Clay Chastain isn’t done with Kansas City.
The perennial petitioner saw his latest rail plan trounced Tuesday by Kansas City voters, and his initial reaction that night was: “That hurts. It signals the end of my era of activism.”
Not so. By Wednesday, Chastain was again on the phone from his home in Bedford, Va., complaining that the city had messed with his ballot language and abbreviated the route description on Question 2, which was the reason for its failure by a 58 percent to 42 percent vote.
“It’s vague and poorly worded ballot language,” Chastain argued. “That Question 2 never had a chance.”
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Chastain did not think the three-eighths-cent sales tax increase for 25 years that he was seeking was the reason for the rejection.
Chastain envisioned a “rapid rail” system, kind of a hybrid between streetcars and light rail in its own right-of-way, running from Vivion Road in the Northland to the Kansas City Zoo, with a dozen intermediate stops. Plus, his plan called for electric bus service to Kansas City International Airport up north, the Cerner Campus down south, and other destinations.
His own description covered more than half a page of type that could take quite a while for a voter to read and digest. In campaign appearances, Chastain provided a rendering consisting of dotted lines and arrows on a piece of paper, without being superimposed on a Kansas City street map.
The city Law Department says it drafted ballot language to make it comprehensible to voters.
City Attorney Cecilia Abbott responded that the city charter calls for the ballot language to be a “concise and unprejudiced statement of the substance” of the proposal.
“The city acted lawfully and in accordance with the charter,” she said.
The Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance, a respected local transit group, even endorsed Chastain’s idea, saying the money could be used for some type of rail project, although it might not be exactly what Chastain proposed. City leaders remained mum on his plan, neither supporting nor opposing it.
But Chastain says the city “sabotaged” his plan, as it has so many of his plans in the past, and he wants another shot with voters. He said he’s seeking a court order to have his exact proposal put to voters. It would be the fifth lawsuit he’s filed against the city since December.
His message to city leaders?
“Tell them until Clay Chastain gets a fair shot at a petition election, he’s not going to give up.”
That’s probably true. Chastain had petition initiatives on Kansas City ballots in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. All failed.
He moved out of Kansas City in 2001, saying, “I’ve done all I can here, and it’s time to find something new.”
But he was back in 2002 and 2003 with more light rail plans that also failed.
In 2006, it was a different story. For the first time, he didn’t propose a tax increase but instead a redirection of the existing bus tax. That passed, but the City Council determined it was unworkable and repealed it in 2007.
He tried again in 2011 with a ballot proposal that led to a three-year battle with the city and the courts and another failure with voters in 2014.
In November 2016, his most ambitious plan of all, 40 miles of light rail, failed, and Chastain again said he was done with his Kansas City light rail schemes. That didn’t last long, and he was back this year with his scaled-down, 25-mile hybrid streetcar plan.
For years, Chastain used his sister’s Kansas City address to maintain a pretense of residency. But even that has ended, and he admits he’s not a Kansas City resident or registered voter.
But that doesn’t stop him from petitioning, using the city charter’s lenient petition thresholds that allow him to collect the necessary 1,700 signatures, with a few weekends at the Brookside Price Chopper.
He says his persistence is “protecting the integrity of the petition process,” and he wants the Jackson County court to give him one more shot.
“Put my plan in its original form,” he insists. “Then if I lose, I will step aside. Not until then.”