Soon, two dozen Kansas Citians were meeting regularly, digging into the morass of City Hall, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
It was a rare convergence of Kansas City minds. The group included the Reverend Wallace Hartsfield, defender of poor people in the urban core, and attorney and former councilman Mike Burke, defender of well-heeled developers. There were City Hall insiders, such as former-assistant-city-manager-turned-Hallmarker John Laney. Neighborhood activists such as Dorothy Stroud drove in from the city's outermost ranch houses, while Jewel Scott, executive director of the Civic Council, represented the city's top CEOs.
When it came to goings-on at City Hall, these people were frequently at odds with one another. But here the city's half-assedness was the great equalizer. They all were fed up with the growing mess.
After a year, they came back with a spiral-bound volume known as the Community Infrastructure Committee report. It told city leaders to grow up.
Kansas City needed "discipline," the CIC report said. City leaders must learn how to say no to some projects, even ideas that sound good. They must stop chasing "silver bullet" cures for the city's woes. They needed "long-term commitment," "rigorous planning," "prioritization" and "responsibility."
They had to make some rules and learn how to obey them.
The committee members had found that, when it came to fulfilling its basic responsibilities, the city behaved like a hyperactive twelve-year-old off his Ritalin. Officials committed millions of dollars to new projects without stopping to consider how unfinished -- and unfunded -- current projects might be affected. Decisions were often "driven by crisis" or by whim. If state or federal matching funds suddenly became available, city leaders lunged for them like new toys; to snare the money, they'd conjure a project that fit the bill and then shift money to make it happen, never thinking about how this strategy would affect the projects from which they were siphoning money.
"We didn't find much that we liked," Laney told The Kansas City Star after the report was released in September 1997. "Trust in the capital improvements process in this city is as low as I've ever seen it."
The committee backed its scolding report with recommendations on how to do things right, how to rebuild the public's trust. It proposed spending more money on the backlog and giving more power to the Public Improvements Advisory Committee, better known as PIAC. This group of citizens -- two representatives from each city council district are appointed by the mayor and council -- had been around for years, listening to people who live in the neighborhoods and recommending which choked catch basins and broken sidewalks the city should spend its money repairing first. But often their suggestions had been ignored in the heat of the council's own passion for new schemes such as creating the "Street of Jazz" stars along Barney Allis Plaza or building a new home for the Black Archives.
"There are people out there in the neighborhoods who are absolutely screaming for basic services," Jim Rowland, then a member of PIAC (and now a councilman), told the Star at the time. "There hasn't been any substantial movement toward committing more dollars to infrastructure. To date, we've been all talk and no walk."
The remedial CIC report was instantly hailed as a classic of Kansas City bureaucratic literature. A few weeks later, the council passed a resolution adopting the committee's proposals as "guiding principles for the city to follow."
And for a few years, city leaders did follow them. They devoted an additional $5 million each year to finishing the undone work, and the city's "to do" list shortened. As more and more projects filtered through PIAC, public trust in City Hall slowly began returning. People loved PIAC. They were thrilled to see city workers pouring concrete on problems that had plagued them for years. They'd show up at the hearings giddy at the chance to be heard.
"In most cities, city staff just puts together a list of projects," says Pat Klein, an analyst for the city's capital improvement program. "Our public participation is unbelievable."
Public enthusiasm rose so high, in fact, that in February 2000, Governing magazine, a sort of Sports Illustrated for bureaucrats, gave the process a B+ grade.
That's about as good as it gets at 12th and Oak.
Then, this spring, along came an extra $35 million.
And that was all the city's leaders needed to chuck their "guiding principles" out the window.
A mere month after Kansas City's orgasmic review in Governing mag, high-flying tech stocks plummeted, triggering a long economic slide. People started earning less, buying less and paying less in taxes.
This past winter, city officials opened up their capital improvement budget and began deleting numbers. They crossed out more than $31 million they would have spent over the next five years on bridges, curbs and sidewalks; on all the buildings the city has to take care of, like Bartle Hall and Kemper Arena; on parks and on special projects such as sprucing up Swope Park and Starlight Theater.
They also decided to neglect their healthy habit of adding $5 million each year to the backlog budget. Worse, they proposed cutting that budget by $1 million.
