Citizens For Responsible Government claims in lawsuit that Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance violated open records laws

The Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance appears to be forming plans to expand the as-of-yet unopened streetcar line south of downtown, but hasn’t shared those details broadly. 

Citizens For Responsible Government, a local watchdog group, asked to see those plans under the auspices of the Missouri Sunshine Law, which generally makes public documents available to anyone who asks for them. 

The KCRTA, however, rebuffed CFRG, saying the transit advocacy group is a private nonprofit and not subject to open records laws.

Now it’s up to the court’s to decide. CFRG on Thursday filed a lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court alleging that the KCRTA received enough public funding that it qualifies as a quasi-governmental agency, and thus is subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law. CFRG claims KCRTA violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by denying the group access to documents pertaining to KCRTA’s streetcar expansion plans.

CFRG is represented by Lee’s Summit attorney Jeff Carey.

Rob Pitkin, general counsel for KCRTA, says in a statement that the organization denies CFRG’s claims.

KCRTA is a private nonprofit corporation that is not subject to the Sunshine Law,” Pitkin says in an e-mail to The Pitch [emphasis his]. “We are confident we will prevail in this lawsuit.”

A judge will have to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong. Some organizations that receive government funding are indeed subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law. Those include the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City and VisitKC, among many others. Whether KCRTA qualifies is central to CFRG’s lawsuit.

CRFG’s lawsuit says KCRTA gets much of its funding from Kansas City and other political subdivisions. For example, City Hall paid KCRTA $25,000 in membership dues in 2015. In 2012, it received more than $100,000 from Kansas City taxpayers.

In February, American Public Square held a forum to discuss the streetcar at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch. The forum’s panel included KCRTA vice chairman David Johnson and the Show-Me Institute’s Patrick Tuohey. During the forum, Tuohey pressed Johnson about KCRTA’s plan, which Johnson characterized as mostly financial information. Tuohey asked a couple times whether Johnson was willing to release those plans, which Johnson declined to do.

All of which begs the question of whether it’s easier to disclose plans to a public that will underwrite this major municipal capital project. In this case, the answer may well arrive in a courtroom.

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