19 Headlines That Defined 2019
Someway, somehow, we have already reached the close of yet another year. It’s time to say goodbye to 2019, but before we do that, we decided this was a most opportune time to take a look back and review the big headlines that came out of this year. There were a lot—some that even we the writers of the news forgot all happened within just a year. 2019 brought a whole lot of change to Kansas City—some good and some not so good. So here’s our pick of 19 headlines that defined 2019.
KC Tenants—a new housing issue-centric grassroots organization—stormed the city and quickly became an inescapable force in KCMO politics. The group launched an aggressive campaign, demanding answers from city council and mayoral candidates about their positions on various housing issues.
The tenants’ preferred mayoral candidate Quinton Lucas emerged victorious, along with several council members who committed to the organization’s housing platform. From there the tenants worked with the new mayor and council to pass a Tenants Bill of Rights, the first in the city’s history. The bill of rights requires landlords to disclose any past issues with their rental unit; to help tenants estimate the cost of utilities; and requires increased notice to a tenant before entering their unit. It also bars landlords from discriminating against tenants based solely upon record of prior arrests, convictions, or evictions, type of income, or because of 16 different protected traits that include race, gender expression, and victims of violence.
KCMO Mayor Sly James tried really hard to pass a sales tax that would have generated $30 million a year to cover up to $12,000 in tuition for families (based on a sliding scale for household income), make improvements to programs, classrooms, and teacher quality, as well as increase the availability of seats for high-quality pre-K.
None of the 15 school districts that lie within Kansas City limits were on board, and only one of the 11 candidates running for mayor (Jolie Justus) supported it. Schools criticized the inclusion of private schools that would have also received funding from the tax, and they labeled the sales as regressive. Ultimately, Kansas City voters rejected the sales tax.
In November 2018, a resounding 62 percent of Missouri voters approved Constitutional Amendment One, better known as Clean Missouri. The legislation replaced the state’s bipartisan system for drawing legislative districts with a nonpartisan system. It required legislative records to be open to the public, mandated politicians wait two years before becoming lobbyists, placed a cap on lobbyist gifts at five dollars, and constrained campaign contribution limits.
In 2019, Missouri Republicans tried really hard to reverse most of the legislation, particularly the changes that would better prevent gerrymandering. Republicans introduced several bills that would have altered Clean Missouri. One bill made it through the state House, but ultimately failed in the state Senate on the last day of the 2019 legislative session.
Lawrence, Kansas, saw some high drama in 2019 when a Chicago-based developer drew up plans to build a luxury student housing complex called The Hub on Campus that would have been smacked down in the middle of downtown Lawrence. The development was going to stretch over nine townsite lots.
The city’s commissioners received over 155 pages of input from local residents, most of whom opposed the project citing that the massiveness of the complex would overshadow the view of nearby historic sites, concerns about the developer’s shady reputation, and about overcrowding downtown parking spaces. Supporters of the project said it would bring in a chunk of new tax revenue, beautify the abandoned space of the proposed site, and boost the economy of downtown’s small businesses. Ultimately, the project was voted down by the city commission, and the proposed site remains abandoned.
The Missouri legislature voted to pass legislation that basically outlawed abortion in the state. The “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act” banned the termination of any pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or after eight weeks—including pregnancies resulting from rape, incest, and human trafficking. The bill also outlined criminal consequences for any physician who performs an abortion after detecting a heartbeat as a class B felony, unless there’s a medical emergency.
Reproductive rights activists tried to get a ballot referendum through that would have required a state vote to enact the legislation, but failed. The bill has been put on hold multiple times as it faces legal challenges. Currently, it’s under review by the Missouri Supreme Court.
2019 was a big election year in KCMO. 11 candidates jockeyed for votes, hoping to be the one to replace outgoing Mayor Sly James. (James, who served for eight years, termed out.) 11 turned to two after the April primaries: Quinton Lucas and Jolie Justus.
In the end, Quinton Lucas emerged victorious and became Kansas City’s new mayor in August. Justus shared many views with former Mayor James, while Lucas championed issues like affordable housing and safe neighborhoods. He said he’d put more focus on the entire city’s needs, as opposed to James’ downtown-centric approach.
The city also welcomed six new councilmembers: Kevin O’Neill (1st District at-large), Brandon Ellington (3rd District at-large), Melissa Robinson (3rd District), Eric Bunch (4th District), Ryana Parks-Shaw (5th District), and Andrea Bough (6th District at-large).
KCMO Mayor Sly James said goodbye to the mayor’s office on July 31, leaving Kansas City with two legacies: the Bow Tie, and the Bully. The Bow Tie cracks jokes, high fives kids, and poses for “selfies with Sly.” He speaks his mind, and people love him for it. He is rightly credited with helping to restore Kansas City’s confidence after the Great Recession. The Bully, less well known to the public, berates people for asking questions, brooks no disagreement, and has little patience for niceties like consensus.
