One name keeps surfacing as a vocal dissenter in Kansas City’s ambitious plans for streetcars, a new airport and a downtown convention hotel.
To understand this Kansas City resident’s gusto in skirmishing with City Hall, you first have to know about what Mayor Sly James derisively calls CAVE people, for “Citizens Against Virtually Everything.”
“He didn’t get it all the way right,” Coffey says with a grin and a gleam in his eye. “We’re CAVES, with an S. Citizens Against Virtually Everything Stupid.”
That’s how Coffey characterizes himself and his small band — Citizens for Responsible Government — who are having an outsized impact on city government. In recent years, it’s mounted high-profile challenges to the proposed redesign of Kansas City International Airport, to streetcar expansion to, most recently, a new convention headquarters hotel.
As he sits in the dining room of his comfortable home south of the Country Club Plaza, Coffey insists he’s not the group’s leader — it doesn’t really have one — but acknowledged he’s the communicator, the one sending out email appeals for support, making the talk-show rounds.
“We started off a group of interested citizens that didn’t like the way things were going, particularly the way taxpayer money was being spent in Kansas City,” he recalls. “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”
So he’s certainly doing something, and making a difference — for better or worse — in the process.
Coffey first burst on the scene in June 2013, when Union Station security ejected him while he gathered petition signatures opposing a new single terminal at KCI.
He didn’t slink from the confrontation. He alerted the media, got some sympathetic coverage and quickly became a voice for those who were frustrated about airport plans and overbearing city authority.
It was the first but certainly not the last time that Coffey, an affable but sometimes gruff and pugnacious retiree, has taken on the establishment.
Their latest petition drive has the Kansas City Council in a bind, because it seeks to put the convention hotel to a public vote when developers say they’re ready to move forward to build it.
Critics say Coffey and his group often get their facts wrong, abuse the petition initiative process and speak for a minority of malcontents.
“It could lead to government paralysis,” says Steve Glorioso, who from 1999 to 2007 was an aide to then-Mayor Kay Barnes and now helps with the planned hotel’s communication.
While city officials believe they can hold the petition off the ballot for legal reasons, Glorioso and others warn this petition maneuvering could delay the hotel and have a chilling effect on future economic development.
Mayor James says he has nothing against Coffey personally and wasn’t singling out his group with his CAVE remark, but with a pause and flexing his jaw, ruminating as he stood in the City Council chambers, he adds that Coffey’s name evokes in him one word: “concern.”
“We spend a lot of time and work our tails off to do things that make sense for this city,” James says. “If everything we do is subject to an initiative petition, then the people that we do business with will simply stop doing business with us.”
Like Coffey, the mayor isn’t backing down.
“I respect people’s right to voice their opinion, but I’m going to fight for what I believe in, and I’m going to fight for this hotel deal.”
Coffey knows critics think he wakes every day trying to figure out ways to thwart city government. He insists that’s not true and says these are legitimate, substantive battles.
He thinks it’s ludicrous that the city is focusing on a $311 million convention hotel and two-mile, $100 million streetcar system —“200-year-old technology,” as he puts it — while the city is replete with potholes, streets without curbs and a mediocre bus service.
Coffey says he and others in the group see their petitions as a way of making sure the public gets to vote on expensive projects that the city is trying to shove down their throats.
“This is democracy at work,” he says.
Not a politician
Coffey, 74, doesn’t have a long history as a political activist. A sales and marketing executive in the food brokerage business, he moved his family 27 years ago from Wichita to Kansas City to run several companies. He and his wife, Dianne, raised three daughters in their spacious home next to Loose Park, where the couple still lives.
A conservative Republican in a city full of liberal Democrats, Coffey had his first brush with politics in fall 2012, when he was retired and had time to put up signs for a Republican Missouri House candidate who lost.
Friend John Murphy says that soon after he and Coffey and about 20 other fiscal conservatives from the Brookside/Ward Parkway area started getting together to share their frustration with wasteful city spending.
Murphy says they realized they could either sit around a kitchen table complaining, or they could use the signature-gathering process to put initiatives directly on city ballots.
Coffey says that almost immediately they learned of plans to build a new, billion-dollar terminal at KCI. Coffey had frequently traveled for business, and he likes the airport as it is.
