Mayor Sly James was here, there and everywhere this week. On the scene at JJ’s after Tuesday’s explosion. Taking charge in the wake of Thursday’s record snow dump. Tweeting like a man possessed in a relentless bid to keep connected to his city.
And citizens appreciated it.
“The last few days KC has been lucky to have you running the ship,” wrote Mike Strohm in a post to the mayor. “Great job…”
James was calm amid chaos. He channeled former mayor Kay Barnes’ relentless optimism at a time when the city needed it. At times, he did something else: He overreached. The result: a rare blemish.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani set the standard for mayoral crisis response with a style that was blunt, reasoned and, above all, credible. James fell short with facts that sometimes weren’t quite right and a full-body embrace of his own Fire Department that may prove embarrassingly premature.
At a Wednesday news conference, James grew testy as reporters pursued a storyline that’s not going to quit: With the stench of gas so strong that some JJ’s workers were covering their noses with their clothing before the blast, why didn’t firefighters order an evacuation?
“The utility company was there, working on what they do. They do gas. They had the scene under control. The fire department comes. They tell the Fire Department things are under control. (The) fire department has to defer.”
But that’s not right on several counts. Eyewitnesses indicate firefighters beat utility workers to the scene by 12 minutes. The city’s own timeline says so.
Then there’s this: Does the Fire Department really need to defer to anybody? Experts suggest that Fire or Police Department can order evacuations anytime.
James so far is even resisting the idea of an internal investigation into the Fire Department’s pre-blast actions.
At moments in that same news conference, James sounded more like a liability attorney — he came into the mayor’s office with a reputation as a very good one, by the way — by seeming to push the bulk of responsibility onto Missouri Gas Energy. He even wore a pumper-truck red firefighter’s shirt.
As mayor, James’ can be both a cheerleader and a scold to the city’s firefighters. In the chaos after JJ’s was leveled, he was all rah-rah.
Later that day, he did reporters a favor by making MGE officials available at a press conference. But in doing so, he lent the prestige of his office to the gas company by sharing the stage at the city’s east side Emergency Operations Center. With lawsuits destined to fly, neutral turf might have made more sense.
What Giuliani did so well was come across as the people’s ambassador. James came off this week, at least, as something closer to the government’s defender-in-chief.
The distinction is critical.
To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @stevekraske.