The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 29, 2013

Phill Brooks, columnist: Resignations have little effect on policy changes

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The recent resignation of the state’s Revenue Department director follows a pattern I’ve seen when Missouri’s General Assembly launches investigations into the administration.

Brian Long resigned just days after he confirmed to a Senate committee that his department was, despite prior denials, building a database that contained scanned documents of Missouri drivers including concealed weapons permits.

Over the years, it has seemed to me that resignations are a more frequent consequence of legislative probes than actual substantive public policy changes.

Just take a look at the legislature’s first major investigation into Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration.

It involved his Natural Resources Department delaying release of information about unsafe levels of contamination at Lake of the Ozarks just before Memorial Day in 2009.

The Natural Resources Department director ultimately resigned. The department promised to be more forthcoming about contamination. But that was about all that came from the extensive legislative inquiry.

The substantive recommendations on how to deal with septic tank pollution at one of the state’s best-known tourist attractions went nowhere and remains unimplemented to this day.

In retrospect, maybe there was too much attention to charges Nixon’s office was trying to cover up the affair and not enough attention to the underlying problem of contamination from development around the Lake of the Ozarks in areas where sewage services do not exist.

I must confess, it’s not just politicians who can get distracted by charges of scandal. Dull public policy deliberations also make less interesting news stories.

A similar pattern of resignation without substantive policy change came from the later investigation into Mamtek, the failed economic development project backed by the administration that left Moberly with $39 million in outstanding bonds.

The administration’s Economic Development Department director resigned during the House committee investigation in 2011, but the committee’s policy change recommendations died in the legislature.

The same thing happened from one of the first legislative investigations I covered. It was a 1974 Senate probe into a massive rock festival the state had allowed on the grounds of the State Fair in Sedalia earlier that summer.

The Ozark Music Festival was promoted across the country, drawing hundreds of thousands. It was a far larger crowd than state officials had expected.

With inadequate sanitary facilities and too few trash receptacles, it left a huge mess. State workers faced a monumental task cleaning up the near mountains of garbage before the State Fair opened a few weeks later.

But beyond the garbage, what really got the attention of legislators were the reports of extensive drug use and the state of dress, or undress, of the festival attendees.

“The scene on the grounds at Sedalia made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild,” the Senate committee report subsequently concluded. “Natural and unnatural sex acts became a spectator sport.”

I still can vividly recall committee members staring — some gawking — at the dozens upon dozens of pictures of naked women that had been taken by undercover Highway Patrol officers and put on display for the committee at the patrol’s headquarters.

The Agriculture Department should have known what it was getting into when it leased the fairgrounds for a national rock-music festival. It was, after all, just a few years after Woodstock.

It is hard to understand the naivety of Agriculture Department officials. What did they expect for a nationally advertised rock festival — a small group of well-dressed families with children?

Part of it, I think, was that one of the department officials involved was disconnected from the cultural revolution sweeping the country in the aftermath of Vietnam.

The State Fair director, Ron Jones, came from Sedalia. I remember him as having a rural, small-town character — a person whom I suspect never had been to a rock music show.

Jones resigned in the aftermath, but little came of the policy recommendations from that Senate committee investigation.

A drug and crime investigation unit similar to one recommended by the committee eventually was created. But that law was not passed until nearly a decade later when the Ozark Music Festival had become a distant memory of an earlier era.

Thinking back to what led to Missouri’s Woodstock, I’ve realized one of the reasons why resignation often trumps policy in these situations may be that you simply cannot legislate good judgment.

Of course, skeptics would suggest, as Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, charged with Brian Long’s resignation, that throwing someone “under the bus” can make an issue appear resolved without any real change and also isolate the governor from the appearance of responsibility.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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