After months of debate but no action over concerns about weekend violence in Westport, a joint Kansas City Council committee on Wednesday endorsed ordinances that would privatize sidewalks in the district.
The committee forwarded the ordinances to the full city council with a recommendation that they pass.
The pair of ordinances voted on would allow the city to relinquish its ownership of sidewalks along the district’s main entertainment corridors to the Westport Community Improvement District.
Westport business owners say owning the sidewalks can let them screen visitors for weapons and lead to a reduction in crime. Opponents say the measure will lead to discrimination and set a lousy precedent of giving away public assets to private interests.
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“I don’t think we’re going to have a kumbaya on it,” said Councilwoman Alissia Canady. “But I do think this measure is important enough to go before the full council.”
Canady voted to advance the ordinances, along with Lee Barnes, Katheryn Shields and Heather Hall. Quinton Lucas and Scott Taylor voted against.
The Westport Regional Business League originally wanted to privatize the main streets in the district after a spate of violent, often late-night crime. The business coalition thought screening for weapons could help make the district safer.
Shields, who sponsored the ordinances, said she could only support giving up the sidewalks. She also wanted the city to be able to reclaim the sidewalks if the City Council ever thought privatization wasn’t working as promised.
If the city takes ownership of the sidewalks back within the first five years of privatization, the city would have to reimburse the Westport CID up to $134,000.
The city would also provide up to $10,000 for an information campaign to tell people who feel discriminated against where and how they can make complaints known.
Doug Niemeier, a captain with the Kansas City Police Department, supported Shields’ ordinances, saying people with weapons get screened for and turned away for having weapons at other city-owned facilities.
“You have to remember, we have people who go to Sprint Center who go there and find out they can’t bring in a weapon,” Niemeier said.
Lucas disagreed with that comparison.
“It is just my clear and somewhat unambiguous view that the airport and stadiums are different than a public street,” Lucas said. “They have different uses.”
Lucas also objected to giving ground on civil rights.
“We don’t want folks’ rights infringed,” Lucas said. “We want people to traverse society understanding those risks.”
Opponents of the privatization believe privatizing sidewalks and screening for weapons could lead to minorities being turned away based on their appearance, echoing concerns that have been voiced about security at the Power & Light District.
Barnes said he understood both views.
“I seriously understand, as a former business owner, that side,” Barnes said. “As a black man who has lived in Kansas City all my life, who’s been pulled over for no apparent reason, I understand that side of it as well.”
Barnes ultimately sided with the Westport business owners.
“I honestly believe the folks I’ve met from the Westport business league are not doing this from the standpoint of keeping anyone out who can rightfully come into Westport,” Barnes said.
The full council could vote on the matter Thursday.