But in looking over the distressing numbers, City Manager Bob Collins found one bit of good news.
His staff had noticed that the city was about to make its final payment on a couple of old bonds. With voter approval, these governmental credit cards could be charged back up to the max, netting a slick $35 million -- just about enough to cover all the cuts.
To most Kansas Citians, the question of what to do with the money would have been a no-brainer. Just pull up Resolution No. 971326 and read the list of "guiding principals." It says right there: renew the bonds and let PIAC decide how to spend them.
Instead, the $35 million fueled a hasty money grab that has once again divided the city's elite from its masses and could end with everyone losing.
The meltdown occurred at the utterance of one word.
The idea of diverting some of the $35 million toward the city's bleak commercial center first appeared, at least publicly, in a March 14 letter signed by six city council members: Jim Rowland, Paul Danaher, Bonnie Sue Cooper, Troy Nash, Terry Riley and Becky Nace. Two weeks before they had to pass the budget, they were battling over such issues as whether to fund child care and neighborhood police officers or bankroll federal lobbyists and municipal judges.
Among other things, they proposed earmarking $30 million "for strategic downtown capital improvements."
Rowland takes credit for the idea.
"Stroke of genius, wasn't it?" he says, only half kidding.
"It was a way to get the debate started," he explains. "I offered it as a first shot, as a strategic way to make a long-lasting impact."
Looking back, Rowland says a downtown makeover wasn't the only wish on his list. He would have been happy to spread a bunch of the loot across the city's crumbling roads, which, City Hall surveys show, infuriate residents more than anything else.
But he didn't say so at the time.
Rowland just didn't want the city trying to split this $35 million cupcake into six council-district slices as if it were a $195 million sheet cake. He wanted impact. He wanted his colleagues on the city council to step up and act like the leaders they purported to be.
It's hardly surprising that Rowland chose downtown for his rallying cry, though. Saving downtown is the city's cause du jour.
More specifically, it's the latest passion for one of the most powerful -- if not always politically savvy -- interest groups holding sway over City Hall.
The Civic Council formed in 1964 to, in the words of its original, stodgy mission statement, "act upon any matter, educational, health, cultural, civic, charitable, economic or other which may be deemed to affect the general welfare of Greater Kansas City." Its members aimed "to be politically nonpartisan but to study, maintain, promote and act upon governmental organizations, entities, authorities, compacts, powers and administrative principles."
In other words, they wanted to toss their weight around.
They had plenty to throw. The council was composed of eighty or so men who'd made their fortunes through the area's wealthiest corporations -- white dudes like E. Bertram "Bert" Berkley, then-president of his grandfather's company, Tension Envelope, and Richard C. Green, top guy at the Missouri Public Service Company (originally the Green Light and Power Company).
Then, as now, politicians needed money to get elected, and the Civic Council had it. Keeping one eye on the corporate booty, most local politicians have tried not to alienate this Jack Henry crowd.
Over the years, though, the group has been jeered by commoners for doing its business in secret and for its legacy of political failure. History shows that the Civic Council is adept at influencing politicians but not particularly good at gauging the mood of Kansas City's middle-class majority, which plays its trump card at the ballot box.
The perfect symbol of the Civic Council's losing record continues to walk the earth as a man named Brice Harris, who was handpicked by Civic Council members to oppose Emanuel Cleaver's first run for mayor. In 1991, the Star broke the news that the group's members had cooked up its plan via an exclusive "Monday morning group." They eventually dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars only to see Harris trounced in the primary. (Harris is now a community college chancellor in California.)
"You're dealing with a group of people who haven't got a clue as to how you run a political operation," says one former city council member.
Through the mid-'90s, among the group's missions was forging a settlement of the city's long-running school-desegregation case -- which obviously marched right over them. The case recently turned 25 and has no end in sight ["The Long Walk Home," May 23].
By the turn of the millennium, the Civic Council was home to a new generation of men who'd made their fortunes through the area's wealthiest corporations -- white dudes like William "Bill" Berkley, president of his great-grandfather's company, Tension Envelope, and Richard C. Green Jr., top guy at Aquila, which used to be Utilicorp, which used to be Missouri Public Service Company (which used to be the Green Light and Power Company).
