Government & Politics

Burns & McDonnell says city should start over on KCI selection process

Four proposals presented for single-terminal KCI

The KCI selection committee is considering four proposals on how to build and finance a new airport
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The KCI selection committee is considering four proposals on how to build and finance a new airport

Burns & McDonnell on Tuesday called for Kansas City to scrap its evaluation of proposals for a single terminal at KCI and start over again amid allegations of conflicts of interest.

A statement by David Frantze, a lawyer representing a joint venture for the KCI project between Burns & McDonnell and Americo Life called Terminal Developer LLC, contacted Kansas City’s municipal attorneys on Tuesday with the request. It comes one day after Frantze accused Charles Renner, a Husch Blackwell lawyer advising the Kansas City Council on the KCI selection process, of having a conflict of interest because he represented Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, a competing proposer, in a facilities project at the University of Kansas last year.

“I want to make sure our client’s position is clear. Terminal Developer wishes to see KCI Airport redeveloped,” Frantze said in a statement. “Terminal Developer believes that the flaws and irregularities of the current process have precluded a fair decision. Rather than proceed with a selection that is subject to challenge, Terminal Developer believes that the current RFQ/P process should be terminated and a new, open process commenced.”

Renner denies any conflict, saying his representation of Edgemoor ended in May 2016.

City Attorney Cecilia Abbott said Tuesday morning that she was still researching the matter but she did not see a conflict of interest.

She cited the relevant section of the city’s code of ordinances, which simply prohibits the city from “contracting for professional services with any attorney who, at the time of the issuance of the contract, either in an individual or firm capacity, represents any party in litigation against the city.” That is not the case with Renner and Edgemoor.

“This is a non-related client matter that terminated in May 2016,” Abbott said.

AECOM, Jones Lang LaSalle and Edgemoor could not immediately be reached for comment.

Despite the latest conflict of interest concern, the airport selection committee began its meeting as planned at 9 a.m. Tuesday and was still meeting past noontime.

As he went into the meeting, City Manager Troy Schulte, a member of the selection committee, said he was convinced there was no conflict of interest with Charles Renner, and he was prepared to forge ahead with deliberations and to make a decision on a winning proposal.

One council member, Katheryn Shields, said she was not surprised to hear of Burns & McDonnell’s call for a new selection process.

“My impression would be that the selection process is not going well for Burns & McDonnell,” Shields told The Star. “I’ll just leave it at that. It’s not surprising to me that they would want to start over.”

But Burns & McDonnell representatives categorically denied that they were motivated by any concern that they weren’t faring well in the selection process. Burns & McDonnell and Edgemoor are among four proposer teams for the $1 billion project, along with AECOM and Jones Lang LaSalle. The city is trying to pick a proposal in advance of a public election Nov. 7 in which voters will be asked to approve a new single terminal for KCI.

“We were extremely excited,” said Mike Brown, president of international operations for Burns & McDonnell, adding that the company was pleased when the airlines serving KCI issued a statement over the weekend, saying they would prefer to work with the Burns & McDonnell-led KCI Hometown Team for the airport project. “We view that as the ultimate stamp of approval.”

Instead, Frantze told The Star that the company very relucantly decided to call for a do-over. He said the company thought its chances of selection were quite good but wanted to anticipate how opponents might challenge the selection.

“We identified the Renner Husch Blackwell representation on the KU project, and it appeared to us that that’s the kind of thing that could give rise to a challenge from somebody,” he said. “While we would love to be selected and move forward, it is more important that we have a challenge-proof process that voters will look at as fair, and we don’t think we’re there right now. We very reluctantly called on the city to reboot.”

Brown said it’s crucial that the city’s process be open, transparent and conflict free, and that’s not the case currently with this process.

“We’re advocating for a new airport,” Brown said. “We need to make sure the process is the best possible path to success.”

So Burns & McDonnell was calling on the city to replace its legal and financial advisors and give all four proposers one more chance to submit their best and final offers.

City council members were undecided on how to proceed.

“There are pitfalls and pratfalls no matter how you go,” said Councilman Dan Fowler. Fowler, a lawyer, said that under Missouri’s rules of professional conduct, Renner had no existing conflict of interest. Fowler agreed that the political situation is more dicey, but he said he’s learned as a council member that “you can make a political challenge out of just about anything that you do.”

Councilman Scott Wagner said he would like to think that the city could move forward on the strength of a very good recommendation from the selection committee. But he said it’s very “unfortunate” that at least the most high profile proposers, Burns & McDonnell and AECOM, are talking about some form of litigation or some sort of fight against what the council intends to do.

“What’s clear is the level of competitiveness is such that they are more than willing to use whatever strategy is available to them, whether it helps the process or not,” Wagner said.

Wagner thought the city could have an election to just determine if the voters want a “better KCI” but he’s not sure if that’s a winning approach, without an actual proposal for a new airport terminal.

Councilman Quinton Lucas, who also raised the possibility of calling off the current selection process in a Tuesday morning memo to Schulte, said that approach is still worth considering.

“We should consider what the process is and whether we can yield a good result,” Lucas said. “That being said, that doesn’t mean that the process is fundamentally flawed. I think even the proposer calling for an end to the process seemed to be fairly supportive when the airlines were supportive of them.”

Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who serves on the selection committee, said she didn’t think there was a legal conflict, but she wanted to hear from other members of the selection committee and from her council colleagues as to the best path forward.

Councilwoman Teresa Loar said she has always believed that trying to select a proposer before voters authorize the city to pursue a single terminal process was backwards.

“If, in fact, we terminate this process, then I would suggest that we wait until after the vote before we move forward with a contractor,’ Loar said.

A special city council meeting is scheduled for noon Wednesday to talk about the airport selection process.

But time is of the essence. The city council is supposed to be off the week of Sept. 11. And if a resolution takes longer than that, it cuts into any time for a campaign prior to the Nov. 7 election.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.