Thursday, July 16, 2020

Candidates for District 36 At Odds Over Social Media Posts

Mark Sharp
Laura Loyacono

by Mary K. King

As local political campaigns begin to heat up with the August 4 primary approaching, one Kansas City democratic race is making headlines, both in print and on social media. Representative Mark Sharp, who is seeking reelection, was recently the subject of a Kansas City Star article in which he is accused of inappropriate, derogatory comments on his personal Facebook page, dating back to 2011.
The article states that posts Sharp made on Facebook were then tweeted by the anonymous “Time’s Up – Missouri” Twitter account, which included posts exclusively about him. When those tweets went public, the account then disappeared.

Sharp, who represents the state’s 36th district in Kansas City after winning a special election last year to replace former Representative DaRon McGee, claims that his democratic opponent, Laura Loyacono, and her campaign are behind the Twitter account.

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised that she would go this far,” Sharp said. “She’s caused a lot of division and this is the exact thing that we are trying to get away from, I thought, but it doesn’t seem that way. During a time like this, as a person of color, it really, really makes me pretty sad. It’s very disheartening.”

Sharp said that normally, opponents will attack politicians based on their voting record. However, in this case, he feels he is being attacked for posts he made nearly a decade ago.
“She really took some words and stretched them,” Sharp said.

Back in 2011, the Jerry Sandusky case was in the news, and Sharp posted: “…sports used to be the sure way to get away from that homo shyt now I don’t even no…u wanna be that way go right ahead that’s ur business…but you touchin ya players that’s like touchin ur own children…wrong on every level imaginable.” The Star article referred to this post as deriding gay men. In other posts, the Star claims, Sharp was deriding toward women, and states that he referred to women as “meat.” Sharp’s posts read: “Dogs need meat…MEN need a lady in the streets and u kno the rest,” and “Queston: women, are u a piece of meat that any stray dog has a chance at, or are you a lady that only an established man has a shot at?”

“To say I called women meat simply isn’t true,” said Sharp.
Sharp’s opponent, Loyacono, says that neither she nor anyone from her campaign posted anything on Twitter regarding Sharp’s Facebook posts.

“We didn’t and simply wouldn’t do it,” said Loyacono. “You simply cannot ‘spin’ things that are hateful, vile, and that span misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, these were not indiscretions of youth. Mr. Sharp was already an adult and the graduate of a respected university.  Meanwhile, it was not until recently that he expressed any regret for the posts, and has yet to offer an actual apology in any publication I have read.”

She also stated that she feels it is disingenuous to accuse her campaign for employing dirty tricks when discussing items that appear on Sharp’s public Facebook page (the two posts in question have since been deleted).

“Finding them did not require any guile or savvy, and we were not the first to do so,” Loyacono said. “We did not leak anything private, we did not post anything on Twitter, and we have made no comment on the matter outside of sharing the KC Star article. To be clear, any claim to know otherwise is a deceit. I have been warned incessantly not to run for this seat because of the risk that my opponent’s campaign would look to spread falsehoods that I wouldn’t have time to refute right before the election.”

Sharp’s older sister was found dead in her apartment in 2000, after suffering abuse at the hands of a man she considered a boyfriend. Sharp, who was in the eighth grade at the time, has made it a priority to help violence victims and their families, including women. He feels that the Twitter page and the information that was spewed against him has been a “social media lynching.”

“So, it’s nice that my opponent has drudged all this up. I really just want to make sure, best as we can, that folks know my story because I do think it’s a unique one,” said Sharp. “Seeing some of the things that I’ve gone through and having to bury as many people as I’ve had to bury at an early age, and having the chance to represent the same district I grew up in…how easily I could have been the one to catch a bullet.

“The lies against me were so heinous, the (Twitter) page couldn’t last for very long,” he said. “It had to be taken down out of fear of probably a lawsuit if nothing else. I’m having to deal with a lot, with social media and The Star, who didn’t do us any favors. They really just bought a bunch of crap off of a made-up Twitter solely for me, and they took the bait.”