There were new names, too. In early 2000, the Civic Council's top man was Thomas A. McDonnell, president and CEO of DST Systems Inc., a software company with a real estate division that has revamped scores of buildings and parcels around downtown. So it was no surprise that, under his direction, the Civic Council cast its eye toward downtown.
Its members formed a subcommittee -- headed by Paul Copaken, head of a Kansas development firm with a historically strong downtown interest -- and hired Massachusetts-based planning consultants to devise a strategy for the blight-ridden loop's rebirth. That firm, Sasaki Associates, was no stranger to Kansas City. It had helped design the successful Ilus Davis Park, sandwiched between City Hall and the new federal courthouse, and the less-successful Berkley Riverfront Park, a stretch of grass and sidewalk that's isolated from just about everything.
A year later came the Sasaki Plan -- a thin, spiral-bound volume full of snazzy maps and photos of buildings and streetscapes that scream "potential."
The maps landed on the front page of the Star, of course, and they were pretty. But it was hard for most Kansas Citians to take them seriously. Just about every ten years since World War II, some group of politicians or businesspeople has offered a scheme to save downtown. In the end, these fantasies have never come true [C.J. Janovy's "Future Schlock," June 7, 2001].
Mayor Barnes loved the plan. What mayor wouldn't? Despite rampant cynicism, pretty much everyone in Kansas City wants downtown to come back to life. The mayor who can make it happen is assured a legacy.
Besides, the plan came from the Civic Council, home of many sugar daddies -- the kind of campaign contributors who show up at fund-raisers with checks for the maximum spending limit from themselves, their companies and, sometimes, their wives. Sometimes they even bend the rules and give more than the law allows -- after all, state officials only make candidates return the overage if someone complains.
When the mayor ran for office, Civic Council members were good for thousands. On December 29, 1998, Barnes received two checks, each for $1,075 (the maximum spending limit), from McDonnell and from his company, DST. The next year she received $2,000 (almost twice the legal limit) from McDonnell himself. McDonnell's wife, Jean, gave Barnes money, too. Richard and Robert Green of Aquila each chipped in $2,000. (Barnes gave some of Robert's money back.) Paul Copaken gave her $2,000 in 1999. Other Barnes-funding Civic Council members included Drue Jennings of Kansas City Power and Light, Terrance Dunn (and a slew of other Dunns) from J.E. Dunn Construction, Jeffrey Comment of Helzberg Diamonds (plus a couple Helzbergs), Donald Hall of Hallmark and, just for old time's sake, Bert Berkley (who by then was no longer on the Civic Council's board of directors).
A few months later, Kansas Citians unfolded their morning papers and read the banner headline "Mayor maps $1.8 billion blueprint for KC's future."
Barnes had slipped into the Sasaki Plan like Luke Skywalker into a sacred Jedi cloak.
Her "blueprint" focused heavily on the asphalt lunar slumscape that spreads east from Municipal Auditorium, the Power & Light Building and the proposed new performing-arts center. She dubbed the district "SoLo" -- urbane parlance for South Loop.
To carry out the dream, she proposed a new state law that would allow cities to borrow against future state taxes to help pay for developments. She called this "new money."
To direct the spending of this money, she proposed adding a new quasi-public body to the city's lengthy list of boards and commissions that have power over public funds. This particular idea was lifted from the Sasaki plan, which called for an empowered group of decision-makers known as a "downtown entity."
In mid-December, around the same time city officials announced they'd discovered a possible extra $35 million, Barnes started putting together her "downtown entity" and the new state law that would give them money to play with.
By mid-January, she had announced the formation of the Greater Downtown Development Authority -- a body of thirteen members and thirteen alternates, many of whom are intimately involved with downtown development. She named as her cochair Tom McDonnell, the DST executive with downtown interests who had led the Civic Council when downtown became its top priority.
She also invited Warren Erdman of Kansas City Southern Industries, which was the parent company of DST (and a major contributor to Barnes' campaign). And she called on Jerry Riffel, attorney for the envisioned performing-arts center. (He gave Barnes money, too.) And she didn't forget Commerce Bank chairman Jonathan Kemper (yup, gave money to Barnes), whose institution owns the massive downtown landlord known as Tower Properties [Casey Logan's "It Only Takes a Spark," January 3].
