Government & Politics

Here’s why petition to rename The Paseo for MLK likely won’t be on November ballot

It appears that time has run out on an effort to place a proposal for renaming The Paseo for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the November ballot.

It has almost no chance of meeting the Aug. 28 deadline for a spot on the ballot, election officials said Tuesday. That’s because organizers have yet to present the required 1,709 signatures — 5 percent of the total 2015 mayoral vote — to the city clerk.

The petition campaign, led by the Kansas City chapter of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization that King helped found, sparked a citywide discussion this spring about how the city could best honor the civil rights icon 50 years after his murder.

The petitions must go to the Kansas City Election Board, which has up to 10 days to authenticate signatures and verify the registration status of the signers. The measure then returns to the Kansas City Council, which has 60 days to take final action.

The council’s last meeting prior to the deadline is Aug. 23.

“It’s too late. If they’ve not submitted the signatures (to the city clerk) it’s too late. It’s a done deal,” said Republican elections director Shawn Kieffer.

Democratic director Lauri Ealom agreed, saying that board staff is fully occupied processing write-in votes from the Aug. 6 primary.

The Rev. Dr. Percy Howard Jr., local SCLC president, said that the group was “still counting” and working with the organization’s attorney to prepare the petitions.

Howard, senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church, said the plan was to capitalize on the Aug. 6 voter turnout to gather names.

“We knew it would be tight,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you. We’re continuing to push.”

Kansas City is one of the nation’s largest localities without a street or road named for King, an omission that has long rankled the city’s civil rights leaders.

The city’s east side ministers favored renaming The Paseo, a 10-mile boulevard that runs north-south through the heart of the city’s black community.

The petition drive kicked off with a march and rally on April 13, shortly after the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board rejected a proposal by Howard and Bishop Mark C. Tolbert, pastor of Victorious Life Church at 34th and The Paseo, to rename the street for King. The board has jurisdiction over the city’s system of boulevards.

An April 13 signature petition drive aimed at renaming The Paseo for Martin Luther King Jr. began after a peace march in Kansas City. Keith Myers

The Paseo campaign in turn prompted Mayor Sly James to form a working group to hold a series of citywide public hearings on how to honor King. James said the issue deserved a broader community discussion.

That panel came back with three re-naming options: Kansas City International Airport, 63rd Street and The Paseo.

James was waiting for the outcome of the signature campaign before bringing the working group’s recommendations to the City Council. The absence of The Paseo question from the November ballot raises the possibility that he would move ahead.

“If it’s not on the November ballot then we’ll proceed with having Council consider the recommendations,” Joni Wickham, James’ chief of staff, said in an e-mail Tuesday.

But James said in a brief interview that, for the moment, his priority is the passage of his proposed 3/8th-cent sales tax for expanded access to pre-K.

“I’m focused on pre-K,” said James.

The pre-K signatures were submitted last month and certified by the election board. The City Council’s finance and governance committee will meet Wednesday morning to discuss the measure, which also faces an Aug. 23 deadline for council action.

Paseo organizers had originally aimed for placement on the August ballot, but then decided to aim for November.

Howard said he didn’t consider the effort a failure, and that next April’s ballot is always an option.

“Time lines shift and change,” he said.

Related stories from Kansas City Star