The Star article also made reference to Sharp’s resignation from a school district he worked for in Texas as a teacher and coach, indicating that he was reprimanded for showing what was deemed an inappropriate video to his students. However, Sharp said the reprimand didn’t come until well after his resignation, for what he feels was concern that the district might face a discrimination lawsuit from Sharp.

“It was a tough, tough job,” said Sharp. “They just wanted me to coach, teach, keep my head down and not be outspoken.”

The district he worked for, he says, did not observe things like Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. When he started asking questions and wanted to teach those lessons, he said, as the only black male teacher at the school, he felt like a target.

“They started getting really interested all of the sudden in what I was teaching,” said Sharp.  “The writing on the wall was starting to become pretty clear. I think I just caused too many ripples in the water for them, and they were looking for any reason to get me out of there.”

After his resignation, he received a letter in the mail from the Texas Education Association that he was being investigated for, essentially, he says, being on Facebook in the classroom. Sharp said the district he worked for did not have a policy against this, and he was able to login to social media from district computers (the sites were not blocked, as they are in other school districts).

“I thought it was no big deal, but apparently it was when they were trying to find something to discredit me,” said Sharp. “I was already gone and working at a different job. I had moved on. Ultimately, they (the Texas Education Association) went with the school’s recommendation for a reprimand. I never lost my license. I was never fired. I resigned voluntarily because it was so uncomfortable there.”

Sharp is hopeful that his work while in Jefferson City will speak to his character, rather than information that may be disbursed from his opposition. He said that he works well with his colleagues from both sides of the aisle and has unfinished business he’d like to see through if reelected.

Loyacono said that she is working to connect with voters by any means possible: over the phone, at their homes and through face-to-face events (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).

“To claim I have, in any way, run a dirty campaign is false and only seeks to distract voters from the facts. I will not tolerate the smear campaign being conducted against my integrity and I look forward to continuing my aggressive outreach program focused on the issues faced by the voters of the 36th House District, especially during this crisis.”

The “he said, she said” back and forth in this race will ultimately be up to the voters to determine which candidate they want to send to Jefferson City to represent Missouri’s 36th District. The primary election takes place on Tuesday, August 4. Loyacono and Sharp are running for the seat in the Democratic primary, while Nola Wood is running as the Republican candidate. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Graduating Amid a Pandemic













Grandview High School Class of 2020 Recognized


By Mary K. King

On March 12, 2020, the senior class of Grandview High School went home for spring break. This would be the last time they saw each other until graduation, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of school buildings and districts across the country implemented distance learning. Despite various challenges, the Grandview School District hosted a graduation ceremony, drive-through style, for the class of 2020 on Monday, June 29.

Following the ceremony, the district put together a video featuring the traditional speeches typically heard at graduation. Principal Dr. Jennifer Price, retiring this school year, stated that if the graduates surround themselves with people who make them happy, who push them and challenge them, they will be a force to change the world. This theme of change and of overcoming adversity was a common thread in all of the graduation speeches.

“I know this is not the graduation ceremony that you envisioned when you started your senior year 10 months ago, or even when you started your last semester in January,” said Superintendent Dr. Kenny Rodrequez. “I know that you’ve been dreaming about this moment and, at no time, dreamt that this would be how it would play out. I believe that you have an amazing opportunity - a calling, if you will - to go forth from this moment and create a future with more purpose, vision, energy and hope than those who came before you.”

Rodrequez went on to say that this is the point where he typically tells the graduating class some words of wisdom, and shares what they can expect to see in the future. However, he said, this time he doesn’t know those answers.

“We tend to speak to you as if we somehow have it figured out,” he said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know how things will improve or how the world will be different when we get to the other side of this pandemic. We don’t know how the country will change based upon the protests related to the social injustice that we’ve witnessed these past weeks. We don’t know if systemic inequities are going to continue to exist in our society or if they will finally be addressed.

“What I do know is that everything happens for a reason,” Rodrequez added. “You are a chosen class. It might not feel that way to you now, but you have been chosen for a reason. You can think of all this as a negative, or you can change your mindset and realize that you have an opportunity - an opportunity to seize your future and the future of this country. You have more power now than you can possibly imagine.”

Rodrequez challenged the class of 2020 to put more love than hate out into the world, and to rise above the tasks of the last several months.