By early February, Barnes' scheme had been typed up, photocopied and passed out to the lawmakers of Jefferson City. Kansas City leaders tingled at the thought of state money flowing west down I-70.
But they wanted to be ready for it.
They thought Barnes' bill would require cities to pony up matching funds to get the big state money. "You've got to have the money there," councilwoman Nace says, explaining why she signed Rowland's letter urging $30 million for downtown. "At that point, there was no money in the budget to leverage those matching funds we thought were going to pass."
This was exactly what the CIC report had warned against just five years ago. Only this time it was worse -- these state matching funds didn't even exist.
Rowland's "stroke of genius" had worked. The debate over what to do with the money had begun.
"As soon as people found out there was money floating around out there, we got really popular," says Evert Asjes, who chairs the city council's Finance and Audit Committee, the public site of the scramble for scratch.
The business elite wanted some of it. The Parks Board lunged for the kitty, too, because it had suffered a few six-figure cuts. A group of citizens argued that a chunk of the money should fix the streets.
"It all became a money-grab, just a bald-faced money-grab," says Councilman Danaher. "Frankly, it's become, if you ask me, it's a campaign platform for Kay Barnes."
Odd criticism from Danaher, considering he'd helped fire the first shot for downtown by signing Rowland's letter. ("It was a compromise," he explains. "One of several in that letter.")
But downtown wasn't the first thing Barnes had thought of when she heard about the money. Early on, she had wanted to stick to the game plan -- she'd wanted to obey the "guiding principles" named in the CIC report.
On the same day that Rowland's gang of six sent the "genius" letter, Barnes had started trying to get the bond question on the August ballot. She drafted a resolution to spend the money on the city's massive list of unfinished chores.
A week later, she wrote a letter to fellow council members: "I recommend that the total proceeds of this election be used to fund the City's commitment to the Citizens Infrastructure Committee (CIC) recommendations and the Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC) program."
Later, at an early May meeting of the Finance and Audit Committee, Barnes went head-to-head with Rowland.
Rowland, who folks are betting will challenge Barnes for mayor next year, said the bond issue presented an opportunity for "leadership." He argued that it could help them get those matching state funds that didn't (and still don't) exist. Barring that, he argued that money spent downtown would pay more dividends than, say, 4,000 miles of sidewalks and curbs.
He talked about the Freight House District just north of Union Station, where Kansas City lost thousands of potential tax dollars last year because a long-promised parking garage had never been built. Last December, Midland Loan Services announced it would be taking its 450 employees out of downtown to new offices in Overland Park. The company had considered moving into the wide brick Stuart Hall Building that anchors the Freight House District, rising high over the train tracks and proudly displaying its antique signage. The building offered awesome views that swept from Penn Valley Park across Crown Center to the Western Auto building but nowhere for employees to stash their Achievas and Maximas -- even though the city's TIF plan was supposed to have built a parking garage in the area years ago.
"The city needs investment in downtown now," Rowland declared.
"There have been creative ideas discussed, and I think that's terrific," Barnes sunnily said. But she was concerned how all of this would sell at neighborhood polling places. She reminded everyone that the bond issue needed 57 percent of the votes to pass. She argued -- more timidly than in her letter -- that the city should stick with what people know and trust: the PIAC process.
She offered a compromise: Direct the PIAC members to devote 15 percent of the money to downtown projects. They'd done that before, in 1998 -- more than $10 million for downtown without so much as a yelp from the neighborhoods. Barnes said this approach could mean more for downtown in the long run -- instead of blowing its meager cache of political capital with the masses in one $35 million ballot-box showdown, downtown could quietly spoon 10 or 15 percent out of the community kettle for God knows how long.
Asjes closed the meeting by saying he wanted the business elite -- "the Civic Council, the Downtown Council, the Chamber [of Commerce]" -- to show up and officially say what they thought should be done with the money.
"Because those are the key groups in this deal," he explained, "and I think they need to participate in the process. I don't know how to get them over here other than to make a heartfelt appeal. Because the last time, I forget what the issue was, but they were standing down on the 24th floor handing out position papers to the council as we were coming up to the business session on the 29th floor. And I think we can have better participation than that," Asjes said.
