Friday, March 21, 2014

Clay Chastain calls, rails about Clay Chastain, transit, Clay Chastain

Posted By on Fri, Mar 21, 2014 at 11:13 AM

click to enlarge The irascible Clay Chastain.
  • The irascible Clay Chastain.
Yesterday I got a call from Clay Chastain. "I'm frustrated," he said right after I answered.

This is nothing new. If I count Lawrence as part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, I've been reporting in this city since 2005. I can't imagine a scenario in which any reporter in any medium, who has covered local government for even a third of that length of time, hasn't crossed paths (or phone lines) with the irrepressible transit activist. 

It's not a secret among local journalists that when the 540 area code representing Chastain's western Virginia residence flashes on a reporter's caller ID, one has to think twice about answering the phone. Some don't care for the annoyance. For me, it's a matter of time management. I appreciate calls from anyone. But Chastain has an otherworldly ability to keep people on the phone listening to him, eating chunks of your day in half-hour or hourlong increments. If Chastain hadn't pursued transit as a guiding principle for his life, he may well have made a fortune in telemarketing. 
 
Nearly all of Chastain's phone calls are made with this purpose: castigating reporters for not covering his transit issue enough. Yesterday's call to me was placed for a similar reason. He had suffered an affront from The Kansas City Star's editorial board, which refused to publish an "As I See It" guest column he had submitted. 

My memory was a bit hazy when he called, but I told him that I thought I could recall a relatively recent instance in which the Star had published one of his submissions. Chastain replied that the paper of record hadn't printed anything by him in eight years. He claimed that he was being censored, silenced by a paper that feared reprisals from local politicians nervous about Chastain's prospects of convincing voters to approve another of his light-rail ideas.

Then Chastain showed his hand. Chastain forwarded correspondence between him and Star editorial board president Miriam Pepper, who reminded him that the paper had printed an "As I See It" column of his in 2009 and another opinion piece in the business section two years later.

Chastain also had an admonition for me. He said I hadn't written about local mass transit relative to him since coming to The Pitch from The Kansas City Business Journal almost exactly a year ago. I'll cop to that. I've written a bit about the streetcar, but have sat on the sidelines lately, waiting for the details of a proposed extension south of downtown to come into focus next month. As it relates to Chastain, I've held off, even though in February the Missouri Supreme Court handed Chastain a rare victory in the courts. The state's highest court said Chastain's 2011 transit initiative (which the City Council refused to put on the ballot despite Chastain corralling enough signatures to force an election) wasn't unconstitutional as lower courts had determined.

His criticism of me is somewhat fair. The Supreme Court ruling creates a conundrum for City Hall, which is hellbent on passing the streetcar proposal but seems unsure of how to handle Chastain's initiative, which would raise sales taxes for his sprawling transportation idea. City Hall faces a real dilemma if courts rule that Chastain's plan has to go on the ballot. Chastain has had more success than City Hall-led transit initiatives that go to a citywide vote. Voters approved Chastain's light-rail plan in 2006, only to have the public's decision yanked aside by the City Council.

In fact, I think Chastain, in some ways, has more vision about transportation than a few of the other hucksters with transit ideas in Kansas City over the last decade. Chastain's plans are flawed on the financial and sometimes legal side of things, but they at least reflect thinking that mass transit should serve the masses, not monied interests and economic-development purposes. He can be annoying and is often criticized as an out-of-towner meddling in local affairs, but I do like Chastain personally and think he's the kind of citizen Kansas City could use more of. Someone who cares and has an interest in local government, even if his ideas and approach can be off-kilter and he happens to live somewhere else.

City Hall's only rail-transit success at the polls has come when it carves out narrowly prescribed transportation-development districts, the type that enabled the downtown streetcar starter line through the vote of a few hundred renters residents in the city's core.

But Chastain also doesn't seem to think anything that happens in Kansas City matches the importance of his transit proposals. And he uses that logic to harangue reporters and editors, who have myriad things to cover in a city of 2 million people, for not finding new ways to cover him on a consistent basis. He will say local media is lazy and, most critically, too afraid to needle the city's power brokers with tough questions.

There's another unspoken reality to Chastain's constant search for media attention: He craves and needs free publicity. Most of Chastain's light-rail campaigns stretching back to the 1990s haven't been the types of efforts that make headway through things that require money: television ads, yard signs, handbills and direct mail. Chastain has mostly relied on news stories to get the word out.

So that's why sometimes it's hard to take Chastain seriously, especially when he implores that you cover every little incremental bit of news coming from him like it's the sinking of the Lusitania

Anyway, here's Chastain's latest column that the Star wouldn't print, presented in its entirety without editing.

In peril in Kansas City is perhaps the greatest paragon of American
democracy - the initiative process.

This democratic mechanism, voters long ago incorporated into the
City's Charter, empowers the powerless to circumvent government and
take a community changing idea (light rail) or issue (vote on KCI
upgrade) straight to the voters.

The process outlined is simple: gather enough valid signatures from
registered voters and the government "shall" place the initiative
petition before voters - no questions asked.

As you might expect, power moguls in government...sometimes abetted by
special interests...do not welcome challenging initiatives because it
upsets their desire to reign supreme without interference.

Mayor Sly James has sought control over the schools, the police
department, the city council (his advocacy for a strong mayoral form
of government), the streetcar issue, the KCI issue, and the light rail
initiative.

For nearly three years now the city council, led by Mayor James, has
committed an act of democratic piracy in stealing away from the people
their right to vote on a valid light rail initiative in competition
with the city's streetcar plan.

To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty (the government) sitting atop the
initiative: This initiative means exactly what I want it to mean:
"unconstitutional," "unworkable," "misleading," or (my personal
favorite) "legally insufficient."

The city council, led by Mayor James, has dragged the light rail
initiative... supported by 4,000 registered voters... into its fourth
courtroom battle at a legal cost to defenders of over $30,000.00.

Meanwhile, Mayor James and City Councilman Russ Johnson merrily roll
along cheerleading the city's streetcar plan approved by a mere 375
voters.

In the last legal battle...the court to end all courts...the Missouri
Supreme Court ruled 7-0 rejecting the city's claim the light rail
initiative was unconstitutional.

The court also rendered an incomprehensible ruling stating the
ordinance language of the initiative did not comport with the ballot
language, and thus the city was not technically required to build
anything with the taxes raised.

The court then remanded the initiative back to the trial court to
start another merry-go-round of costly, frivolous, and protracted
litigation; this time, over the semantics of the ordinance language.

In short, the supreme court provided the government with a
questionable technicality upon which to mount a whole new legal case
against the initiative.

I say questionable because all of the attorneys and judges involved in
the case to that point thought the ordinance self-evident in directing
the city what to build with the taxes raised.

Nevertheless, Missouri case law says," Initiatives shall be liberally
construed to effectuate their purpose." Not, (I might add) narrowly
construed...using gotcha games...to torpedo their purpose.

This law clearly states that the courts do not require the layperson
to submit a technically perfect initiative.

By the way, our good faith city council has arrogantly refused to
amend the so-called technical glitch in the (now constitutional )
ordinance, and says it will not do so without a court order. Thus, we
have asked the court to do so, and then to order the city to place the
light rail initiative on the August 2014 ballot.

The people will be watching to see if Missouri's courts rule according
to the law and in the public interest concerning a stronghold of our
democratic freedom that is fully under siege by the government of
Kansas City, Missouri.

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