“You are bulldogs and you can build the future that you want to see,” he said. “The fight to build that future will not be easy, but it will be worth it.”

Class Salutatorian Kiyah Neely said that she feels her class was robbed of their senior year due to the pandemic. Despite that, however, she said that her class had amazing school spirit, and the ability of her peers to come together for the good of the whole has been a quality she has admired.

“It cannot take away the fact that we made it,” said Neely. “Most of us have been surrounded by the same people for years, and it is truly amazing watching people grow and become who they’re meant to be.

Jason Keleher, class valedictorian, assured his classmates that the lack of a traditional graduation ceremony does not reflect that the class of 2020 put in any less effort than other classes.

“I choose to perceive this strange opportunity as a unique send-off point for a uniquely talented generation,” said Keleher. “Walking through our high school halls as a freshman, I could tell there was something special about the class of 2020, aside from all the puns about us having 2020 vision. We tried harder and aimed further than the classes that came before us, never settling for mediocrity.

“In this ever-changing world of division and isolation we graduates are about to enter into, those aspirations are desperately needed,” Keleher added. “We need the loud, clear voices of this generation to be vocal about injustice, truth and hope. We must challenge apathy wherever it appears and instead promote compassion. And we must be agents of positive change, even if it means abandoning the safety and comfort of the past.”

Though the future may be uncertain for the graduates, class president Jadyn Brooks said that she believes her class will be the one to shake up the world.

“We are the class of 2020,” said Brooks, “and we have a perfect vision moving forward.”

Thursday, July 2, 2020

South KC Sees Surge of Violence in 2020


KCPD Deputy Chief Karl Oakman discusses violent crime statistics in Kansas City during a town hall conversation, led by Center Planning's Stacey Johnson-Cosby. 

Tracking to be Deadliest Year on Record

by Mary K. King

Violent crime is on the rise in South Kansas City with the community seeing 13 murders in 2020. Compared to none at this time in 2019, some area activists are asking what local law enforcement is doing and what the community can do to keep their neighborhoods safe.

On Saturday, June 27, the Center Planning and Development Council, Hickman Mills United Neighborhoods and the Southern Communities Coalition teamed up to host an in-person and virtual town hall meeting to discuss crime and safety in South Kansas City. The discussion, led by Center Planning’s Vice President Stacey Johnson-Cosby, included representatives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, and COMBAT, with Mayor of Kansas City Quinton Lucas, and Jackson County Sheriff Daryl Forte.

“I was absolutely floored and shocked and had no idea,” said Johnson-Cosby. “I knew if I was shocked, some of my neighbors and peers were also shocked. So, I thought, let’s find out what’s going on, not only in our community in South Kansas City, but also statewide. I think the trends are the same.”

Johnson-Cosby set out to find information on where the violence is stemming from, who the victims are in these cases, and what steps are being taken as a city to solve the problem. Most importantly, she said, is finding out what the neighborhoods can do to create a positive impact in their communities going forward to help reduce violent crime.

“South Kansas City is not unique in terms of having an increase in violent crime activity including shootings and homicides,” said Mayor Lucas. “It is not a trend that is unique to Kansas City, either, as compared to other American cities. But that doesn’t mean in any way that this is acceptable for us.”

The City of Kansas City received grants from the Department of Justice earlier this year related to community policing. Lucas said the hope is to use those funds to increase policing both with additional officers in the department and to expand the community policing program throughout the city. He indicated that the city is facing budget challenges due to COVID-19.

“In a year where two to three months ago we talked about a $10 million increase in the Kansas City Police Department, now a few months later there’s conversation of a $10 million decrease. So, we’d be very flat,” said Lucas. “The challenge with that, of course, is how do you deliver services to the people of Kansas City? How do we make sure that things like the response times and some of the other community efforts that are very important can continue to be those that we support?”

The mayor also indicated that the inability to have in-person programming due to COVID-19, specifically for teens, has been a challenge. Keeping young people of Kansas City involved and active over the summer to help prevent the congregations in parks and public places has proven to be effective in years past. Swope Park has seen a high number of shootings already this year, and a lot of the other criminal activity has occurred in parks, parking lots and open spaces, according to Lucas.

