A group seeking to force a public vote on a new Kansas City International Airport terminal has gathered enough petition signatures, raising the political stakes for one of the region’s most contentious issues.
City Clerk Marilyn Sanders on Thursday certified that the group calling itself Friends of KCI had gathered more than the necessary 3,573 signatures to place a proposal on a Kansas City election ballot.
The petitioners want to ask voters in April to stop the city from implementing any plan to replace any passenger terminal or construct any new terminal at KCI without voter approval.
Now it’s up to the City Council to decide how to proceed, and council members were sharply divided Thursday over the petition’s possible impact.
One councilman said the ballot simply sets the stage for a public financing election that would have been required anyway. But another said it threatens crucial efforts to modernize the airport at a time when the city hasn’t even had a chance to receive an airport task force recommendation.
“I think the petition is really a monkey wrench that adds another confusing element to an already difficult task,” Councilman Dick Davis said.
Petition leader Dan Coffey and others said the petition drive shows how much the public wants a say in any changes to KCI.
The petitioners were galvanized by the City Council’s 9-3 vote last April to authorize continued study of a new single-terminal airport design. Friends of KCI and many other area residents say they want to retain the convenience of the three-terminal airport, and they are highly resistant to the potential $1.2 billion cost of a new terminal.
“The response from the public was unbelievable. Our phones were ringing off the lines,” Coffey said of the last push to get enough signatures.
Another group leader, John Murphy, said a flood of signatures poured in, especially from East Side neighborhoods, after the city clerk announced Dec. 17 that the group had come up short and had only 10 more days to collect about 575 more signatures.
Under the city charter, the council now has 60 days to decide whether to adopt the ballot language as city policy without an election or to place the measure on an election ballot.
If the council should take the full 60 days to make a decision, that would be past the election board deadline to get items on the April ballot and might put the vote off until later this year.
Coffey said his group wants an April election but understands it may be later.
Several council members said Thursday that the first step is to discuss whether the petition is legal with City Attorney Bill Geary. City spokesman Chris Hernandez said Geary will have no comment on the petition until he meets next week with the council.
Petitioners say the ballot language was drafted by attorneys, and they believe it passes legal muster.
Davis, who supports continued planning for a single terminal, said Thursday he thinks the petition initiative requires the city to jump through unnecessary hoops.
Davis said any airport improvements ultimately will require a revenue bond election anyway, under Missouri law, but having an election to require a future election is unnecessary. He reads the ballot language as really requiring the city to retain KCI’s current configuration.
But Councilman John Sharp, who supports modernizing KCI while retaining the current configuration of terminals, said the council should just agree to the petitioners’ proposal for a future election on any airport improvements and be done with it, without requiring an election in April or later this year.
Murphy said the petitioners want a promise that voters will have a say on KCI because they’re still worried that the city could come up with some creative financing scheme that sidesteps the required vote on revenue bonds. He said the council can provide that promise by adopting the petition language as city policy without an election this year.
And he had a warning if the City Council doesn’t adopt the language as is and forces the group to go to a campaign. He predicted it would be a test of the public’s confidence in city government.
“I’m not sure they want to go that route,” he said. “It’s an issue that people get and they’re very concerned about.”
Veteran political consultant Steve Glorioso agreed the petition initiative could set the stage for a bruising battle over KCI.
It comes at a time “that is not favorable to those who want to make major changes at the airport,” said Glorioso, who emphasized he has not made up his own mind about the merits of a new airport terminal.
If the measure goes on a ballot in April or a few months later this year, Glorioso said, “it’s pulled the rug out from anyone wanting to lay the groundwork with the public for a new airport terminal.”
Even as Friends of KCI is seeking a public vote, a different citizens group is weighing options for the future of KCI. That citizens task force was appointed by Mayor Sly James in May and has been meeting regularly ever since. It expects to hear from airline representatives Jan. 14 and from other interest groups and the public over the next three months and issue its recommendations in April.
Task force co-chair Dave Fowler said the petition initiative shouldn’t detract from the group’s work.
“We’re staying true to our mission,” he said, “which is to review the appropriate facts and make a recommendation as to the optimal configuration of the airport. That’s what we’re focused on.”