Did Kansas City authorities roust signature-gathering activists from RiverFest?

Dan Coffey, a persistent critic of City Hall in Kansas City, lit up local news media e-mail inboxes on Monday with allegations that local authorities disrupted his effort to gather signatures for a petition initiative.

Coffey is the public face of a group called Citizens For Responsible Government. CFRG generally opposes the expenditure of taxpayer money on big-ticket items (think a revamp of Kansas City International Airport, the streetcar, etc.).

CFRG’s latest effort involves gathering signatures for a petition initiative that would ask the public to vote on whether Kansas City could leverage public subsidies for the proposed $311 million downtown convention hotel. The group has said it doesn’t oppose a convention hotel as a general idea, but doesn’t like the prospect of tax revenue funding roughly half the cost.

Coffey says his group showed up to RiverFest on July 4, where throngs of people were expected to show up to watch the annual fireworks show at Berkley Riverfront Park. The signature-gatherers, according to Coffey, set up camp outside the admission gate hoping to add to their signature tally. About 20 minutes later, Coffey said Kansas City Police Department officers told the petitioners to leave.

Coffey says the officers didn’t offer a reason, saying only that “they” wanted the petitioners to leave. Coffey adds that the officers didn’t expound on who “they” were. The park is public property, but the Port Authority of Kansas City, a public entity responsible for the park, leases the grounds to RiverFest for its Fourth of July fireworks show over the Missouri River.

Marissa Wamble, spokeswoman for the Port Authority, says nobody from her organization told the petitioners to leave.

“It’s my understanding that the event managers were getting complaints from people waiting to get in the gate so they were asked to leave,” Wamble tells The Pitch in an e-mail. 

When asked if she knew about the nature of the complaints, she replied, “I don’t. Just that they got ‘complaints.'”

An event manager for RiverFest was not immediately available for comment.

Coffey says he didn’t think CFRG did anything to warrant complaints. He says they merely requested signatures from RiverFest attendees, much as the group did two years ago at the same event, when it amassed a petition to forestall major changes to KCI or the Charles Wheeler Downtown Airport without a public vote.

Coffey implies in his e-mail to local media that political machinations led to his petitioners having to leave the RiverFest premises. He notes that the Port Authority’s commissioners are appointed by Kansas City Mayor Sly James, himself a strong supporter of the convention hotel.

James spokesman Michael Grimaldi has no information about Coffey’s claims. 

“I spoke with the mayor, and he has not discussed this with either the police department or the Port KC at any time before, during or after Riverfest,” Grimaldi says in an e-mail.

KCPD did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

[UPDATE] KCPD spokesman Tye Grant sent us this statement:

The promoters of the event had a city permit for the park as well as road closers. It was their decision since they controlled the area of this was permissible on property they controlled. They requested that the group attempting to collect signatures please conduct their activities off property. 

Kansas City leaders have made no secret of their lament that groups like CFRG can gather signatures with relative ease to pursue public votes on matters that may run contrary to City Hall’s wishes. Petition initiatives got significantly easier after the June 23 municipal elections, in which turnout was so low that petition initiatives require only about 1,700 votes to become valid, which is about half of the old standard. (Signature thresholds are based on how many people turn out to vote in the mayoral election.)

CFRG has been a thorn in the side of Kansas City’s political establishment. It was successful in getting the KCMO City Council to agree not to embark on a major KCI overhaul without the blessing of voters. And it has been critical of other City Hall-led endeavors. But CFRG’s information isn’t always reliable.

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