During his two terms, Kansas City saw the arrival of the downtown streetcar, construction of a new airport got voter approval, construction began on the downtown convention hotel, and we saw several revitalization projects go to Kansas City’ East Side.
Rents used to be affordable for artists to rent space in areas of KCMO like the Crossroads and midtown. But in the last few years, we’ve increasingly seen artists and arts venues get priced out of the places they called home for so many years.
In March, we lost the Uptown Arts Bar a dance-music hub that fostered a lively poetry scene and regularly hosted other artistic performances—comedy, burlesque, open-mics, etc.—as well.
In May, The Drugstore, a midtown space for young artists announced that it would close.
The Living Room Theatre also announced that it would leave the Crossroads after its tenth season. The owners hope to find a new space for future seasons.
We said goodbye to the Westport arts-house movie theater, Tivoli Cinemas. But not for too long. The Tivoli came back to life at The Nelson-Atkins with weekly movie showings.
Over the summer, a group of Wyandotte county citizens came together in frustration of a controversial agreement involving a fitness center in the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods’ community center. Fueled by dissatisfaction with the county’s status quo’s approach to ethics, transparency, and economic issues facing the poorer communities of Wyandotte County, the five—Faith Rivera, CeCe Mancks, Diane Aguirre, Ken Snyder, and Christian Ramirez—became first-time candidates on this year’s election ballot for the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County.
In the end, three of the candidates made it through the primaries in their respective races—Aguirre and Mancks (who automatically advanced to the general election), and Ramirez. In the general election, Ramirez was the only one to win his seat. He’s now on the county’s board of commissioners. Voters also bid adieu to Commissioner Ann Murguia, who was often at the center of controversy in the county.
It was revealed that the two-months long arts festival called Open Spaces has still not paid many of the vendors from the work they did for the festival that took place in fall of 2018. The executive director of the agency that oversaw the festival, KC Creates, said they missed the mark on projecting the revenue Open Spaces would bring in and that expenditures were higher than expected. The city of KCMO injected $375,000 earlier in the year to help make up for losses, but KC Creates was still in too much debt to pay all of its bills.
The controversial Valley Oaks Steak Company closed in August. Since early 2018, the company had been at the center of lawsuits and appeals filed by Powell Gardens and local residents after the concentrated animal feeding operation applied for a permit that would allow Valley Oaks to expand from 999 beef cows to 6,999.
Valley Oaks sat three miles down the road from Powell Gardens, a botanical garden 40 miles southeast of Kansas City that sees over 100,000 visitors a year. It was also within a three-mile range of somewhere between 500 and 880 homes.
Just before it closed, 141 property owners banded together to launch their own lawsuit against the company, accusing Valley Oaks of trespassing and being a nuisance. The lawsuit described the atmosphere created by the feedlot as filled with flies, pollution, and a horrific stench.
The 2019 Jackson County assessments have turned hundreds of citizens into property valuation sleuths. They’re doing work the county didn’t do and sharing it with their neighbors. Realtors, assessors, and lawyers are helping out. Jackson County Assessment Director Gail McCann Beatty says property owners have been getting away with low taxes for many years, and the county is simply setting the values right.
But citizens are finding wild, inexplicable fluctuations in property values on their own blocks. Realtors are saying the assessments ignore recent trends in neighborhoods, like house flipping, gentrification, extensive remodeling, and construction of new infill housing.
All Jackson County property owners were supposed to receive their tax bills by December 1, then pay their taxes in full by the end of the year. But many citizens saw their new assessments for the first time on December 1, because thousands of preliminary notices never got delivered during the summer and were stuffed in a room in the Jackson County courthouse that employees call “the vault.” That means even more taxpayers likely just got notified of major increases in their tax bill.
Since being named CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority four years ago, Robbie Makinen has been quietly devising ways to eliminate fares. In all, about 25 percent of KCATA riders already don’t pay to ride. Makinen announced over the summer that he hoped to have a plan in place in the next year to zero out fares for the entire system. KCMO’s newly elected Mayor Quinton Lucas also got on board with the idea, nodding toward eliminating bus fares in his inauguration address.
In December, KCMO’s city council took a huge step toward that goal, voting to direct the city manager to find a way to fund fare-free public transportation in the next fiscal year budget. That’s supposed to happen within the first few months of 2020, When it happens, Kansas City will be the first major city in the country with an entirely fare-free transportation system.
In just one year, over 130,000 Missourians have been dropped from the Medicaid rolls in the state. Since early summer 2019, Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade has been calling for an investigation into why so many people—most of whom are children—have been denied Medicaid.
