If I went out to hire someone to sabotage the idea of a new, single terminal for Kansas City International Airport, I could not find a better candidate than Sly James. How painfully ironic that is, because the Kansas City mayor probably wants it more than anyone.
James has handed over to the opposition all the ammunition it needs to sink the airport ballot proposal, currently planned for November.
By now, the miscues by James are legend. I don’t intend to pile on and rehash all the mistakes that have been made. Suffice it to say, the mayor has created a public backlash by first announcing a deal, as if it were a done deal, with no public input. He announced who the contractor would be without seeking outside bids. Once he relented and allowed other bidders, the mayor gave firms almost no time to prepare and submit their proposals. That deadline was extended a bit after complaints.
James has cloaked in secrecy the discussions about the airport with the City Council, so much so that this newspaper has spent almost as much ink pounding the mayor over back-room deals as it has reporting on the proposal itself. The tight timelines and the lack of public input have given the appearance that the fix is in. As a result, James may be killing this fragile project, which polls show has only a 38 percent approval rating by Kansas City voters.
Some single-terminal supporters are skeptical that the City Council can make a recommendation in late August and then pull off a successful vote only 10 weeks later on Nov. 7. Campaigns, particularly ones of this magnitude, are usually planned more than a year in advance and with time to raise millions of dollars to fund the effort.
Here we are in mid-August, and, to the knowledge of the insiders I have spoken with, there is little to no campaign organization in place and few, if any, campaign dollars raised. The airlines want a November vote. But is that realistic? Could the vote not be postponed until next April? Several major ballot issues have passed in April elections in Kansas City. This would provide some breathing room between the announcement of the best bid and the actual public vote.
If this were former Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, it would be more understandable that the city’s leader wasn’t hearing or sensing the outrage. Funkhouser lived in his own politically tone-deaf world. But James? He is supposed to be more astute, more attuned to public opinion and a more dynamic leader. None of this mess should be occurring on his watch.
I have sought the opinions of Kansas City political and community leaders for a better understanding of why this is happening, why the mayor seems to be oblivious to the damage he is causing. The answers I got back were almost universal. James was described as arrogant, stubborn, insensitive and not a good listener. He makes up his own mind, they say, and that becomes his inflexible position.
It’s quite a shame because one of the most important issues to ever face Kansas City is getting sidetracked by bad judgment and a personality streak that is alienating those who should be allies. The opposition is being handed a litany of ready-made, blistering attack points that have nothing to do with the airport itself or with issues such as whether a new terminal would be as convenient as the old one.
Starting today, the mayor should change his approach entirely. The council and mayor are not negotiating anything at this point. Therefore, James and the council can deliberate more in public view. Public input should be encouraged, not just begrudgingly accommodated. And, most importantly, the mayor should avoid a November kamikaze mission and postpone the election, which will allow ample time to wage a vigorous educational campaign for a very critical cause.