Saturday, August 05, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

How Political Connections
Can Land You A Great Job

Sixty people recently applied for the job of Executive Director of the Missouri Gaming Commission. It’s an important job since the Commission regulates Missouri’s nine casinos and the billion dollar gaming industry.

One would think that out of all those applicants for the job, some would have experience in the gaming industry or law enforcement. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Gaming Commission “unanimously” chose someone with little or no experience for the job, namely former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary. McNary’s qualifications are that he was St. Louis County Executive from 1975 to 1989. Former President Bush then appointed him to run the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1990. You know, the agency in charge of keeping out illegal aliens. Nothing in his background as County Executive particularly qualified him for that political patronage job, which he left after only three years. For the past thirteen years McNary has been practicing immigration law.

What any of that has to do with the gaming industry in Missouri stumps me.

According to one local news story, the Executive Director’s main job is to “ensure public confidence and keep crime out of the gaming industry.” So they turn to an individual who couldn’t keep millions of illegal immigrants out of the country. Why do they think he can keep organized crime out of the gaming industry?

At age 70, the salary, which can range up to $94,000, will at least keep the former County Executive from having to take a part-time job at McDonalds to supplement his Social Security.

While rumors flew that McNary was the Governor’s top pick for the job, the Chairman of the Gaming Commission (a position appointed by the Governor), stated that the Governor’s Office played “no role” in the selection. Glad that’s settled. Public confidence is certainly heightened knowing that partisan politics played no role in selecting an otherwise unqualified person for this important job.

To be fair, perhaps there is something about the practice of “immigration law” that uniquely qualifies an individual to be Executive Director of the Gaming Commission. Let’s see. The Executive Director oversees 219 employees, 110 of which work for the Highway Patrol. I’m sure some of those Highway Patrolmen in their careers picked up an illegal alien or two. Those illegal immigrants “gambled” on not getting caught…hence his expertise to regulate an industry he otherwise would know nothing about.

If that sounds silly, it’s because political patronage isn’t about decisions that make sense. It’s about political paybacks. There is no doubt Gene McNary has been a faithful political partisan. Somebody “owed” him a job and we the taxpayers get to pick up the tab.

It’s a system as old as politics itself. The root of the word patronage is, after all, patron. A person’s “patron” in ancient Rome was a powerful and wealthy individual to whom you owed political allegiance and favors. In turn, your patron took care of some of your basic needs, interceded on your behalf and perhaps helped get you a job.

The problem comes when important jobs are treated the same way support or clerical positions are treated. Remember the FEMA Director who besides being a great political fundraiser came from a background of putting on horse shows? In hindsight, perhaps that’s a job that should have gone to someone with a smidgen of experience in dealing with DISASTERS!

Given the relative performance levels from political patronage appointees versus professionals in their fields, you can see why I’m apprehensive about the City switching to its own patronage system in April of 2007. After that date, unless overturned by voters, the Mayor would have the sole power to fire city employees. Public employees in Missouri serve “at will”, so they will have little protection from some future Mayor who may want to open up a few positions for political friends.

Recently the Journal newspaper criticized attempts to place this issue back before voters. It had passed two years ago, with a 300-vote margin in a low turnout April election. Why take the chance (they reasoned) that this November, a far larger turnout of voters, armed with the facts, might not want to trade down our City Administrator form of government for the same patronage system that we all know works so well in the City of St. Louis.

After all, just look at the great job Governor Blunt and the Gaming Commission did picking the best Executive Director they could find for Missouri’s Gaming Commission. Perhaps Sandford-Brown should add a class in political back scratching.