‘Promises’ Are But Empty Words That Have No Legal Consequence

Or so go the words written by Cole County (MO) Circuit Judge Richard Callahan when ruling on the Kansas City Symphony’s (KCS) lawsuit against Missouri’s General Assembly for failing to provide promised arts funding. The full quote reported by the AP reads “While there are many statutes with seeming ‘promises’ by the Legislature as to how revenues from a particular tax will be spent, these ‘promises’ are but empty words that have no legal consequence.” Does anyone really find this surprising? Apparently, the KCS leadership does…

When news about the KCS lawsuit broke, a number of individuals focused on the details but the real heart of the matter had nothing to do with right and wrong and everything to do with politics which is precisely what I wrote in a 1/9/2007 article:

Nevertheless, regardless of the legal issues involved or whether or not the Missouri Arts Council is adequately executing their mission, the over-riding issues in situations like this are centered on the political. The arts, and orchestras in particular, across the county have been fighting an increasing battle against a public perception of entitlement: rich man’s pastime, poor man’s tax.

By filing this lawsuit without the support of a majority of fellow Missouri arts organizations, the KCS only reinforces that attitude among those in control of the Missouri political machine as well as the general public. Furthermore, the act alienates the KCS from its fellow arts groups.

Fast forward nearly two years and the KCS attorney is quoted in the AP article as being disappointed that government would play politics.

“The bottom line is that this ruling means that the Legislature is not accountable to anyone,” Miller said. “They can do whatever they want, and to me, that is contrary to our whole system of justice.”

Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise that promises aren’t laws and yes, legislatures are not accountable to anyone so long as they don’t break laws. The only recourse outside of illegal activity is to vote them out of office when their term expires and if the KCS feels this strongly about the issue they should have been focusing more on engaging political action activity instead of filing weak lawsuits.

The real downside here is that the KCS isn’t the only orchestra in Missouri. It is easy to forget that Missouri has two major orchestras, the KCS and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to learn that the KCS lawsuit went a long way toward delaying and/or reducing arts funding as well as damaging the reputation of arts organizations among legislatures and bureaucrats.

If nothing else, this ordeal serves as a useful reminder that lawsuits are a poor substitute for healthier options such as launching a dedicated PR campaign, holding press conferences, inviting the press to a meeting with state representatives, etc. In another article on this topic, I concluded that it would be in the KCS’s best interest if they crafted plans as to how they should repair the damaged relationships this lawsuit would undoubtedly create. 21 months later and that’s exactly where things are.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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