Four lessons learned from Kansas City’s airport debacle

The process for picking a company to design and build a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport limps to the finish line this week.

Voters, we hope, should be able to look past the many missteps this summer and decide the case for a new terminal on the merits in a November election.

Kansas City needs a new airport facility. Nothing that’s happened in the last few months changes that truth.

But Kansas Citians can also learn important lessons from the fouled-up process for picking a terminal developer. That conversation should start now.

Let’s be clear: The terminal proposal is the largest city project any current council member will ever consider. The selection process was always likely to be bumpy, with competing views and political interests getting in the way.

But there can be no excuse for the disaster of the last several months. Here are four takeaways from our summer of discontent.

1. The city manager, not the mayor, must run City Hall.

In 2016, Kansas City Mayor Sly James decided to take the terminal discussion off the table, calling for business leaders to step forward.

That statement led to the secret meeting with Burns & McDonnell to discuss an airport plan, a closed-door session that tainted everything that followed.

In retrospect, City Manager Troy Schulte should have asked James to step out of the picture at that meeting. In the Kansas City system, the mayor is the city’s political leader, not its administrative head. That’s Schulte’s job.

The city manager could have then launched a formal, professional, competitive process for picking a terminal plan.

The mayor is just one vote. In fact, six other council members represent the entire city, just like he does.

Yet James spent much of the early summer pushing for a preferred bidder, upsetting some council members and turning the discussion into a pitched battle of sarcasm and resentment. It hasn’t helped anyone.

If Kansas City wants its mayor to cut these deals, it should change the charter to give him — or her — that power.

2. Big-ticket project selection should be more open.

Picking a furniture vendor or a cleaning service is important, but deciding the airport’s future involves the entire region. The selection process has to be more transparent.

Three proposers apparently agreed. They provided their plans to the public.

Kansas City should revisit its procurement rules to ensure transparency for future big-ticket decisions.

3. Consider conflicts of interest earlier.

Why was the city vetting Councilwoman Jolie Justus a week before the selection of a terminal plan? The claim of a conflict between the airport process and her legal work was extraordinarily weak and could have been settled months ago.

City Hall should consider a formal, early-warning system for examining potential council conflicts on large projects.

4. The region needs an airport authority.

Here’s a fascinating fact: Kansas City has a port authority but not an airport authority. Which seems more important?

An independent supervisory board might have hired experts early in the process to provide non-political advice. An airport authority might have helped avoid the tangled debate over public vs. private financing.

Eventually, the airport authority should be regional, with Missouri and Kansas members. That’s a long-term discussion that should start now.

There will be other lessons in the months ahead, as Kansas Citians reflect on the disruptive mess the terminal selection became.

We should approve a new airport. Then make sure this kind of fumbling never happens again.