“We know where the challenge is, but in some ways it’s kind of the idle hands of the youth that has created a challenge for us,” said Lucas.

He added that his office is making sure that efforts are increased with South Patrol to provide for continued collaboration with community organizations, the school districts, and neighborhoods to ensure that safety remains a top priority. He stated that leveraging those programs that already exist in the city, such as the No Violence Alliance (NoVA), and working with those programs is essential.

“Everyone at city hall and on the Board of Police Commissioners is mindful of the real challenges we have,” Lucas said. “Every crime, and every issue, is creating grave concerns for all of us.”

According to Mike Mansur with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, Kansas City has seen over 90 homicides since January 1. This puts the city on pace to see around 175 this year. 2017 was considered to be the all-time high with 151 homicides. The prosecutor has recently initiated the Crime Strategy Unit, which is becoming popular throughout the country, and uses police intelligence to help identify crime spots and trends.

“We also will supplement and make better the most important cases with that unit,” said Mansur. “They might be involved in special efforts with evidence in particular cases.”

South Patrol Commander Major Daniel Gates said his team of officers covers roughly 74 square miles in Kansas City with approximately 69,000 residents, and averages around 39,000 calls for service annually in the division. Currently, there are 65 officers assigned to South Patrol of all ranks.

“Just like everyone else, we’ve seen a spike across our division, across our city, and across the country of violent crimes,” said Gates. “Of the 13 homicides in South Patrol, nine have seen arrests or charges.”

Gates said five cases are of unknown reasons, five were either disagreements or arguments involving drug activity, and two were domestic-violence related homicides. One case involved two deaths. In order to help alleviate some of the violent crime issues, Gates meets weekly with South Patrol staff to gather information to ensure they have an understanding about what is occurring and agree on how to approach the situation to prevent further homicides. That information is shared with Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith and the other patrol divisions in the city.

South Patrol has two community interaction officers dedicated to the area, as well as a social worker assigned to the division. Gates said the division also has an impact squad, which assists with calls for service and works to follow-up with homicide investigations or other cases to help apprehend offenders of violent crimes.

“We do the best that we can,” said Gates. “We protect and serve. We can’t do that without your help.”

Confidentially, the public can provide information about violent or non-violent crime to the TIPS Hotline by calling 816-474-TIPS, or by texting or emailing through their website. The TIPS Hotline is separate from the police departments, and since its inception back in the 1970s, has had a 100-percent success rate with keeping tips anonymous. If tips provided lead to an arrest for a homicide, the tipster can be rewarded up to $25,000.

Sheriff Forte said that his office signed a mental health contract last week to bring the county up to national standards for those who come through the detention facility by providing services to help with crime reduction across Jackson County. Everyone will receive an evaluation upon arrival, and those who are deemed to be in need of special services will be transported out of the jail and taken to proper facilities to receive the care they need.

“This will impact crime all over the city,” said Forte. “We are looking at our entire process as a reform effort, from recruitment to retention to annual psychological profiles. Hold us accountable, from the leaders all the way down through the organization. We need to talk more, and after the talking, we need to have accountability measures to make sure that we change.”

He added that he feels the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has been dealing with antiquated procedures and equipment. Timing, Forte said, is everything, and with the current climate with police, he said that now is the time for him to find the funding to outfit his patrolmen with body-worn cameras.

“Without trust, though, the cameras don’t mean a whole lot,” Forte said. “We have to build that trust, one relationship at a time.”

Kansas City Police Department Deputy Chief Karl Oakman said that a strong partnership is needed to address the violence issue in Kansas City.

“Over the years, I think we’ve checked ‘partnership’ off like it’s a box and we really don’t engage like we should,” said Oakman. “Everyone has responsibility and I think, moving forward, we need to hold everyone responsible for their part in this partnership.”

He said there are two key factors to addressing the homicide problem in Kansas City: enforcement and prevention. While he feels that the police department continues to succeed in the enforcement category, more efforts need to focus on violence prevention.

“We’ve put a lot of programs in place,” said Oakman. “Do we want to have 175 homicides this year and toot our horn because we solved 169 of them? I don’t think that’s progress. I don’t think we should be excited about that. What we should be looking at is doing both (enforcement and prevention).”

