At a mayoral candidate debate last month Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, responding to criticism from her opponent, Councilman Quinton Lucas, about her role in the rocky genesis of the KCI terminal project, offered this assurance to a Northland audience:
“As you all know, no back-room deals took place,” she said.
The critique Justus faces comes from a deal that indeed was never executed.
But there was a time two years ago that city officials considered a no-bid deal to allow Burns & McDonnell to build a new $1 billion privately-financed single terminal airport. The firm pitched Mayor Sly James, City Manager Troy Schulte and Justus at the downtown River Club in March 2017, a meeting that later became a target for Justus’ mayoral opponents.
Under fire for what critics claimed was a lack of transparency and flouting of city procurement laws, the city backed off that plan, instead going through a competitive bidding process for an airport developer in the spring of 2017.
It’s a controversy Justus has worked to smooth over as she reminds Kansas Citians they voted for a new airport terminal by overwhelming majority.
“We are building a new, single terminal at KCI right now. The ground is broken. We are working towards that. It will be open in 2023 at no risk to you,” Justus said, “and it started because I got invited to a meeting where someone said they had an idea.”
In the first two debates sponsored by The Star (the next will be Monday evening at Rockhurst University) KCI has been a point of vulnerability for the attorney and former two-term state senator. As James’ appointee to chair the council’s airport committee, Justus was in the middle of a deal generally regarded in its inception as a political and policy disaster.
“There are a number of things I would have done differently on the KCI airport project,” Councilman Quinton Lucas, her opponent in the June 18 general election, said at Northland debate. “One of which was, if I were invited to a meeting at a private club downtown to talk about a no-bid contract, I would have declined.”
Within weeks of Burns & McDonnell’s initial pitch to the city, James held a triumphal press conference at KCI announcing the plan. Justus was there and touted the idea in subsequent media interviews and appearances.
James described Burns & McDonnell as the only company interested in the project. But that was only because the city did not issue an RFP, standard procedure in big construction projects. Very shortly after, AECOM, a major aviation engineering company, said it was interested.
James and Schulte then decided to accept outside proposals, but on an accelerated three-week time frame. Under that arrangement, Burns & McDonnell would get a last look at all offers and an opportunity to match the best one.
Then lawyers said there might be a problem with such an approach, such as a thumping lawsuit against the city. The plan was scrapped. Burns & McDonnell was ultimately disqualified because of legal issues with its financial proposal. The eventual successful bidder was Maryland-based Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate.
Justus said at the debate that she instructed Burns & McDonnell at the River Club to talk to the City Council and host public hearings on the project.
“And it was very clear very quickly once those meetings were taking place and once we started having public hearings that was not the option that Kansas City wanted, and so that’s not the option we took,” Justus said, adding that the city instead opened it up for bids.
At that debate, Lucas said meetings like the one Justus attended are “not the way government is supposed to work..”
“And that led us down really just a continuing comedy of errors in connection with the project. So we had that first meeting,” Lucas said. “We then have a press conference about a no-bid contract, and it’s interesting because people talk about collaboration. What does collaboration mean if you don’t talk to any of your colleagues on the airport committee or talk to any of your colleagues on the city council about a new plan to change the most important public infrastructure asset in our city.”
Justus seemed to expect the process to unfold differently. In November 2016 she assured a Rotary Club luncheon:
“If we as a city decide we want a new airport, then the city will issue an RFP (request for proposals), RFQ (request for qualifications), an RFI (request for information) or whatever,” she said. “And we will have the designers, the engineers and the architects bid.”
Asked on May 11th at Winnetonka High School what she would have done differently, Justus started her answer not with the City Club meeting, but instead turned the clock back to 2016, when the airlines serving KCI told the city they wanted to pursue a new single terminal.
Polling at the time showed great public reluctance to consider the project, based largely on misunderstanding about how it would be paid for. Airports are usually financed with the sale of public aviation bonds paid off by fees from airport users: primarily the airlines and their passengers. But there was deep suspicion that taxpayers would be left on the hook for a billion-dollar project.
James decided to set the idea aside.
Justus said that if she could do it over, she would have instead mounted a public education campaign to build support for the idea and solicited ideas from the public. That never happened.
Asked in an interview Sunday what she would have done differently once Burns & McDonnell approached the city in 2017, she said she would have opened it up for a competitive bidding process. She said she was not comfortable with the Burns & McDonnell proposal
“I was willing to have the public hearings about it to get the conversation started, but I very quickly just like everybody else realized that this needed to be opened up.”
She added that while benefits from hindsight now, she’s “more comfortable with the path that we did.”
As far as the embattled early days of the project goes, she sees things differently.
“I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that there was a backroom deal,” Justus said. “I was invited to a lunch where a proposal was made and when we rolled the proposal out it was one that was clearly not going to happen.”