Mayor Sly James stepped in the muck Thursday when the City Council discussed the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
There was good news. The Federal Aviation Administration had agreed, more or less, to allow roughly $23.5 million in “community benefits” spending on the project — money for job training, child care, financial education programs and the like.
There was also troublesome news. The FAA — worried, as it should be, about diverting airport tax revenue to non-airport uses — disallowed about $4.7 million in planned community benefits. And terminal developer Edgemoor should not pick up those costs, as the company had promised to do.
Happily, there was a workaround. A charity would donate the $4.7 million, fulfilling Edgemoor’s commitment to the benefits agreement while keeping the FAA happy.
As the council began to discuss the plan Thursday, the mayor jumped in and advised his colleagues that it’s “probably not good to do it on TV.”
James’ comment was befuddling on several levels. The mayor literally said an issue should not be discussed on TV — during a meeting that was on TV. If the goal was to hide the agreement, announcing it while asking for secrecy is the worst strategy imaginable.
It’s even more confusing when you realize Edgemoor described the plan in detail outside of council chambers.
To be clear, James’ poorly-worded comment wasn’t a fatal error. The mayor’s office says James was worried about discussing a contract in an open session. Perhaps he erred in his choice of words.
But it may be more than that. It reinforces the troubling, recurring and unhelpful mindset that crucial details of the KCI project must somehow be kept hidden from public view.
It’s been nearly a year since Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved a new terminal at the airport. That vote proved Kansas Citians are more than capable of digesting a frank conversation about an important public issue.
That understanding must guide the airport discussion in the months and years ahead. Here’s some honest talk: The $1.4 billion cost for the terminal will go up. There will be design changes. Construction will be inconvenient. There will contract disputes. It won’t open on time.
Kansas Citians can handle those facts. But they’ll be angry — and understandably so — if the news is kept hidden, or only talked about behind closed doors, or whispered about in the hallways.
On Thursday, in a little-noticed statement, an attorney for the city said a contract with the airlines paying for the terminal is still elusive. The airlines are not coming together “on key points,” he said.
It isn’t clear what that means. If there are serious problems with the so-called use agreement, all parties should discuss them with the public now, openly and transparently. Kansas Citians expect that and deserve it.
We believe in the terminal project and argued strenuously for it. Kansas Citians approved it. They should be full partners in the building process, now that the new terminal is a year closer to reality.