “We are in the final weeks of a very difficult session….At this time, I am not in a position to formalize my decisions for next year. I usually like to reserve all my options and don’t usually broadcast my decisions prior to any future announcements.”

A Mauro-McCoy race could be rough. Each has long-standing ties to the south side, each is a popular vote-getter, and each could raise a lot of money in seeking the seat, which includes most of the south side, most of downtown and some of the west side. But a Mauro-McCoy race also would force Southside political captains to take sides — which many don’t want to do.

Mauro has long been a champion of the working person — he led the effort to raise the minimum wage in Polk County this year and is leading the effort to raise $10 million to make Polk County hunger-free (he’s half-way toward his goal).

McCoy has been in the Legislature for 26 years — the last 20 in the Senate — and has worked hard on education and health care and social issues. He had no opposition when he was elected in 2014, and he could be re-elected easily in 2018. Some friends of McCoy think that in the end he won’t run for Supervisor — they think 2018 will be a Democratic year and McCoy could be back in the majority in the Senate — but others say they’re sure he’ll run. …

President Donald Trump raised a record $106.7 million for the Inauguration festivities, and a sliver of that came from Iowa. According to Federal Election Commission records, John Pappajohn of Des Moines gave $10,000, Michael Clark of Coralville gave $1,000, the Kent Corporation of Muscatine gave $25,000 and something called Kumar Family Ltd., which lists a Bettendorf address, gave $1 million.

The Iowa Secretary of State lists the Kumar Family Limited Partnership as inactive and says it is based in Illinois. It’s probably a vehicle of Shalabh Kumar, an India native who became a successful industrialist in Chicago, who founded the Republican Hindu Coalition and who ran Newt Gingrich‘s presidential campaign in Scott County in 2012. The Federal Election Commission listed his residence as Bettendorf until 2013. Through AVG Automation, a company he runs, he gave about $450,000 to the Trump campaign last fall, and, according to The Hill, a Washington political newspaper, Kumar’s wife gave another $450,000.

[And then there’s this from Wikipedia: “Kumar’s son, Vikram Kumar, married England-born 2007 Miss Earth India, Pooja Chitgopekar. Their wedding was featured as NDTV Good Times Big Fat Indian Wedding on NDTV India and took place in January 2011 in New Zealand, where Pooja Chitgopekar was living with her Indian immigrant parents. Hailed as the biggest wedding in New Zealand’s history, it featured 9 helicopters forming a groom’s party…and a musical extravaganza lasting three days….” The wedding cost almost $10 million, according to a New Zealand newspaper.] …

Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for re-election in 2020, raised $1.3 million between Jan. 1, 2015, and the end of last year, according to a new filing with the Federal Election Commission. She spent $949,176, with the biggest chunk — more than $220,000 — going to Holloway Consulting, an all-female consulting and fund-raising operation in Arlington, Virginia. …

A scout from NBC’s Dateline left his business card with folks in the Teachout Building in mid-April, encouraging speculation that the mysterious and unsolved death of architect Kirk Blunck might have drawn network attention.

Blunck, a pioneer in East Village development, was a good architect, a lousy businessman and a careless landlord. His life seemed divided between job commissions and job lawsuits. He died on a Sunday afternoon in January of 2016 when he fell — or was pushed — down two flights of stairs in the Teachout Building, which he owned.

Police say the investigation is open and continuing. Some close to Blunck think he was a victim of a robbery gone bad, but no arrests have been made. The Polk County Medical Examiner said the cause of death was “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.”

Blunck was 62 when he died, and he left no will. Lawyers and the family have been selling off some properties and paying some claims, but the estate proceedings remain open in Polk County District Court. In late March, the court approved a payment of $21,650 to the Ahlers & Cooney law firm, which had sued him for nonpayment of legal bills. No financial accounting of the estate is in the court records yet. ♦

The man with the golden gut

The Board of Regents picked a fight with Gary Steinke last month.