Oakman said he would like to see KCPD increase the solvability rate of violent crimes while also reducing the number of homicides.  There are a number of initiatives already in progress; however, due to COVID-19, a lot of those face-to-face programs have been halted this year. He would also like to have school resource officers in each high school.

“We always talk about serve and protect, but sometimes we leave out the engaging with the community part,” said Oakman.

The key thing to remember, according to Oakman, is that those who want to commit violence or destroy neighborhoods are fine doing it if they see only the police engaged or just the community engaged.

“What scares people, those who want to commit violence, is when they see the police and the community working together,” said Oakman. “Not just working together but getting along and having a common goal. That is the biggest prevention to violence in your neighborhoods: when the police work with you and the community works with the police.”

Johnson-Cosby expressed to all the speakers that, as community groups, they are engaged and willing to work with the police to help prevent future violent crimes in the southland.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Investor Looks to Purchase Former Bank Building to Build Service Station

by Mary K. King

The Grandview Board of Aldermen on Tuesday, June 9, held a public hearing for a zoning amendment for the former bank building located at 6500 Main Street. The property, which currently serves as RT’s Awards and Trophies, was purchased several years ago by Rick Thompson after the building was vacant for some time.

Jeff Teague of Teague Construction submitted the application for rezoning of the property, currently zoned OS (office services). A developer has a contract to purchase the building and land, and wishes to rezone to allow for a service station and convenience store (C-2, or general commercial, zoning).

“This property will be affected by the Frontage Road conversion from one-way to two-way traffic, of which the city is currently in the engineering and design phases,” said City Planner Dave McCumber.  “The west side of the property and the property line will be shifted slightly.”

The current OS zoning is directly adjacent to C-2 zoning, which McCumber says will need to be changed in order to get approval for building a gas station. With the existing C-2 zoning next to the property, he said it would be easy to extend that west into the property in question.  McCumber added that the city’s planning commission voted unanimously in favor of the zoning map amendment for the property.

“I had a client who came to me looking for a site that had C-2 zoning and he wanted to locate in Grandview,” said Teague. “Right now, the purpose is to build a convenience store. Obviously, there’s a long way to go on getting to everything if this gets approved, but there’s a possibility they may not build a convenience store, too. It could end up being a small commercial building or retail building.”

Teague said that the chance is greater that the property buyer, Bibir Sultan, will build a convenience store at the location, especially considering the new access road, once completed, will cut right through the property.

“If the road wasn’t going to go through there, and there wasn’t going to be increased traffic, my client would not have requested the rezoning,” said Teague. “He wouldn’t even be interested in this piece of property. We really felt like this was appropriate for the city.”

RT’s has been located at the building for years, Teague said, and it needs substantial work. The building is aging and has foundation problems that would be expensive to repair.

“Our intention, no matter what, is to tear that building down,” said Teague. “Any time you take an old building and build something new, and up to current standards, it is a good thing.”

Alderman John Maloney questioned whether or not Teague’s client has looked into purchasing the closed gas station located on the northeast corner of Blue Ridge and Grandview Road. Teague indicated that he believes that gas station will eventually reopen.

The Board of Aldermen will make the decision on the rezoning of 6500 Main Street at a future meeting.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Community Input Received for the Outer Road Conversion Project

by Mary K. King




A virtual public meeting was held to discuss the future of the Outer Road conversion project in Grandview, taking the current one-way roads to two-way. On Thursday, May 28, Grandview’s Public Works Director Dennis Randolph, along with designers and contractors for the project, met with community members via Zoom conferencing to garner feedback and answer questions regarding the conversion.

“Folks have been waiting a long time to get to this point, and the year has been strange and getting here has been a bit of a task,” said Randolph.

The project first began in 1980, when the frontage roads along then US-71 were converted to one-way traffic. Randolph stated that the conversion to one-way caused problems for the city, including travel and business economics.

“Customers had a hard time going in circles around and around,” said Randolph. “I wasn’t here, but I know Mayor Jones (and others) have seen what those one-way frontage roads did. For many years, they caused some real economic problems for the city.”

