Government & Politics

Fight could be brewing over convention hotel petitions

A rendering of the proposed convention hotel, viewed here behind the Kauffman Center.
A rendering of the proposed convention hotel, viewed here behind the Kauffman Center.

A grass-roots petition initiative challenging Kansas City’s plan for a new convention hotel has sufficient signatures to seek a public vote, the city clerk has confirmed.

But that may put the City Council in a difficult spot — deciding whether to schedule an election on a petition that the city attorney says is legally flawed.

The matter is likely to come up in a closed-door legal discussion when the council meets Thursday.

City Clerk Marilyn Sanders said the group Citizens for Responsible Government gathered about 2,000 valid signatures, more than the 1,700 signatures required to put a petition initiative on the Kansas City ballot.

The group this week sent a letter to council members urging them to put the hotel project to a public vote.

“The previous council passed these ordinances (related to the hotel) hours before the end of their term and have saddled you and the taxpayers with these unnecessary costs,” the letter said. “This hotel project, as it is now, is against the voters’ wishes.”

At issue is a plan for an 800-room, $311 million Hyatt hotel just east of the Bartle Hall ballroom, with an opening slated in 2018. About $164 million of the money would come from public funding sources, including cash, land and redirection of public taxes into the project.

But the city is not guaranteeing the debt, and the money is supposed to come from tourism tax dollars and not from the general fund.

In the past, Mayor Sly James has praised the hotel as a very good deal for the city. Regarding the petition drive, mayoral spokesman Michael Grimaldi said Wednesday: “The mayor is continuing to stay in touch with the city attorney and others as to the best course of action for the city.”

The previous City Council unanimously approved the hotel proposal July 23, at the final meeting of its term. City Manager Troy Schulte signed a contract with the developers Sept. 8, allowing them to move forward toward design and final bond financing.

City Attorney Bill Geary has said it appears the petitioners want to overturn the signed, binding contract, and they can’t do that.

“The citizen-proposed changes must still be lawful,” he said. “The city cannot enter into agreements and then unilaterally change those agreements, even if voters want the agreements breached.”

While the previous council enthusiastically supported the hotel, a new council with nine new members took office Aug. 1, and some of those feel caught between the city attorney and the petitioners.

Councilwoman Teresa Loar said she and other new council colleagues are uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting the grass-roots petitions, especially because the city manager signed the hotel contracts just as the petitioners turned in their signatures.

“It seems like cloak and dagger,” Loar said. “It may be legally correct, but politically correct, I’m not sure.”

Loar said that with millions in taxpayer dollars at stake, the council needs to seriously consider the petitioners’ wishes as well as the city attorney’s opinion.

While this council didn’t approve the hotel, she said, it will bear the brunt of public outrage if the project doesn’t succeed.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley