Just how independent and insightful will the newly approved evaluation of the proposed Kansas City International Airport terminal really be?
Warning signs are flashing about lawyers involved in the effort as well about what the end game really is for Mayor Sly James and City Council members.
Background: Last week the City Council voted to spend up to $475,000 to hire two law firms to review Burns & McDonnell’s no-bid plan to build a new airport costing almost $1 billion. The firms are Husch Blackwell of Kansas City and WilmerHale of Washington, D.C. Charles Renner of Husch Blackwell will lead the outside counsel.
The firms must conduct a no-holds-barred probe of the plan. They need to find many of the potential legal, financial and construction concerns with it. Then they can present their findings to elected officials who will decide whether the proposal ever goes to voters.
The potential problems:
— In Kansas City’s often-chummy legal world, will Renner be a truly tough negotiator with Dave Frantze of Stinson Leonard Street, the lead lawyer for Burns & McDonnell?
— Do James and the council want a KCI deal to give voters no matter what the law firms find?
Both Renner and Frantze are strong promoters of economic development in Kansas City. Both are board directors for the Kansas City Area Development Council. Both are widely known for their support for economic development projects, which often use public assistance. (To be clear, the Burns & McDonnell plan would be backed by user fees from tickets, parking, concessions, etc., and not taxpayer dollars.)
Last May, Husch Blackwell helped sponsor a discussion among business executives, eco-devo officials and politicians about the Kansas City economy. Renner and Frantze attended and were quoted several times in the Ingram’s report on the three-hour meeting. Here’s a key portion.
Collaboration is a positive viewpoint to have — up to a point.
But in the current KCI case, Renner and his crew are supposed to be proponents of the public in determining whether a project is truly worth pursuing. If they end up proposing “inaction,” it could be for very good reasons.
At another point in the May 2016 meeting, local officials talked at length about KCI, with most bemoaning its current state.
“Dave Frantze summarized what the business community knows full well: ‘We all had that experience,’ he said, ‘and I was talking to a client last week who said Kansas City was a ‘great city, great people, *@$#ty airport.’ This business community has to take the lead on the education component reflecting the need for a new airport. The polling now reflects a lot of short-term interest in convenience and ignoring the fact that the existing terminals are not good for this city as a first face to the nation.”
Renner was quoted in Ingram’s as saying part of the problem is that “’we have empowered but not engaged a consistent voice of no. There are consistent names who have made a profession of saying no.’ If such groups aren’t engaged early on, he said, the public-education challenge becomes considerably more difficult.”
In the current KCI matter, Renner and his legal allies aren’t supposed to be the party of “no.” But they also aren’t supposed to acquiesce to whatever Frantze and Burns & McDonnell have proposed. They must push back — hard — against the bad or questionable parts of the plan they will find.
Here’s hoping the city-hired law firms try to show they’re worth the $475,000 or so they could receive. They need to find as many problems to be fixed as possible with the Burns & McDonnell idea. If they need more than a few weeks allotted to them, they must ask for more time. All of this could lead to a true benefit for the public.
As for James and the City Council, a few skeptics of the deal have emerged, and properly so. They want to know more about the financing and whether a no-bid plan is really the proper way to go.
James has been steadfast in saying it is. A few others seem to support him, but whether it’s enough to at least get a 7-6 vote to put something before voters is unknown.
One concerning moment last Thursday came when Quinton Lucas, who often provides thoughtful counterpoints to what James proposes, said of the hiring of the legal firms: “Nobody wants to be the transactional lawyer who comes in and destroys a deal largely that the city wants.”
Well, no one is talking about destroying something — if it has good value. But the public also deserves the best possible KCI deal possible.
Lucas did properly say that’s what the city is seeking, The Star reported, “so we can give the public an independent voice for review.”
Now, will that review really be “independent?”
Charles Renner and the other legal experts at Husch Blackwell and WilmerHale must be up to that crucial task.