Visitors to the City of Kansas City’s website, kcmo.gov, can find an interesting corner set aside for discussion of a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
Among the offerings: a two-page “frequently asked questions” brochure concerning the airport proposal on the November ballot.
The professionally-designed, printable document, which was paid for by taxpayers, never recommends a vote for or against the new terminal. You can be forgiven, though, if you mistake it for pro-airport campaign literature.
“How will the new terminal be more convenient than the current terminals?” the city asks itself, then answers: “Each gate will have larger waiting areas for passengers. There will be room for more restrooms, restaurants, charging stations and other amenities.”
“Why can’t the City just re-open more gates in the existing terminals?” the FAQ document asks. Answer: “The existing space is too small and is the wrong configuration to accommodate larger planes, current security measures, covered passenger drop-off and pick-up and many other conveniences.”
You get the idea.
This is an old story here. City officials walk right to the line prohibiting electioneering communications using public resources.
Missouri law is explicit. “No contribution or expenditure of public funds,” it says, “shall be made directly by any officer, employee or agent of any political subdivision to advocate, support, or oppose any ballot measure.”
City Hall has long explained this prohibition away by claiming their election-related brochures and web pages are “informational,” not advocacy. A spokesman made the same argument Tuesday.
In the past, city officials have said “factual” communication is lawful.
But claiming the existing terminal space is too small is a judgment, not an undeniable fact. Other items in the brochure reach conclusions that are more properly the voters’ to make.
The city is wrong here.
We support a new terminal. But the case for a new facility must be made by the campaign, paid for by donors who share its views. Taxpayers cannot be asked to subsidize one side in any election, let alone one as important as this.
Ethics complaints filed against similar practices in previous elections have largely come to naught. Ethics commissioners say deciding between informational literature and advocacy pieces is difficult.
But there’s an easy answer: The city and all other public bodies should simply stop providing this kind of information before an election. Just because it might squeak by a confused ethics commissioner doesn’t make it right.
State law allows public officials to make statements for and against ballot measures. That exception makes sense. No one thinks the mayor or members of the City Council should be silenced before voters go to the polls.
But a website brochure, prepared on city time and at taxpayer expense, and displaying the city’s logo, puts an unnecessary thumb on the scale.
Supporters of the airport have $1 million to make their case. They should do so without an assist from city employees, no matter how “informational” they claim to be.