That wasn’t very smart.

The Regents supported a quest by the University of Northern Iowa to let its students be eligible for $3 million from the Iowa Tuition Grant program, a $46 million state fund that provides help to poor Iowa students attending any of 33 private colleges in the state. This year, about 12,800 Iowa undergraduates are getting the aid, which has a maximum of $5,550 and works out to an average of about $3,600.

The program has long stuck in the craw of university presidents, who periodically would grumble about it. But, always, privately. The money is far less than what the state appropriates for the universities, the presidents realized, so — at the urging of the Regents’ executive director — they kept their complaints to themselves. That director was Gary Steinke.

Steinke has great political instincts — when I was head of the Regents, Gov. Tom Vilsack told me that Steinke had a “golden gut” for politics — but he’s no longer there. So there was no one to tell the new UNI president, Mark Nook, that speaking out on the issue was a bad idea.

So he spoke out, and the Board backed him. The Legislature took up the issue. The private colleges — which are strategically placed around the state — took that as a declaration of war, and the head of the college association rallied his troops. The presidents called legislators, ginned up their alumni, mobilized their students.

The guy behind the campaign was Steinke, now the head of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

He lit a fire under the college presidents. “I’m personally disgusted,” the University of Dubuque president said in an email to Dubuque legislator Charles Isenhart. “I am disgusted and ashamed as well,” the Loras president told Isenhart.

Ultimately, the bill was supported by just 29 of the 100 House members and was never taken up in the Senate. Some who voted for it will never do it again. “You are entitled to a representative who does not make such mistakes or errors in judgment,” Isenhart wrote back to the presidents of three colleges in his district….I ask for your mercy, and I promise you I will not fail you like that again.”

So the idea is dead.

There’s no doubt Nook and UNI have problems. The school is built on what is now an unsustainable economic model — the school is overwhelmingly populated by Iowans, yet the tuition rules mandate that Iowa universities lose money on each Iowa undergraduate. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University offset that by profits from the higher tuition charged to nonresidents.

The solution is simple: Reallocate the state appropriations so UNI gets its share, based on the number of in-state undergraduates.

If the Regents schools want to know how to get that done, perhaps they should consult Steinke. After he calms down. ♦

— Michael Gartner

Chris Hensley, after 24 years on the Des Moines City Council, has decided not to seek re-election. Maybe it’s because she has a strong young opponent in environmental lawyer Josh Mandelbaum. Maybe it’s because 24 years is a long time.

A poor east-sider who came to represent the more affluent West Side and most of downtown, she worked full-time at the part-time job. She was at every meeting, every gathering, every ribbon-cutting. She became the best friend downtown developers ever had.

She was on the wrong side of the Waterworks fight and she ignored a conflict of interest on a housing deal, but those are over and ultimately will be forgotten. As will the fact that in 2003 she ran for mayor and lost. But along the way she and former City Manager Rick Clark worked prodigiously to transform two ugly blocks on the west side of downtown into the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a national showpiece.

That shouldn’t be forgotten.

The Storm Lake Times

Every journalism school in the country should subscribe to the Storm Lake Times. Every journalism student should have to read it.

The twice-weekly paper is the model of what a newspaper still can be: Encyclopedic coverage of the community, from council meetings to school sports to car crashes to lost dogs. And strong editorials that put the news in perspective. The news stories and the editorials are fact-filled.

The news stories show the depth of the newspaper. The editorials show its soul.

Young reporter Tom Cullen could hold his own on The New York Times. Photographer and writer Dolores Cullen could get a job anywhere. Publisher John Cullen is a smart business guy who takes pride in the news side. And his younger brother, 59-year-old Art — father of Tom, husband of Dolores — is simply the best.

That was certified last month when he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Art Cullen is deceptive. He is a lanky, excitable guy with undisciplined hair covering a disciplined mind, and he is as unpolished as his editorials are polished. He is full of outrage, passion and uncommon sense — and all show up in his editorials.

