Guest Commentary

Don’t sleep on Westport: Why sidewalk privatization is still a bad idea

Is violent crime a city problem or a Westport problem? And if it is a city problem, should privatization be the solution?
Is violent crime a city problem or a Westport problem? And if it is a city problem, should privatization be the solution? File photo

With all the darkness surrounding the proposed privatization of Westport sidewalks, it’s no wonder that some people are uninformed — or even asleep — about the facts of the issue. How can we “stay woke” on something like this if we’re never given the opportunity to learn all there is to know? The question may seem odd, given that “woke” means to be aware of how race affects every aspect of our lives, but it’s one we must ask if we’re serious about addressing the nightmare of increasing gun violence in Westport.

As someone who has been involved with the working group to address the Kansas City ordinance that would privatize Westport’s sidewalks, I have a better understanding of what has happened over the past few weeks than most. I joined this group with concerns about the privatization of public space, but also with hope that the fears of those of us opposed to the measure would be addressed.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

One of the main issues that we’ve tried to resolve is the lack of evidence to support privatization. Along with other opponents, I’ve asked how Westport plans to keep out the potential shooters when anyone can walk in and out of the district right up to 10:59 p.m., just before proposed inspections would begin at 11 p.m. on weekends.

We’ve also requested, on numerous occasions, that the Westport Regional Business League and its supporters provide evidence of where such a drastic step has been shown to curb violence. We’re still waiting on that evidence.

To address the lack of data, we have proposed asking for help from experts such as the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit organization with expert knowledge on how to protect patrons in bar districts such as Westport. Surely, the league would see the value in bringing in a third party to take our concerns, combine them with their expertise, and create a compromise that would work for all of us, right?

The league has refused the help.

Coupled with these concerns is that, as a person of color, I don’t believe that the the members of the league are going to create a policy that is inclusive. While they have excluded the possibility of a discriminatory dress code, there are other measures we pushed for that will not make it into the final version of the ordinance. Among these, the committee to oversee the implementation of this proposal contains more business owners and city officials than neighborhood residents and black and brown faces. That is a recipe for a repeat of the discrimination we saw in the Power & Light District.

Yet they continue to shrug this off.

The bottom line is this: Is violent crime a city problem or a Westport problem? And if it is a city problem, should privatization be the solution? Are we all right with turning things over to business to decide our public spaces and procedures for us? Because that’s the precedent this sets.

It has become abundantly clear that the Westport Regional Business League views our working group as a formality, instead of a legitimate obligation to address the concerns brought up by civil rights groups, advocacy organizations, people of color and neighborhood residents. The exclusion of our voices and our presence from the process should give the public ample evidence of what to expect if this measure passes.

I hope that the city will awaken to the realities of this measure and swiftly reject it.

Michael Kelley is the policy coordinator for BikeWalkKC, a nonprofit that works to redefine the streets of Kansas City as places for people to build a culture of active living.