Legal aid groups assisting those who have been eliminated from the rolls say that nearly 100 percent of them still qualify. Quade alleges that many of the renewal letters were sent to wrong addresses, and that state officials misplaced documentation. House Speaker Elijah Haahr refused to call an investigation because he believes that an improved economy is the cause of the enrollment decline. Quade pointed out that if the economy were to blame, the state would have seen similar drops in food stamp enrollment, which it did not.
That’s why some Missourians took matters into their own hands and launched a campaign that would ask voters in 2020 to expand Medicaid in the state. The proposal would extend Medicaid coverage to an additional 200,000 individuals who make less than $18,000 a year or families of three with an income below $30,000; those nearing retirement who have lost their insurance; and those with chronic medical conditions.
After spending 23 years behind bars for a double homicide he didn’t commit, Ricky Kidd was finally exonerated and released from prison in August. After appealing multiple times over the years, nothing changed until April, when a key eyewitness who had identified Kidd in the original trial recanted his identification of Kidd as one of the murderers. Another witness who was four years old at the time was found to have identified Kidd under “suggestive” circumstances.
Now Kidd is using his freedom to help others in similar situations. A few years ago, while Kidd was still imprisoned, Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, told him she recognized his passion and vision, and that she wanted him to work for the MIP after he was exonerated. After his release, Kidd started as the community engagement manager for the MIP. In his position, Kidd raises awareness about wrongful convictions by coming up with new ways to engage the community, volunteers, and business partners, and overseeing fundraising events.
Illegal dumping and litter is a problem shared by many of KCMO’s East Side neighborhoods. During 2019, the Community Resource Team (CRT)—a group partnering several East Side neighborhoods to tackle shared issues—targeted the trash problem in seven neighborhoods along the Prospect corridor, part of the idea being: Less trash, less crime. Third District At-Large Councilman Brandon Ellington also noticed loads of trash often piled along the streets in his district. That’s why he sponsored a resolution targeting illegal dumping.
It passed unanimously through the city council. The proposal directed the city manager to establish a trash plan in coordination with the solid waste plan the council passed earlier this year. It called for trash transfer station facilities, increased trash pick-up routes for bulky items, more trash cans, year-round leaf and brush operations, and an increase to the number of bags the city will pick up for free.
For the first time in the college’s history, Metropolitan Community College’s board of trustees voted to impose a compensation contract the faculty did not agree to. Faculty union members requested that the college match the market median salary identified in a 2017 study, which would amount to an approximately 12 percent increase across the board. The increase would have equated to 0.55 percent of the community college’s general fund budget. Instead, they got a 3 percent salary equity adjustment and a 1.3 percent salary increase each year through 2022.
MCC wasn’t the only local public school system that had its issues this year. Anticipating a recession, Johnson County Community College decided to raise tuition for the fall of 2019 semester. The college also came under fire for a problem with a lack of transparency. Over the past couple of years, alumni, faculty, and neighbors have complained about late or zero notice about important decisions. Those decisions, they say, are often crafted at committee meetings in which minutes are hard to track down. Even trustee meetings sometimes note important issues like the recent tuition increase under a vague agenda heading the average reader is not likely to notice.
KCMO became the second city in the state of Missouri to ban the practice of conversion therapy or any other practices intended to change one’s sexual or gender identity on minors. The ordinance to ban the practice was passed unanimously through the city council.
Over 24 national organizations representing millions of medical and mental health care professionals have denounced conversion therapy, collectively stating that the practice has not been scientifically proven to change a person’s sexual or gender identity and that conversion therapy is dangerous. The practice makes LGBTQ+ youth eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to experience depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs, and three times more likely to be at a high risk of HIV and STDs.
Earlier this year, Troy Schulte announced he would retire as KCMO’s city manager. He served 10 years as the city’s top administrative office under former Mayors Mark Funkhouser and Sly James. Back in April, Schulte said, “If I can serve a role for whoever is elected mayor, I’m happy to consider it. I will say this: Whoever the mayor is has got to have a city manager that they can work with.” He didn’t name a reason for his departure, but the announcement of his pending retirement came about a month after Mayor Quinton Lucas took office.
Schulte was set to exit in February of 2020, but he left city hall a few months early. In December 2019, he was named Jackson County’s new county administrator. Schulte will likely be responsible for overseeing the process of building the new county jail, straightening out the declining courthouse building, and addressing the reassessment process.
Like we said, a lot of important stuff happened this year. We had a hard time narrowing it down to just 19 headlines, so here are a few of our honorable mentions:
- The Church of Scientology is getting an extremely high-thetan-level deal in Kansas City
- More than a year after passing regulations on Airbnb and other short-term rentals, KCMO is still not enforcing the ordinance
- With Great Plains SPCA’s sudden departure, what will happen to the second-largest animal shelter in the metro?
- North Kansas City may tear out protected bike lanes on $700K Armour Road project
- Mid-Continent Public Library board member believes ‘homosexual activists’ and ‘globalists’ are driving the library’s agenda