For the last decade of his employment with Grandview, Randolph has been working to develop a plan to convert the roads back to two-way. Around seven years ago, Grandview and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) came to an agreement on the scope of the project; however, the City of Grandview had to find the money to complete the job.

“That’s taken quite a bit of work. In the end, we had to come up with about $12 million of funds outside of the city’s coffers with the city contributing about $3 million,” said Randolph. “So, this is a $15 million project that we’re working on.”

The funding now in place, including a large part from federal aid. With those federal dollars, the city is required to follow specific rules. Before authorization is approved for the final design, construction, or purchase of right-of-way, a public meeting needed to be held.

“This is to let you know what the process is,” said Randolph. “We’re hoping that after the meeting is done, and we get all the questions answered and all the documentation together, Missouri Department of Transportation will give us authorization to proceed.”

The project runs from Harry Truman Drive on the northern end to just north of M-150 Highway to the south. Some prior approval had already been granted by MoDOT, and for the last year, Grandview has been completing some property acquisition along the northern end of the project route.

“I think the other special part of this project, besides correcting that economic development problem for the city, is that we’re going to use a process called design-build, which is a project delivery method to get this project done,” said Randolph. “What that really means is, instead of having a separate design done by an engineering design firm and then bidding the project to a construction firm, we’re going to select, based on qualifications, a design-build team.”

The design-build team will consist of a partnership between design engineers, a builder, and other contractors used to complete the project. That selection process has already started, and the city is currently working on narrowing the field from three firms.

The City of Grandview and MoDOT have already completed some preliminary design work for the conversion project. Those plans, according to Randolph, are about 30 percent finished. The rest of the design will be completed by the design-build team, which will be selected later this summer or early fall.

“The two-way traffic will allow folks who live in Grandview to circulate a lot better, and not to have to go out of their way to get from one side of our city to the other,” said Randolph.
If the project goes according to plan, final design for the conversion will be completed in 2021, with construction taking place and being finished by the middle of 2022.

A video of the virtual public meeting is available on the city’s website at www.grandview.org, under Public Works Projects. Public comments for the I-49 Outer Road conversion are being accepted through Friday, June 5. Those interested in providing feedback can email Randolph at drandolph@grandview.org.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Grandview Student Receives $50,000 Surprise



by Mary Wilson

At a time when communities are searching for some good news, just that came to a Grandview High School junior in the form of a celebration on Friday, May 1.

Grandview High School junior Jarri Brooks dreams of going to college and becoming a certified public accountant. On Friday, that dream became one step closer to reality when Brooks discovered he is one of 1,169 KC Scholar scholarship recipients across the metro.

“It feels like it’s my birthday, and it’s not my birthday,” said a surprised Brooks as he met representatives from KC Scholars and local media on the front lawn of his apartment building in Grandview.

KC Scholars announced on Friday their college scholarships for low and modest-income students across a six-county area of the Kansas City region. The awards provide financial assistance, college advisement, and college planning and persistence support for students who have the greatest need and who may otherwise be unable to complete a postsecondary degree. This year, students from 95 public, private, public charter, and home-based high schools applied for the scholarship.

Brooks, along with six other Grandview High School students, will receive a $10,000 scholarship upon entering college his freshman year, renewable up to four additional years. Along with the scholarship announcement at his home, Brooks was greeted by a parade of cars, with representation from area colleges and universities like Metropolitan Community Colleges, UMKC, Mizzou, Donnelly College and many more. A few teachers and administrators from Grandview also attended the parade.

“Jarri is an outstanding young man. Not just athletically or academically, but he is a great citizen as well,” said Grandview High School Assistant Principal Brian Rudolph, who drove through Brooks’ parade a couple of times. “He is always kind and has an outstanding personality. He will be a fantastic representative for KC Scholars.”

“KC Scholars stands for hope and opportunity – something our collective soul yearns for at this time,” said Beth Tankersley-Bankhead, president and CEO of KC Scholars. “The impact will live on for generations to come and will enrich our regional community. KC Scholars opens doors of opportunity for our scholars, and for their families, and ensures fair and equitable access to education and employment. With the support of this program, this region’s students can fulfill their dreams.”

