It started with a shouting match and a Kansas City Council member storming out.
But a lengthy, tense, closed-door session yielded no consensus Thursday on how the city should handle a petition initiative seeking a public vote on a new downtown convention hotel that’s already well along in the planning.
“We are trying to be respectful of people’s right to petition,” Mayor Sly James said after the meeting to discuss legal options. “But we are also trying to measure that in the context of what’s already happened, and the two are not easily reconciled.”
James, who has advocated for a new convention hotel for several years, declined to outline what the legal options might be in response to the grass-roots petition. But the friction over how to keep the hotel project moving forward in the face of at least some citizen opposition was apparent at the start of Thursday’s meeting.
Shortly after the council went behind closed doors, a shouting match erupted and the raised voices could easily be heard.
Moments later, Councilwoman Teresa Loar emerged, visibly upset.
She said the mayor was obviously mad at her because she has been sticking up for the petitioners’ right under the city charter to seek a public vote.
“He started yelling at me and accusing me of a failed development project from the 1990s,” when she was previously on the council, Loar said. “I mean, that was pretty childish.”
She said that’s what prompted her to leave the meeting, and she later left the building.
After the meeting, James declined to discuss the altercation except to say, “I yelled in response to her yelling, but other than that I’m not going to get into it.”
Loar is one of nine new members on a 13-member City Council that took office Aug. 1, just one week after the last City Council unanimously approved the hotel proposal July 23.
The previous council was enthusiastic about the planned 800-room, $311 million Hyatt hotel that would be built just east of the Bartle Hall ballroom, with an opening slated for 2018. Just the announcement of the hotel has prompted some large conventions to book Kansas City visits beginning in 2019.
But some new council members have said they need more information about the value of the project, and they’re uncomfortable just ignoring a grass-roots citizen initiative.
About $164 million of the money for the hotel would come from public funding sources, including cash, land and redirection of public taxes into the project. But it would not add to the city’s debt load, and the money is coming from tourism tax dollars, not the general fund.
James and other project supporters have said repeatedly that this is the best deal the city could get and that the hotel is urgently needed to keep Kansas City competitive for major conventions.
But a group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government gathered more than the 1,700 required signatures of Kansas City registered voters to try to force a vote on the hotel. Group spokesman Dan Coffey said Thursday that this is a project with a huge public investment, so the public should have a chance to vote at the next available election. That might be in April.
City Attorney Bill Geary has said publicly that the petitions, while they have enough signatures, may be legally flawed because they seek to undermine already signed, binding contracts with the hotel developers.
Geary declined to comment Thursday on his legal advice to the council, but in the past, the council has tried a variety of strategies concerning petition initiatives.
The council has 60 days to deliberate on what to do with these types of petition initiatives, and it could decide to put this on a local ballot, which might delay or unravel the hotel project.
Or it could ask the petitioners to revise their petition language so it doesn’t interfere with the hotel’s progress.
James said he would not be reaching out to petitioners about whether there’s flexibility on their wording, but he thought other council members or other city officials might do that soon.
Coffey said he didn’t know how much his group would be willing to alter its petition language.
The council could also decide that the petition is legally flawed and should not go on the next available ballot, although Coffey said that might prompt a lawsuit from his group.
James said Thursday he did not know if all this wrangling will hurt the hotel project.
“What happens to the process and the project depends on which of a bunch of different options are employed,” he said. “There are some options where it won’t. There are others where it will. It depends on what options win out at the end.”