So he went to a community meeting and heard something that infuriated him, fueling his passion.
“They said, ‘We’re going to build this, and you can’t stop us,’ ” Coffey recalls. “The bristles went up on the back of a lot of people’s heads, and we thought, ‘Hey, let’s just see what we can do.’ ”
Coffey ssays he doesn’t object to reasonable airport improvements, but he does object to something else.
“It was the attitude, the arrogance,” of city officials, presuming they knew best.
The group mobilized to gather more than 4,000 signatures, capitalizing on huge public sentiment in favor of the current airport.
Along the way Coffey discovered what most people might not realize about this type of community activism: it was fun, invigorating.
And in February 2014, it was empowering. The City Council agreed to the group’s demand that any airport financing be put to a public vote. Of course, insiders point out, that type of bond financing would have required an election anyway.
Coffey subsequently played a minor role in helping defeat a county medical tax and a new tax for streetcar expansion. After officials announced plans in May for a new $311 million Hyatt Hotel near Bartle Hall, including city land, cash and tax incentives, he and the group rallied again to petition against what they saw as a giveaway to special interest developers.
Not Clay Chastain
As Coffey discusses his group’s activism, his wife comes into the dining room to remind him of something that he also made clear to a New York Times reporter calling about the hotel.
Don’t even think of comparing Coffey to perennial petitioner and out-of-town activist Clay Chastain, she said.
“She shops down there,” Coffey explains about his wife’s frustrating encounters with Chastain, gathering signatures at nearby grocery stores.
“He and I do not see eye to eye on anything,” Coffey says, rolling his eyes at Chastain’s quixotic mayoral campaigns and one-man billion-dollar light-rail crusades. “With Clay, it’s his personal issue. These aren’t my personal issues. These are group issues.”
Coffey says he has no intention of running for City Council.
“Too old,” he says bluntly. “And I don’t need the grief.” Besides, he admits, he has trouble hearing when he visits the City Council chambers because the acoustics are so bad.
Petition initiatives are allowed in many cities as a way for frustrated citizens to bypass elected officials and put something directly before voters.
In Kansas City, Citizens for Responsible Government takes advantage of an unusually low signature threshold — only 1,700 required, pegged to the low 2015 mayoral election turnout. Most cities require a much higher percentage of registered voters.
People also question where the group gets its backing. Coffey acknowledges that when the group first formed, he reached out to Rex Sinquefield, the controversial St. Louis multimillionaire who funds the Libertarian Show-Me Institute.
While many in Kansas City see Sinquefield as a destructive political force, Coffey is philosophically OK with him. “He’s for small government, controlled spending. What’s wrong with that?” Coffey asks.
Coffey says the group never got a penny from Sinquefield. The group usually subsists on less than $1,000 out of members’ pockets.
While the core group is conservative, Coffey says “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Citizens for Responsible Government has allied with East Side African-American groups and others that are dissatisfied with the city’s priorities. Some say it’s not Coffey and his tiny band, but really East Side activists, who completed this petition drive.
Patrick Tuohey, the Show-Me Institute’s manager for western Missouri, occasionally shares information with Coffey and admires his passion.
“He’s tenacious,” Tuohey says. “As a private citizen, he put himself out there, and he’s certainly been targeted.”
But Ed Ford, a former councilman, fears the petition could delay a worthwhile hotel project, which the previous City Council authorized in July. That could be damaging, especially if it deters other development projects, Ford says.
Mike Burke, a lawyer representing the hotel developers, says the petition is illegal and it’s up to the City Council to keep it off the ballot.
If the council can authorize a project after years of planning, enter into a development agreement “and then have the petition process overturn it, that is an abuse of the petition process,” Burke says.
The city attorney has reached out to Coffey and the group, urging them to change their petition to allow the hotel to move forward with the possibility of voting on future hotels. Coffey says the group will meet privately Tuesday night to consider that proposal but he opposes it.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the hotel Thursday but has about six more weeks to make a decision. Coffey says he doesn’t know what his group will do if the council rejects its petition, though he hints it would sue.
“Right now, we’re trying to get the hotel project so the voters of Kansas City can vote on it. That’s our focus. That’s our goal.”