But even at that moment, the business elite were participating in the process -- their process, which most taxpayers never get to see.
Earlier in the meeting, Asjes acknowledged as much when he said, "It's my understanding that there's a poll going on by the Downtown Council. Or the Civic Council. Not this council."
That poll had come about in part because of Asjes' own actions. In early April, the councilman had told the Star he favored letting PIAC decide where to spend the money. Now he was actively working with business leaders to figure out how to skirt the PIAC process to funnel some of the money downtown using the mayor's newly formed Greater Downtown Development Authority -- of which he's a member.
Asjes had turned to another GDDA member, John Laney, the former city manager who is now an executive with the Hallmark Foundation, and asked for advice.
Laney had helped put together the CIC report five years earlier and had bemoaned the public's lack of trust in City Hall's capital improvements process. Yet here he was doing exactly what he had warned against back then.
He was no longer John Laney the CIC Man. Now he was John Laney the Downtown Council Man.
The Downtown Council is a consortium of businesspeople and property owners. This past spring, it joined forces with the Civic Council to form a political action committee to raise money for downtown-friendly politicians.
"The city council contacted us and said, 'What are your views?' And we said, 'We want at least half,'" Laney recalls. More specifically, Laney admits, it wasn't the entire council but Asjes who had called him. "He said, 'What do you think about this? Could it pass?'"
To find out, the Downtown Council paid political consultant Pat Gray to poll 500 voters. But the questions were so leading that council members Danaher and Nace later criticized them. Gray's questionnaire had asked voters whether they'd rather see the money used to heroically "jump-start revitalization of downtown Kansas City, funding new parking facilities, streetscapes, demolition of dangerous buildings and blight removal, thereby attracting private development" or to fund boring "smaller capital projects around the city."
Some choice. Still, only 45 percent of the survey's respondents opted for downtown. The unspecified smaller PIAC projects attracted 40 percent. (The rest responded "neither," "both" or "don't know.")
This was hardly a landslide. Yet a couple of weeks later, Laney was waving the results in front of the members of the Finance and Audit Committee, declaring, "These are facts that you have to deal with. You have to balance the needs of the community. This is a democracy after all."
At that same meeting, however, a representative of the voting public spoke to committee members. She said she didn't believe the half-for-downtown idea would fly on election day.
"The Southeast Neighborhood Association had a meeting on May 15, and we voted unanimously to keep the money in PIAC," said Carol McClure.
Kansas City's age-old political gulf had officially reopened.
Not even five years ago, John Laney, the city's business elite and the voting masses had been united behind the CIC report. Now they were torn over a measly $35 million.
It's not that the neighborhood people are against fixing up downtown. Virtually everyone in Kansas City would like to see some life brought back to the vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. If downtown were more prosperous, it could benefit neighborhoods by generating more tax revenue that could fix up more neighborhoods.
But when you've got more than a billion dollars' worth of busted curbs and stinky sewers, most people would prefer that city leaders keep taking the medicine prescribed by the CIC report, no matter how un-legacy-building it might seem.
"Stick with PIAC," McClure and her neighbors said.
But by the time McClure stood up to take part in the so-called process, Kansas City's corporate power brokers had already been pushing to slip the money past PIAC and give it to their new group, the GDDA.
On the same day McClure had polled her peers in the Southland, Bill Berkley, chairman of the Civic Council, had written a letter to Asjes reaffirming the group's support of the CIC report while arguing that the city council should authorize the GDDA to set priorities for spending half of the money downtown. Pete Levi, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter saying the same -- though it was the Chamber that had conducted the study that led to the CIC report.
The argument for allowing the GDDA to figure out where to spend the downtown money -- which by the end of May had become the prevailing wisdom in City Hall -- was that many of the group's members were businessmen and lawyers who had profited from downtown for years. They knew the lay of the land. Who better to decide where the money should go?
But many neighborhood activists weren't buying it.
"The little rich kid who used to crowd in front of me in the grade-school drinking-fountain line has now grown up and gathered a bunch of other 'poor little rich boys' to crowd in line ahead of the neighborhoods of Kansas City," Hyde Park resident Mark Esping wrote in his often contentious electronic newsletter, The Neighborhood Hotline. "I do not think that the average working guy needs to give any of his tax money to help guard the investment of millionaire developers."
