Editorial: Secretive Sly James is threatening leakers, shutting out the public

Kansas City Mayor Sly James has threatened City Council members with formal complaints if they disclose what he considers privileged information about the airport project.

“I said if you reveal confidential information, and it’s proven that you did, I will file an ethics complaint,” James told The Star Thursday.

It’s another example of the mayor’s regrettable and risky attempts to shut the public out of the discussion about the future of Kansas City International Airport.

And there’s more. Council members are now being asked to sign nondisclosure agreements before scrutinizing terminal proposals.

“Council Observer agrees not to disclose Council Observer’s participation in this undertaking … or the fact that discussions are being held, or the substance of matters discussed,” it says.

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To no one’s surprise, some council members have rightly bristled at the wildly over-broad gag order and the mayor’s threats. Some say they won’t sign the nondisclosure agreement but still plan to sit in on project presentations Aug. 14.

That raises the bizarre possibility that council members could be physically prevented from entering the room where the KCI presentations will be made. No doubt that will provide an interesting scene for video cameras.

All of this cloak-and-dagger drama seems highly unnecessary. Have any state secrets been revealed so far? To date, the only confidential information the public has seen involves the mayor’s perpetual push for secrecy. And some council members have questioned James’ reliance on closed-door discussions, saying some of the issues that have been handled out of public view should have been discussed in open session.

The real issue seems to be the mayor’s ongoing frustration at how news of the Burns & McDonnell plan became public. James and the company planned to introduce the so-called private financing proposal for a new terminal in mid-May, with council consideration and approval expected within a few weeks.

But The Star’s disclosure of the plan disrupted the push for the no-bid, no-discussion effort. Kansas Citians rightly demanded some say in how the $1 billion project would be considered.

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To their credit, several council members have also applied the brakes. We now have four proposers for the airport project, not just the lone contender that James wanted. The city will get a better terminal as a result.

The mayor doesn’t seem to understand this concept: Open discussion is always preferable to backroom dealmaking. To shut out the public until the November election is to leave Kansas Citians with an unacceptable take-it-or-leave-it decision on KCI.

It’s bad politics and bad precedent. Some Kansas Citians believe the fix is in for one proposer. In fact, we’re told only one proposer has asked for the nondisclosure agreements and secrecy. The city won’t say which one.

This is a recipe for distrust and confusion. Only a transparent process — with fixed judging criteria and side-by-side comparisons — will provide voters with confidence that City Hall made the right choice.

Thursday, James said the only people interested in the openness of the terminal process are members of the council and The Star. We plead guilty. We want the public’s business conducted in public. He does not.

The mayor and council must reach the airport decision in the sunlight. It’s the only way to get the new terminal Kansas Citians expect and deserve.