Fix KC initiative petition process to stop Clay Chastain-style fiascos

06/21/2014 11:00 AM

06/21/2014 5:38 PM

This whole Clay “Chutzpah” Chastain fiasco is a joke. Only it isn’t funny.

What kind of democracy is it when a few thousand signatures can turn a city upside down?

Less than 1 percent of Kansas City’s population signed their names to Chastain’s half-cocked idea to build light rail for only three-eighth of a cent increase in the sales tax for 25 years.

That’s not nearly enough money to fund the miles of a comprehensive transit system envisioned by Chastain.

The city fathers and citizens of Kansas City should do a lot of soul-searching as to how they got into this mess.

It is ludicrous to have an ordinance that requires the signatures of only 5 percent of the total votes cast for candidates for the office of mayor at the last preceding municipal election. You can get that measly number — about 3,500 — to sign almost anything, including a declaration to paint City Hall purple.

Compare that absurdity with the sanity of Kansas where, with only rare exceptions, the only way to get something on the ballot is through a governing body.

Missouri and Kansas City obviously will not go the direction of sanity. There is a history of the initiative process — ballots-by-petition — that is now part of the ethos of the state.

But, why does the threshold for such petitions have to be so low that one individual can stand in front of a grocery store over a few weekends and replicate what an entire city council would need to go through to place an initiative on a ballot?

With this level, the council then tried to duck its obligations. Because the plan was deemed unfeasible, the council decided to ignore the petition.

The courts stepped in and have given Chastain so much rope, he can tie the city in knots. The council is now ordered by the courts to put something on the ballot in November.

In all fairness, what should be on the “Chastain” ballot is something as close as possible to match the intent.

What that means is a proposal should be on the ballot that would allow for the construction of a viable light rail plan that could be built with the money raised by three-eighth of a cent over 25 years.

Anything short of that would be unfair, if not illegal. Then, see what the public has to say.

The outcome is unpredictable because it is not just a light rail plan that voters will be weighing. Also, on a lot of minds will be how they view Chastain.

Is Chastain the victim of abuse by an overbearing City Council? If so, he could get a sympathy vote. Or is Chastain on an ego-trip? If so, there could be voters who cast their ballots “no” in repudiation of Chastain.

However this turns out, Kansas City should learn from it. When one man can too easily place an issue before voters, that matter needs to be fixed.

Chastain has set a precedent. Only a change in the city’s laws regarding petitions will prevent a repeat by Chastain or a new surrogate.

To reach Steve Rose, send email to


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