Outrage: “Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America.”

Passion: Sen. Charles Grassley “is nothing more than a lapdog for the Republican Establishment….He is a doddering fool who needs to go.” (Being nonpartisan, he referred to former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge as “the only woman as vulgar as Donald Trump.”)

Uncommon sense: “We elected a board of supervisors and a county attorney to direct the policies and protect the taxpayers of this county. We did not elect the Farm Bureau or any other interest group to set our course.”

He is not beloved in Storm Lake. Some folks like him. Some folks dislike him. And some folks seem to hate him. But that doesn’t bother him, and it shouldn’t. For as a wise old newspaperman once said:

“You show me a beloved editor, and I’ll show you a crappy newspaper.” ♦

— Michael Gartner

Rich Wilkey, 1940-2017

Rich Wilkey was a smart, combative and terrific city manager in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time — like now — when Des Moines blossomed.

Serving for many of those years under an equally combative mayor, Dick Olson, and a strong-willed council, he was periodically in danger of losing his job.

I was the editor of The Des Moines Register and (until its death) Tribune in those years, and we’d meet every two or three weeks for an afterwork beer and hamburger at the old Maxie’s on Ingersoll. He was always full of plans and schemes to carry them out. He was a whiz at numbers, and he was especially good at counting to four. I’d get the occasional call for help. “I’ve got only three votes for the next council meeting,” he’d say. “Could I get an editorial in the Tribune” on this or that, an editorial that might sway a fourth vote that would keep him in office.

Then, as now, the city had strong business leadership — Jim Hubbell, David Kruidenier, John Fitzgibbon, John Ruan, Bob Houser — and Wilkey knew how to marshall them to move his vision forward. Labor was a big force in those days, too, and Wilkey worked well with Don Rowen and the others.

Those, too, were the days of federal earmarks, and Neal Smith — the only one of the men I’ve mentioned (and in those days all the leaders were men) who is still alive — was the champion of sending money home.

That combination of private and public money, labor and corporate cooperation, committed leadership of locally owned businesses — and a tenacious city manager — changed Des Moines and Polk County. The Civic Center was built, the skywalk system was put in, the Ruan Building and Financial Center and Marriott hotel were built downtown, Saylorville Lake was opened, the Des Moines River was cleaned up and the Neal Smith Trail was put in, the Botanical Center was built, the Plaza condominium tower was constructed and the Polk County Convention Complex (now the Y) was opened.

Wilkey had a hand in all of that.

Then he left and in effect rescued Prairie Meadows, turning it into a nonprofit that today showers the area with money. Ultimately, he left the public eye, but he also left the base upon which today’s thriving Des Moines now stands.

Rich Wilkey died of cancer on April 22, two days after his 77th birthday. ♦

— Michael Gartner






One Comment

  1. Sharon Johnson says:

    “Those were the good old days” is enjoyable conversation, but for the most part is not a shared frame of reference with those around me today. Especially with those who also have a passion for political discussion and change.

    Wilkey was not one of my favorites but as a former Iowa-Des Moines National Bank Trust Division employee, I have to reiterate, with pride, the accomplishments during the time when Fitzgibbon, Olson, Hubbell, Kruidenier, Ruan, and Houser put their ideas into action. They knew how to budget, where the money came from then made decisions for the overall good of the community, not to further their own financial interests. No closed-door meetings, no fact spinning, and no snarkiness or behind the scenes retaliation toward those who disagreed with them. At least that’s how I’m choosing to remember those times.

    It was an exciting time, but I was much younger and easier to impress. Today? Not so much. In my mind Matt McCoy against Mauro at least ignites hope there’s the possibility to restore some of those same skills and values we’ve lost because political tenure has gone on way too long for far too many public-sector positions. I would not want to dissuade him from his own career interests, but he’s one of few bright stars in the legislature who can follow the money. End of rant and apologies for impassioned typos. Thanks for reading.

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