Members of the Kansas City Council on Thursday fought back against what they say has been an overly secretive process for choosing an eventual proposal to build a single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
Among the issues troubling what appears to be a growing number of council members is tight control over the disclosure of information about the KCI process that some believe should be readily available to the public.
Those defending the process say they’re following the city’s typical contracting procedures, which in most cases attract little to no attention. They want to avoid the potential for litigation by straying too far from the city’s own policies.
Council members Quinton Lucas, Katheryn Shields, Teresa Loar, Lee Barnes and Heather Hall voiced misgivings Thursday about City Hall opting to keep secret the identities of those submitting proposals due that day for the $1 billion KCI project. The city confirmed four bids were received but would not disclose the names of the companies and their partners. The Star confirmed the proposals independently.
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The council members questioned why the identities of proposing companies should remain hidden on a high-profile issue that will eventually be decided by a public vote.
Shields took the argument further, citing a requirement under the city’s solicitation forbidding council members and potential bidders from communicating.
“How do I know who not to talk to if I don’t know who’s proposing?” Shields asked.
Council members also railed against an evaluation process that excluded most of the council from inspecting the four proposals.
The frustration culminated in a majority of the council at one point refusing to hold discussions with hired attorneys about legal advice behind closed doors. The Missouri Sunshine Law requires elected officials to hold meetings in public. But the law makes several exceptions, including meeting with attorneys to discuss legal advice.
Nearly always, the vote to go into a closed meeting is perfunctory. But in Thursday’s Kansas City Council business session, seven council members voted down a request to hold a private meeting with attorneys, arguing that the topics set for discussion didn’t require going behind closed doors.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James protested the majority’s decision to have a legal discussion in public. He said it could expose the city to litigation.
“I think we’re in litigation Russian roulette,” he said.
The council then held a spirited discussion about the transparency of the KCI issue.
“I still think the spirit of the (Missouri Sunshine Law) is that meetings, records, etc., are to be open and most of our legal time is supposed to be spent trying to keep things open rather than closed,” Lucas said.
The council eventually held a closed session with attorneys. That led to a legislative meeting late Thursday afternoon to discuss changing the KCI selection process to quell some of the council’s concerns.
The city’s solicitation for KCI bids established a selection committee that would receive the proposals, then forward on one recommendation to the City Council to negotiate an agreement.
That selection committee consisted of council members Jolie Justus and Jermaine Reed, City Manager Troy Schulte, Kansas City Aviation Director Pat Klein, KCI engineer Phil Muncie and Aviation Department Finance Officer John Green.
Shields, Lucas and others objected to the fact that the full council would see only the details of the recommended proposal and could not have a look at the other ideas to see how they compared.
Shields said that left most of the council in the dark.
“We have no information on which to base our decision other than totally relying on what the selection committee tells us,” Shields said. “We aren’t even, on the day we vote, we’re not going to have all the proposals. We’re not going to be able to look at those proposals or accept anyone reaching out to us saying this is what our proposal is. In my 30 years as an elected official, I have never, ever, been in that position before.”
Klein, the aviation director, said the arrangement helps protect the city’s bargaining power in negotiations.
“Part of the reason you do that is because when you’re in negotiations with the first apparent winner, there’s always the chance that the negotiation doesn’t work through, and you end up falling to No. 2,” Klein said.
The council then voted on and approved a resolution Thursday allowing other council members to attend the selection committee meetings.
Secrecy has been a frequent complaint by some members of the Kansas City Council under the Sly James administration during his second term. That complaint surfaced again when the council learned in May that James and others had been privately discussing a proposal by Burns & McDonnell to design, build and privately finance the KCI project.
Since then, different factions of the council have debated whether the city should invite other companies to compete with Burns & McDonnell for the project, and even whether it should be financed publicly or privately.
Lucas said that keeping information from council members effectively keeps information from the public.
“I think that’s a disservice to our constituents,” Lucas said. “I feel like I’m not doing my job properly for people who are asking. “I think we’re here to share things more often.”