Esping might be the city's most rascally neighborhood activist. He often comes across as a man with a headful of conspiracy theories and too much time on his hands.
Yet for the last several elections, Esping has batted a thousand.
The city's business elite can't make the same claim.
Esping's newsletter rants represent the public's distrust of City Hall. Having seen downtown-revitalization plans before, the residents who showed up at the Finance and Audit Committee meetings to testify on the bond issue were dubious about the urgency of the current scheme. They wanted to know precisely what this new GDDA intended to do with the money. And what exactly was the GDDA anyway? Was it public? Or private? Or both?
More important, to whom, or what, was the GDDA accountable?
At that point the GDDA didn't even exist.
On June 19, the mayor and the city council (except Danaher) agreed to let Kansas Citians vote to renew $35 million in debt -- a puny pie that'll come presliced: 55 percent to go to the neighborhoods through PIAC and 45 percent for downtown via the GDDA.
Earlier that week, PIAC members had gathered and griped about having to share the meager spoils.
"It's hard when you have a powerful, well-organized group you're up against," said Mike Burke, the development attorney Barnes appointed to chair PIAC.
But PIAC itself is supposed to be a powerful, well-organized group (especially since Burke, who has been described as the mayor's "confidante" and who represents several private developers and is the attorney for the city's Port Authority, ought to know his way around the process). Early on, Burke had fought in favor of letting PIAC handle the whole $35 million. In one meeting, he reminded John Laney that the two of them had worked together on the CIC report that warned against abandoning procedures to pursue the latest whims of the city's power elite.
But this time, his clout wasn't enough. "PIAC doesn't really have the ability to lobby," Burke says.
Put another way: PIAC can't offer campaign money.
"The downtown interests knew they would be expected to come up with campaign money" for the bond issue, one insider observes. "So that provided them the leverage to get a bigger piece of the pie."
By mid-June, PIAC members had one choice: $19 million or nothing. And the neighborhoods needed the $19 million.
The committee members agreed to spend the money on a specific list of projects. More than half -- $9.6 million -- would go toward street-resurfacing. This is the one compromise everyone seems happy about. (In response to council members' requests for some concrete facts about what the money could do, Public Works Director Ed Wolf figured out that with just less than $10 million, the city could smooth out its 2,300 miles of washboard streets by fall 2008.)
The rest of PIAC's share would fund, in roughly equal amounts, improvements to municipal buildings, bridges, sewers, boulevard curbs and sidewalks. The folks at PIAC already have a pretty good idea where this money will go. They're the ones publicly guarding the city's long list of chores.
The GDDA, on the other hand, had no such list. So the instructions the city council gave the GDDA for spending its share were more ... conceptual. The council stipulated that the $16 million be spent on "revenue-producing parking facilities, streetscape amenities, spot blight removal and wayfinding signage improvements as well as other infrastructure improvements" at undisclosed sites in an area that's bigger than most Midwestern towns.
It'll be a challenge for them to figure out what to do with the piddly $16 million. They could blow all of it on just one parking garage. Or removing one really bad stretch of blight. Hell, they could blow it all on bringing Cinerama back to the Empire Theater.
But at the GDDA's first meeting after the resolution passed, on June 26, its members weren't ready to devise a list. They faced more pressing matters -- namely, coming into existence.
The mood was light. A few members joked about their ghostlike status.
"We're not really here," one quipped. "We're a figment of our imagination."
Though it had been holding open meetings since early February, the GDDA still hadn't filed an article of incorporation. Mayor Barnes' ambitious law would have required the city council to formally establish the GDDA in accordance with city ordinances, but her bill had died in Jefferson City on May 17.
In reality, the GDDA was nothing more than a klatch of powerful people who got together once in a while to talk about downtown.
They quickly agreed that the mayor should file incorporation papers the next day and that they should meet again soon to adopt bylaws.
Then they moved on to more fun matters: paying for an election campaign. After all, if voters won't approve the bond money, they won't be able to spend it.
To get the money, they needed money -- at least $250,000, according to Warren Erdman's estimate. He bragged that his own Kansas City Southern had already put up $10,000, and he urged his fellow GDDA members to follow suit. (DST promptly tossed in some money, too.) He told his fellow members he'd be sending them a letter asking for campaign donations.