Other Grandview students receiving the $50,000 scholarship are: Sarah Bensahri, Ollie Coleman, Tristyn Little, Tenisha Perkins, Sasha Sandoval-Williams and Guadalupe Santillanes.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Fire Marshal Retires

by Mary Wilson

If you have attended any community events in Grandview over the past several years, chances are you’ve met Fire Marshal Lew Austin. With his friendly smile and his Jersey accent, Austin quickly became a pillar of the Grandview Fire Department since he was hired in early 2014. Knowing no strangers, he began work immediately and, though the task would have been a challenge to most, he did it all with a genuine love for his job.

“I’ve been in the fire marshal position, and I’ve now worked with two other fire marshals besides Lew, and I can truly say he is absolutely the best fire marshal I’ve ever been around,” said Grandview Fire Chief Ron Graham. “He is so committed. It’s one thing to be knowledgeable and have skill and know the fire code and things, but when it comes to his commitment and wanting to make sure that builders or businesspeople have the right advice, Lew is the best.”

Graham said that Austin doesn’t “shoot from the hip,” instead offering assistance to business owners to work with them to correct any issues he may come across. He is also known for being willing to come up with a plan to help businesses when it comes to operating within codes.

“A lot of fire marshals aren’t like that,” said Graham. “Lew understands, and it’s not that we’re just such a small town. I think he’d be the same in a big town. That’s just his style, and it’s the correct style.”

When he was hired, Austin had his work cut out for him. Graham said there was a lot to be done to get the department’s program back on track.

“There was kind of an unwritten word out there that Grandview’s not going to check you,” said Graham. “Lew’s changed that. He’s taken some heat on it, but he would just apologize and then work with people and give them some time. Many times, he had to take a deep breath and just say, ‘I’m sorry. Yes, this should have been enforced years ago, but it is a requirement and I’m going to work with you.’ I really respect Lew for that.”

Graham added that Austin has a clear passion for his work. It wasn’t unheard of for him to take work home with him over the weekends, not wanting to hold up any permits or plans.
“Lew always made sure the work got done,” said Graham. “One thing we tease him for is sometimes that New Jersey attitude will come out. And, while we tease him about it, it’s probably what helped make him so successful.”

Several schools in Grandview were not meeting the fire codes, with violations, according to Graham. At no fault to the district, they just simply weren’t informed. Austin inspected all the schools and compiled a long list of fire hazards and other violations.

“It was embarrassing, really, on our part,” said Graham. “It shouldn’t have been like that.”
Knowing that the district would likely be spending quite a bit on some of the upgrades to bring the buildings to code, including a new fire alarm system, Austin helped Superintendent Dr. Kenny Rodrequez come up with a plan to implement the changes over a period of time, rather than having the big expense at once. 

From working with the district, Austin saw a need for further collaboration, and developed the Fire Prevention Week poster contest, where students from across the district submitted artwork annually depicting the theme of the year. Winning posters were selected from each building, and those artists received a ride to school on a fire truck and were recognized by the City of Grandview. Austin also serves on the district’s safety committee.

“From the moment that he arrived in Grandview, he had a desire to work with the school system in other ways than just his role as fire marshal,” said Rodrequez. “He has a heart for safety, for education, and for collaboration that will be sorely missed. We are a better and safer community because of the tremendous work that he did.”

“He’s just been the glue to hold everything together,” said Graham. “He took a program that was weak and, dare to say, it’s one of the strongest in the metro area.”

Austin’s last day with the City of Grandview is Friday, April 24. However, his impact and legacy will last long after he retires to Nevada, where he will join his wife who has been working at a hospital there since January.

Austin has laid the groundwork for his predecessor, Rodney Baldwin, who has been training with the fire marshal for the last two years, and was appointed to the position on Friday, April 17.
“It’s going to be a seamless transition,” said Graham. “We will miss Lew, but to his credit, Lew prepared Rodney.”

Graham said that the department, and Baldwin, will continue the work that Austin has started, including the Fire Prevention poster contest. Baldwin is also passionate about serving the community, having started the Lunch Buddies program with the district a few years ago.

“While we have his position filled, we will never replace what Lew brought to Grandview,” said Graham. “We’re going to be okay, thanks to him. He’s going to be missed.”