Was the Kansas City Council within its rights in refusing to put Clay Chastain’s most recent light rail initiative on the ballot last fall even though it met all the signature requirements?
Absolutely not, Chastain’s lawyer, Jeff Carey, told Jackson County Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff on Friday. The city charter says valid petitions “shall” go on the ballot.
“It should be a matter of letting the voters decide,” he said. Even if the measure were approved at the polls, Carey contended, the council would have the right under the city charter to tinker with the rail plan or throw it out entirely if it wanted to.
Assistant City Attorney Sarah Barker didn’t challenge that last point, but she argued that Chastain’s petition was unconstitutional on its face and the council had every right to ignore it.
Reason: the plan’s funding mechanism wouldn’t raise enough money to build his light rail system much less run it.
Midkiff took the matter under advisement and will rule soon, she said from the bench.
But no matter what that ruling is, an appeal is likely, both sides agree.
The city sought the declaratory judgment in October after Chastain filed a formal challenge to the council’s decision.
The Bedford, Va., transit activist flew in for the hearing but gave no testimony.
No one dispute that Chastain gathered enough signatures last year to put his $2.5 billion transit plan up for a public vote. But the council blocked ballot access over the funding matter.
Chastain’s plan called for a 1/4-cent sales tax increase for 25 years that would help fund a 22-mile light rail spine from Waldo to KCI Airport. The city contends that Chastain needed to lay out where all the money would come from.
Kansas Citians have voted on light rail eight times since 1998. Five times Chastain proposals were turned down at the polls, as were two city-sanctioned plans, most recently in 2008.
Voters did approve one of Chastain’s proposals, in 2006. But because that plan diverted money from an existing bus tax and was considered unworkable, the city voided it, an action that was later upheld in court.
That’s the same path that Carey argues the city could have taken this time if it found fatal flaws in the current plan.