Photo credit: Mass Transit/Leah Harnack
June 24--A group that opposes Kansas City's streetcar expansion has filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission alleging that public outreach for an engineering study is really electioneering.
Mayor Sly James fired back that the city is following a required process to ensure that the project, if voters approve, would be eligible for federal funding.
The political action group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government filed the complaint Friday. It argues that the city's plan to spend $685,000 for door-to-door outreach to residents and public meetings as part of an engineering study is actually a thinly disguised campaign in advance of an Aug. 5 election on streetcar expansion.
"I think people need to know their city is spending this money for these types of things," said Dan Coffey, the treasurer of Citizens for Responsible Government. Coffey has been an outspoken opponent of Kansas City's streetcar expansion plans and also led a successful petition drive to force a public vote on terminal improvements at Kansas City International Airport.
On May 22, the City Council approved a $4.4 million contract with Burns & McDonnell for advanced engineering and environmental studies of the proposed streetcar extensions. Coffey's group notes that $685,000 of that money is for a community engagement process in July and October, in the proposed corridors along Main Street south from downtown to 52nd Street and east along Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue.
An Aug. 5 election is scheduled in which voters in much of Kansas City south of the Missouri River will be asked to establish a special taxing district to expand the streetcar system along those corridors. If the taxing district is approved, those same voters would be asked in November to approve a sales tax increase and new property tax assessments.
A memo from Scott Hall & Associates, which is doing the outreach, says, "It is not our goal to persuade but to provide baseline information, collect and document feedback," through door-to-door resident engagement and meetings with community groups.
It also wants outreach representatives to "have a heart for listening to the concerns of others without being judgmental."
But Coffey's group isn't buying it. "This is a thinly veiled attempt to electioneer on behalf of the city and use funds that are not disclosed as being election funds to win the election," the complaint alleges.
In a statement, James said the assessment is specifically reaching out to disadvantaged populations, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, to help qualify the project for federal funding.
"The goal of the act is to provide equal opportunities for those communities to provide feedback on any topic of concern related to the streetcar project," James said. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity with the streetcar project and that means we must get it right by doing everything we can to receive matching federal dollars."
The mayor's office said the outreach schedule is pegged to the federal budget cycle, not the local election calendar.
An Ethics Commission spokeswoman said that, by law, she could not confirm or deny receipt of the complaint. Stacey Heislen, an assistant director with the commission, said the agency has 90 days to investigate this type of allegation before making a report to the commission. The commission can then dismiss the complaint or refer it to its general counsel for a hearing.
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