Government & Politics

KC council members slam gift ethics plan as Jason Kander drops casual campaign video

Tensions around the 2019 mayoral campaign broke into full view on the Kansas City Council Thursday as four members in the race called out a fifth, Councilman Scott Taylor, for a proposed ethics ordinance that they said was intended to score political points rather than increase transparency.

Meanwhile, the newest addition to the crowded race, former Missouri Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander, posted his first campaign video in advance of his formal announcement, scheduled for Saturday.

Dressed casually in jeans while strolling through various neighborhoods, Kander addressed many issues in his three-and-a-half-minute video — affordable housing, education quality, customer service — but gift ethics was not one of them.

Taylor’s measure would all but eliminate lobbyists’ gifts to council members, cutting the maximum value from $200 to $5. It also limits council travel to two trips per four-year term and extends from one to two years a “revolving door” regulation barring former city officials from doing business at City Hall.

What especially angered several of his opponents was a campaign mailer Taylor sent citywide shortly after he introduced the bill on June 21. It promoted what he called the “Ethics and Transparency” bill that promised to end, among other things, “wining and dining” by council members.

Kansas City Councilman Scott Taylor File photo

”To have this knee-jerk political gamesmanship that has been played is a bit disingenuous,” said Councilman Jermaine Reed, a candidate for mayor. “The reality of it is that we have real issues that are in front of us.”

“When something like this comes the way this has, everyone loses,” said Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, another mayoral contender.

Taylor deflected any contentions that he was merely out to boost his campaign.

“I was focused on an ordinance that was introduced in City Hall,” he said.

Taylor was lambasted last week by Mayor Sly James, who called it “a transparently political move” intended to force opponents to go on the record in opposing basic ethics reform.

If that was Taylor’s intention, he was at least partly successful.

James and council members routinely receive free Chiefs and Royals tickets, from both the teams’ owners and lobbyists representing companies with a stake in city decisions. Some travel frequently to National League of Cities conferences but also go overseas to promote the city and look for trade opportunities.

Since 2013, members have been required to file quarterly reports on any gifts more than $200. All council travel has to be approved by Wagner.

The travel issue provoked the sharpest exchange at the council business session, when Taylor attempted to quiz Wagner on his travel.

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Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner (center) has to approve all council travel. Susan Pfannmuller Special to the Star

“How many trips to China have you taken since 2011?” Taylor asked

“I’ll answer it,” said a visibly angry Wagner. ”I’ve taken six to China. I’ve paid for four of them myself. I have taken three to Germany. I have paid for two of them.”

Most members viewed the matter as a solution to a nonexistent problem.

“I’m not getting anything,” said Councilman Lee Barnes, who is not a mayoral candidate but is running for re-election to his Fifth District at-large seat. “I don’t want to solve a problem that’s not there, particularly not there for me.”

However, records dating back to 2015 show that Barnes has accepted Chiefs and Royals tickets from representatives for Burns & McDonnell, Black & Veatch and Hoefer Wysocki, an architecture and design firm.

Burns & McDonnell also donated $900 to Barnes’ holiday party for Fifth District residents in December 2017. At the time, the company was still trying to win the KCI airport development contract that eventually went to Edgemoor.

In all, James and the council received roughly $40,000 worth of gifts from team owners and lobbyists since 2015. The number is likely on the low end because some members did not report an estimated value of seats in owners suites.

Taylor patterned his ordinance in part after the Clean Missouri initiative on the statewide ballot in November. But Taylor’s bill is mute on another Clean Missouri initiative, which lowers individual campaign contribution limits to $2,500 for state senate, and $2,000 for state house.

Council members Quinton Lucas and Alissia Canady, both mayoral hopefuls, said there could be no serious ethics review without addressing the issue of campaign contributions from parties with an interest in city business.

Current city regulations set $3,325 as the maximum individual contribution to a mayoral candidate, $2,775 for an at-large candidate and $1,675 for a district contender.

“We need to look at all aspects of influence, not just a lunch or a hat,” said Canady.

“To have an ethics conversation divorced from the contribution issue is greatly missing the mark,” said Lucas. “Just throwing out the word transparency and putting out proposals is something a lot of people do. Former Governor Greitens was one who spoke about transparency and ethics in government but frankly, I’m not sure he had the same view of it that I might have.”

Taylor, the leading fundraiser so far in the 2019 race, buoyed by contributions from developers who come before the planning and zoning committee he chairs, said that was a conversation for another day.

“Those are different issues. If you have something you want to propose, go for it.”

Reed issued the parting shot at the end of the 35-minute discussion: “When my grandmother is done with an argument, she says ‘Bless your heart.’ Mr. Taylor, bless your heart.”

The other candidates in the mayoral race are Crossroads businessman Phil Glynn, attorney Stephen Miller and community activist Rita Berry.

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