Opposition to Kansas City's light-rail proposal gives new meaning to the term narrow interest. A couple building a 43-foot-wide car wash on Main Street is funding the campaign, calling the route a billion-dollar train to nowhere.
Last month, Michael Messina, a lawyer with an office in Waldo, gave $10,000 to the Committee for Sensible Transit. A trust in the name of Messina's wife, Donna, gave an additional $10,000. Title and Transfer Services, a company that Messina incorporated in 1992, contributed $18,100.
Patrick Tuohey, the Committee for Sensible Transit's spokesman, divulged the Messinas' involvement last week, the day before the committee's campaign-finance forms were due. Tuohey and I met for coffee. He referred to the Messinas as "shop owners."
Finally, the campaign trying to brand the city's light-rail proposal as a risky and largely pointless endeavor had a name.
In the days leading up to the disclosure, Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson had challenged James B. Nutter, mortgage banker and established light-rail foe, to come out of the shadows and claim ownership of the anti-rail billboards around town.
Johnsons taunts were kind of exciting. In this manners-minded city, elected officials seldom call out anyone of Nutter's stature.
Nutter was an obvious suspect. He had contributed to campaigns that worked to defeat previous light-rail proposals. His company spent $25,500 on a petition drive to overturn the Clay Chastain plan that voters passed two years ago. (The City Council eventually rescinded the plan, calling it unfeasible, before crafting the proposal that will appear on the November 4 ballot.)
Nutter denied that he was bankrolling the most recent train hater. Doubts remained. Then Michael Messina emerged.
Tuohey said the Messinas fear that construction of the proposed light-rail line will disrupt their business. "They're worried about the street being dug up," he told me.
The Messinas bought the land for the car wash in 2007. County records indicate that they paid $1.2 million. The car wash is under construction on the site of the former Main Street Chevrolet dealership, near Linwood Boulevard. Sensible Transit yard signs dot the work site.
I called Messina. He responded with an e-mail explaining that he decided to get involved after speaking with his friend Bob Lewellen, a former councilman and light-rail critic of long standing.
The e-mail hit the talking points that Tuohey had shared at the coffee shop: The city's proposal is too vague; costs will explode; Kansas City lacks the density that makes light rail necessary.
Messina also expanded on the concern that a light-rail line, during and after construction, would interfere with Main Street commerce. "Our business and other merchants depend on vehicle traffic to deliver our 'customers,'" Messina wrote. (I have no explanation for Messina's quotation marks, which make his customers sound theoretical or ironic.)
City officials insist that construction along the right of way can be managed to minimize disruption. "You don't tear up the whole thing at the same time," Mayor Mark Funkhouser said at a press conference last week. "You phase and stage it. You hold businesses' hands while it's happening." Funkhouser raised the possibility of subsidizing businesses affected by construction.
If I owned a place along the route, I'd be skeptical that piles of money would accompany the orange construction barrels. Still, it's hard to work up feelings for a car wash that hasn't even opened.
The Messinas seem miscast as "shop owners," words that suggest matching aprons, the ring of a vintage cash register, and the sound of a broom on the sidewalk at dawn. They're building an automated car wash, a business unlikely to mitigate the junky atmosphere already present along that stretch of Main.
Other aspects of the Messinas' business do not emit an air of an enlightened citizenry. The Messinas co-own property in Lawrence with Joe Mandacina, who operates a strip club and a pawnshop on Chouteau Trafficway in Kansas City. A document from a Clay County tax sale lists Messina's law office as the address of the trust of Angelo Porrello. In 2006, a judge sent the elderly Porrello to prison for fencing jewelry that had been stolen from Tivol and other stores.
The Committee for Sensible Transit's techniques also fail to rouse community spirit. A Washington, D.C.-trained pro, Tuohey filed a lawsuit last week seeking to invalidate the light-rail question on a technicality.
Yes, after years of Chastain's petition drives and R. Crosby Kemper Jr.'s harrumphs about light rail disturbing his view of Grand Boulevard, transit's future hangs on lawyers arguing about preambles in the city charter. Great.
Funkhouser called a second press conference to respond to the suit. Sitting at the kitchen table in his Brookside home, the mayor said the opposition was crying about procedure in order to avoid a discussion of the merits of the plan. Funkhouser suggested that, where light rail was concerned, the time for chicken-shit games had passed.
"The voters have been extremely clear with us that they don't want us messing around anymore," Funkhouser said. "They want us to move ahead. I mean, they've said, 'Just get started.' I hear 'em."
Prior to the suit being filed, the pro-light-rail campaign accused the Committee for Sensible Transit of engaging in "a pattern of deception." The organization has made slight name changes and claimed "exploratory" status — both efforts to mislead the voters, according to the pro-train side.
Tuohey is no stranger to political guile. In 2006, he organized a committee called Missourians in Charge. The name said, "Show Me," but $1.6 million came from a group in New York called the Fund for Democracy, a Manhattan outfit that promotes term limits, government spending caps, and curbs on eminent domain. Missourians in Charge spent most of the money collecting signatures for a spending-lid proposal that failed to get on the ballot.
Howard Rich, who made his fortune in real estate, heads Fund for Democracy. Earlier this month, he mailed 11,000 "I see you" letters to people who contributed to efforts to elect Democrats and other causes he finds upsetting. The letter said the donors' names were being put in a database. "We are monitoring all reports of a wide variety of leftist organizations," Rich wrote.
Wow. That kind of stuff almost makes one nostalgic for the days when light rail's enemies consisted of old man Kemper, weeping for the "grandest boulevard in Kansas City."
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