Government & Politics

KC mayoral candidate proposes limiting gifts to $5: Ethical move or political ploy?

They've long been prized perks of holding city office: taxpayer-funded travel, free sports tickets and other gifts from companies with a stake in City Hall decision making.

But a city councilman and mayoral candidate has taken aim at the coveted freebies. And the response has not been favorable.

A proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Scott Taylor, would cut the maximum permissible value of gifts from $1,000 to $5, barely enough for a couple of Starbucks grande coffees. It would also restrict city-funded council travel and extend from one to two years the period ex-officials must stay away from city government before lobbying or working as a contractor.

The measure, called the Local Ethics and Government Transparency ordinance, was drafted to mirror portions of "Clean Missouri," the November ballot initiative aimed at reforming state government.

"I think this is a real pragmatic, simple solution," said Taylor, who is in his second term as the 6th District's at-large representative and who will discuss the proposal next week before the council's Finance and Governance Committee.

Taylor's council colleagues dismiss the idea that their votes can be bought for a meal or a ticket. They describe the ordinance as election-season pandering.

"Yes, it addresses a need. It addresses a political need," said Mayor Sly James, who is in the last year of his second and final term. He questions the timing of the sudden interest in ethics from Taylor, one of five council incumbents in a nine-candidate field for the April 2019 mayoral primary.

"This is the start of his eighth year. And if there is a real need, why is this coming up now?" James said. "I like Scott. I think he's a good man. But this is a pretty transparently political move. I think it was purposely selected because it will be hard for people to say, 'No, I don't want ethics.'"

Taylor's ordinance is silent, however, on the issue of campaign contribution limits, which would be lowered for state legislative candidates under the "Clean Missouri" proposal. Taylor, who leads the mayoral field with $350,000 in cash on hand, according to the latest state reports, said he thinks the current limits imposed by the council are appropriate.

Councilman Quinton Lucas, the 3rd District at-large representative and a mayoral candidate, said Taylor's ordinance would be "far more interesting" if it banned campaign contributions from firms with pending or future city business.

Filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission show Taylor's campaign coffers are heavy with donations from developers and other real estate industry interests that have appeared before the council's Planning Zoning and Economic Development Committee, which he chairs.

Taylor said that if Lucas, who also sits on the committee, is so disturbed by the developer money, he should file an ordinance to ban it.

"Anybody on the council has the ability to introduce legislation anytime they want," Taylor said.

Lucas, an attorney and law professor at the University of Kansas, reported $127,000 cash on hand. His most recent state filing features numerous contributions from the city's legal community.

Taylor's gifts proposal comes five years after the council voted to tighten disclosure and gift regulations.

In his 2011 inaugural address, James said he wanted "to make Kansas City one of the most ethical cities in the country."

Two years later, drawing on recommendations from a citizens committee he appointed, the council placed an annual $1,000 cap on what were formerly unlimited contributions from lobbyists and other parties with an interest in city actions. The reforms also required officials to file quarterly reports with the city clerk listing any gift valued at over $200.

A review of reports since 2015 shows a range of appetites for free stuff.

Councilwoman Alissia Canady, a mayoral candidate, and Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who dropped out of the race last month, reported no gifts.

Kansas City Councilman Scott Taylor File photo

Taylor, an attorney, listed pairs of Chiefs tickets from owner Clark Hunt in 2015 and 2016, with a total value of $950.

In December 2017, Lucas and Councilman Jermaine Reed, the other 3rd District representative and also a mayoral candidate, reported a total of $11,000 in corporate contributions to an annual holiday party for constituents at Arrowhead Stadium. Donors to Lucas included engineering and design firm Burns & McDonnell ($1,000), which at the time was still pushing behind the scenes to win the contract for development of the new KCI single terminal.

Other holiday season donors of $1,000 to Lucas and Reed included several firms that frequently bid on city business: HNTB, McCownGordon and JE Dunn.

Burns & McDonnell senior vice president Ron Coker did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Lucas and Reed both said the corporate money was used exclusively for the 3rd District party.

"As the Chiefs and Royals stadiums are in the district in which I serve, I tend to make it a point to ensure the community has an opportunity to visit the stadiums," Reed said in an email.

Lucas said he did not solicit the donations, nor did his office receive them.

"I don't think there's a big gift crisis at city hall," he said.

Gift reports show that James and many council members are guests of Royals owner David Glass and of Hunt, who extend annual invitations to watch games in their suites. Other tickets are supplied by Black & Veatch, KCP&L, Sprint and the Blue Valley Industrial Association, which advocates for businesses in the Blue Valley area.

In 2015 alone, James reported 20 regular season tickets from the Royals along with four for the American League Division Series. An additional two playoff tickets were supplied by KCP&L and three from the architectural firm Hoefer Wysocki, whose president, Rob Welker, was asked by James to come up with ideas for revitalizing the city's East Side. James said they have become friends.

James also attended four Chiefs games in both 2016 and 2017 as a guest of either Hunt, Sprint, KCP&L or Hoefer Wysocki.

James makes no apologies for the corporate-funded outings. He said that when he became mayor, he was forced to relinquish his Chiefs season tickets for security reasons.

"I don't have the luxury of keeping my seats that I've had since 1983," he said. "When I came into office, I had to give that up, along with about two-thirds of my income, to be quite honest."

James, who founded his own law firm, makes $129,000 a year as mayor.

"Sometimes it's good for City Council people to get out and see who's in their city," James continued. "There's nothing wrong with people who work their tails off for this city going to see a baseball game at somebody's request, as long as they're not giving them season tickets and all that stuff."

The quarterly forms require officials to enter an estimated value of each gift. While tickets for owners' suites have no face value, most members report them at between $225 and $300. James most often leaves the value as "unknown." Had he estimated their cost as his council colleagues did, he would likely have broken the annual $1,000 limit on individual gifts in some years.

Records of city-funded trips and travel expenses are scattered throughout the municipal bureaucracy, among various city departments, the mayor's office and City Council members' accounts.

Taylor's bill would cut down on travel, limiting members to two city-funded trips per four-year term. Travel to give testimony to federal or state government or to conferences of professional groups like the National League of Cities would be exempted from the limits.

"In my view, I've been able to get a lot done by picking up the phone and doing research," Taylor said. "Picking up the phone is pretty effective and saves taxpayers' money."

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner made two overseas trips this spring, both helping to promote the city's music traditions.

In May, he accompanied the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra to Hanover, Germany, where it was playing at a music festival. Last month, he journeyed to Poland in connection with the city's designation as a Creative City of Music by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization). Wagner joined about 180 other city delegations to discuss how creativity in the arts can be used as an economic development tool.

Under current council rules, members' travel must be approved in advance by the mayor pro tem. Taylor proposes that travel be reviewed and approved by the entire council. Wagner said it is a non-issue.

"I guess what I would tell you is until a problem surfaces, I'm not sure what the solution is," said Wagner, also a mayoral candidate.

Councilman Dan Fowler and other members have traveled to airport industry conferences that he said were useful when dealing with KCI issues. He said the trips were paid for by the aviation department, which is funded by airport revenue, not tax dollars.

"Frankly I think that we as council members are expected to do some travel for the city so I don’t see a problem," Fowler said in an email Friday. "For most of us, I think travel for city business is something we think we have to do, not something we want to do. We spend our time in meetings, educational sessions and workshops.

"For my own part, I believe that the limits Councilman Taylor has proposed are not only unwarranted, I think they do a disservice to our city."

Related stories from Kansas City Star