Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte ordered changes in the city's process for issuing permits after the city failed to process a faxed permit for a contractor to dig outside JJ's Restaurant.
"We need to make some changes at the top of your permitting group," Schulte wrote in an email to Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre after reading a March 3 newspaper article. "Lost permit applications make us all look sloppy."
A contractor digging outside the restaurant hit a gas line just before 5 p.m. Feb. 19. Just after 6 p.m., the gas exploded, creating an inferno inside JJ's that killed server Megan Cramer and injured 15 others.
KCTV5 News filed a request under the Missouri Sunshine Law to obtain emails by Schulte, Mayor Sly James and Assistant City Manager Pat Klein in the wake of the explosion. The city released copies of the emails Tuesday afternoon.
In one of his emails, Schulte told Fire Chief Paul Berardi to ensure the mayor's office had a chance to review anything before it was released to the media.
"Mayor's office is complaining they are out of the loop," Schulte wrote on Feb. 25.
This came after a media outlet asked for a copy of the city's policy for these type of incidents. The fire chief supported immediately releasing the request, while Schulte sought the delay until the mayor's office was apprised.
"From a public image perspective, transparency is valued and there in [sic] nothing embarrassing in the policy," the fire chief wrote.
Schulte and James had criticisms for the media coverage in their emails.
"We are trying to get some factual info to council," James wrote to Councilwoman Jan Marcason the day after the explosion. "LOTS of speculation, rumors and BS floating around."
Time Warner Cable hired Heartland Midwest to install fiber optics to a nearby hotel under construction. Heartland Midwest on Feb. 6 faxed to the city a request for a digging permit, but the fax did not go through. The city's fax log shows an attempted fax, but not a completed receipt.
Heartland Midwest did not follow up to see if the city had received the paperwork and processed it until the day after the explosion.
Heartland Midwest failed to complete essential parts of the permit, including the specific area of where the digging would occur and the dimensions of the site. As a result, the city would have rejected the permit.
But Heartland's attorney told KCTV5 last week that the city had stopped requiring contractors to get and pay for digging permits in an effort to expedite the process for Google Fiber.
"Lets [sic] take the high road on this JJ issue," Schulte wrote to Klein on Feb. 28. "If Heartland or anyone wants to challenge our processes, let them do it in court and not in the media. Fact is they didn't have a permit and that's all we have to say."
Litigation is expected in the case. In addition to the city, Time Warner, Heartland Midwest and Missouri Gas Energy are possible plaintiffs.
The city's fire department has faced some criticism for responding to the gas leak but quickly turning over the scene to MGE once their crews arrived. Fire crews left in a matter of minutes once MGE workers arrived.
Also at issue is whether evacuations should have been ordered sooner and should have been mandatory. Witnesses have said evacuations were highly suggested just minutes before the explosion, but it did not give everyone time to safely leave the area.
The city's Legal Committee, which includes James, is expected to discuss the explosion and the possible ramifications at a scheduled meeting Monday. The ad hoc committee only meets as needed and includes the attorneys who serve on the City Council.
Councilman Jim Glover, who heads up the committee, asked late last month for a presentation by City Attorney Bill Geary on the fire department's reaction at the scene before the explosion.
"His topic was not the litigation, but discussing what the KCFD did at the scene before the explosion as a matter of policy," Geary wrote. "I reminded him that policy discussions rarely are closed session items so that would not be a good thing at this early stage."
The council apparently has had a brief discussion about the issue, but the specific matters are expected to be raised with the Legal Committee.
James and Schulte also received praise in emails for their handling of the explosion.
"Thank you for the way you handled the Plaza situation," Marcason wrote. "You have a unique talent for reassuring the public that the city is doing all we can to assist them. I really appreciate your leadership."
In an email 14 hours after the explosion, Berardi praised Schulte, his boss, for his handling of the situation.
"I did not get the chance to say thanks and at the risk of being accused of 'kissing ass,' I want you to know that your leadership played a major role in the success of the city's reaction to last night's explosion," the fire chief wrote. "You are an outstanding leader and make an incredible team with the mayor that this city can be proud."
Berardi said the city manager's "leadership effectiveness earned an A."
"To avoid making this a long, sappy email, not withstanding that we have a long way to go before we declare 'mission accomplished,' I believe that today's success was determined by yours and the mayor's team attitude," he wrote. "The atmosphere that you created that allows staff to question, argue and discuss policy in that hat setting is why we were successful. Oh one more thing, I loved that you stepped up to the podium to take the question on permits."
Schulte had snapped at reporters for saying no record showed JJ's got a digging permit. Schulte emphasized at the time that a permit could have been obtained by someone else on behalf of the project, and the situation is being investigated.
No permit was ever found because of the fax snafu.
Watch KCTV5 News at 6 p.m. for more on this developing story.
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