Dave Helling

KC Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas is missing crucial council votes. Is this a bad sign?

On Thursday, the Kansas City Council is expected to take a final vote on massive public incentives for a downtown office tower and parking garage at 13th and Main streets.

The vote will be close, and closely watched. City Hall would be on the hook for $63 million in financing for the $132 million project, and some council members are dubious. It’s precisely the kind of big-ticket downtown deal that infuriated voters during this spring’s City Council campaigns.

So it’s curious that Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas won’t be there for the vote.

“I will be at Camp Pendleton, California on Thursday to see my nephew become commissioned as a United States Marine,” Lucas said in an email. “I regret not being able to attend Thursday’s council session, but have neglected family enough over the last year.”

Well, OK. Anyone who watched Lucas and opponent Jolie Justus campaign during the past six months will understand the need for some downtime. Family obligations are important.

Yet the mayor-elect’s absence has drawn attention. Some of his colleagues on the City Council are already grumbling about Lucas’ no-show on the project.

For the record, Lucas says he opposes the office building proposal, which is called Strata. He voted no when the deal came up the first time, back in January.

“I would prefer the item be held on the council docket Thursday,” he said. “If it were held, I would vote ‘no’ on the ordinance at the next opportunity.

“The potential impact on city debt exceeds what I find to be reasonable, financials too speculative, and long-term impact on taxing jurisdictions and the city too significant to support in its current form,” he said.

He’s right on all three points. But if Lucas really wants to kill the project, one email isn’t enough. He could have — should have — called a news conference this week, on the site, denouncing the proposal as unfair and excessive. Criticism from the mayor-elect would have turned some heads, and might have changed votes.

Lucas could have communicated his concerns in a memo to his council colleagues. He could have asked for a one-week delay, until after his return from California, or a longer delay to let the new council consider the issue. He could have asked for changes in the final plan.

Lucas isn’t mayor yet. But his voice is now the most important on the City Council. Had he worked to postpone or derail the Strata plan, it would be in trouble Thursday. Instead, it’s likely to pass.

The council is also scheduled to vote on pay raises for Lucas and the new council Thursday. The mayor-elect will miss that vote, too. The last weeks of any City Council term are crammed with controversial decisions, a fact Lucas knows well.

Yet in the critical final weeks before he takes the oath, the mayor-elect has looked like a back-bencher, worried more about making everyone happy than leading the discussion. It’s the wrong approach. Continuing with this strategy would confirm campaign criticism of Lucas’ indecision and avoidance of tough choices.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Lucas just wants to wish his nephew well and needs some pre-inauguration reflection time.

But I don’t think so. Mayor-elect Lucas: In three weeks, Kansas City will need to know where you stand on just about everything, including big downtown projects, well before the votes are counted. You will have to lead. Get ready.