Mayor Barnes -- in a complete reversal of her initial hard-line, stick-with-PIAC vision for the $35 million -- cheerily told her GDDA appointees to be on the lookout for "Warren's wonderfully warm letter." ("It just got refined over time, and I'm very comfortable with that," Barnes says of her behind-the-scenes slide from CIC to GDDA. "That always happens.")
The meeting was nearing adjournment when Erdman leaned over and exchanged a few whispered words with the man sitting to his right, Jerry Riffel (who, as a city councilman in the 1980s, helped create PIAC).
The two stopped the meeting's momentum and suggested they adopt the bylaws before the election. Without those, they didn't have any conflict-of-interest provisions. And they had a hunch the public would want such rules in place before giving downtown development money to a group with so many members who might profit directly from downtown development.
Everyone agreed, but there wasn't much time. The election was little more than a month away. The members searched their Daytimers, tossing out possible dates. One member suggested they reach a consensus via phone or e-mail.
"Don't we need to do it in a meeting to satisfy the open-meeting requirements?" another asked.
"We do need to do that once we adopt the bylaws," an attorney replied.
Everyone laughed at that.
One member joked, "We don't exist, remember?"
Finally they agreed on a time, and the attorneys circulated drafts of the bylaws that contained a single paragraph on conflicts of interest that's most notable for what it's not: The city's official ordinance on such conflicts.
Members of most city boards -- including PIAC -- have to fill out a form in which they lay out all their connections to city contractors and specify all the property they own within city boundaries.
The proposed GDDA bylaws, on the other hand, asked for no information about connections to contractors and, most significantly, no citywide property disclosure. GDDA members would have to reveal those properties only within a given "development area," which the bylaws never defined. After that, GDDA members had to steer clear of the discussions and votes to spend public money in the areas where they owned property.
When GDDA members met July 8 to vote on these bylaws, the graft provision had changed. Instead of disclosing their properties in writing, the members were asked to police themselves by simply stepping out of the process when their properties lie within the still-undefined "development area."
Evert Asjes, city councilman and GDDA member, raised concerns about this.
He questioned the wisdom of not abiding by the city's own well-established conflict-of-interest ordinance. "I mean, it's pretty soft," he said.
"I think in today's climate, you need to spell things out as much as you can so that people understand what you're doing," he said. "I think you need to do that because, all of us, the inside folks, know how cool everybody is and how everything is OK.... But a lot of people out there think that big business stinks right now."
But, he conceded meekly, "I'm just one vote among thirteen."
The other members batted the issue around for a while. Most of their concerns, however, seemed to focus more on whether the conflict-of-interest clause was too strict. The discussion didn't last long. "We could discuss hypotheticals all day," said one of the GDDA's attorneys, Herb Kohn (who, during the last mayoral campaign, had written a few checks for Barnes, as had his firm, Bryan Cave).
The self-policing bylaws passed unanimously.
The business elite and the folks at City Hall hope that most Kansas Citians don't follow Mark Esping's recent credo: "FIX THE STREETS, FIX THE CURBS, CLEAN THE CATCH BASINS or we vote NO on everything until you get these things fixed in the neighborhoods."
He's not worried about his wealthy foes. "You know how much we spent to kill [last November's city] charter change? Eighty-three dollars and 27 cents. And you know what? Some of the neighborhood people are telling me they want to do this one for half price."
The logic frustrates city leaders. They know a "no" vote will hurt the neighborhoods as much as it will hamper downtown. A "no" vote means less money for everyone. It means no additional $9.6 million for the horrible roads.
But city leaders can't be surprised, can they? After all, this hasty split of the potential bond money was exactly what their own multipartisan committee had warned against.
"Yeah, it was," says Laney. "It was. I went through that whole report process, and I was one of the most vocal about [how] we've got to change the way in which capital improvements are done. We have to have a process by which we do it."
All rules are made to be broken, though.
"We realized that from time to time you have to make exceptions," Laney explains. "You can't always slavishly follow the policy. But when you do [make exceptions], you're going to have to justify to the public at large. And that's exactly what we did this time."
But he won't really know that until the polls close on August 6.