Sly James and City Council are targets of a streetcar-related ethics complaint (UPDATE: Sly James responds)

Citizens for Responsible Government filed an ethics complaint Friday against Kansas City Mayor Sly James and the rest of the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council, accusing them of steering public funds toward streetcar advocacy.

CFRG is an advocacy committee led by Dan Coffey, a Kansas City resident, who is also tied to Friends of KCI, which opposes single-terminal construction at Kansas City International Airport.

The complaint arises from an e-mail written by Twana Scott of Scott Hall & Associates that made the rounds last week. The e-mail solicits help to do “outreach” on the proposed streetcar extension from downtown to the University of Missouri-Kansas City as well as along Independence Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.

The offer would pay $10 an hour to knock on doors in neighborhoods that will vote on the streetcar in August and again in November, as well as meet with affected businesses and religious institutions. The e-mail says that the outreach isn’t meant to persuade prospective voters, but rather to provide basic information about the proposal and document a listener’s feedback.

Still, Coffey thinks the program amounts to advocacy.

“It’s taxpayer money to electioneer,” Coffey tells The Pitch.

Coffey’s suspicion is stoked by the outreach program being done on behalf of Burns & McDonnell. The engineering firm was awarded a $4.3 million contract in May to do analysis for the streetcar expansion. The contract drew criticism from Kansas City councilman Ed Ford, who questioned the expenditure before voters had weighed in on expanding the streetcar lines. Russ Johnson, a Kansas City councilman in favor of the streetcar expansion, replied that the streetcar probably will expand at some point in the future, even if the current proposal fails at the polls.

Part of the Burns & McDonnell contract includes $685,734 payable to a subcontractor called Parson & Associates, which is participating in the door-to-door outreach program in conjunction with Scott Hall & Associates.

Parson & Associates has been doing public relations on behalf of Kansas City Streetcar Constructors, the joint venture between Herzog Contracting Corp. and Stacy & Witbeck Inc. that’s building out the streetcar lines.

Julia Lorenz, senior strategic consultant for Burns & McDonnell, referred questions to city officials, who have not yet responded to requests for comment.

[Update, 3:48 p.m.] James’ office responded to the CFRG in an e-mail statement to the media on Monday afternoon. It’s republished below in its entirety.

“Like so much of what Citizens for Responsible Government (CFRG) says and does, this attempt to garner attention for their position is misleading, erroneous and just plain wrong. Burns and McDonnell hasn’t even started the work CFRG alleges is electioneering. Furthermore, the only role that Burns and McDonnell will play in this process is to help the city fulfill a federal requirement to incorporate an environmental assessment into the City’s streetcar expansion routes so that the City is eligible to receive federal funding. Such work does not amount to electioneering by any definition.

This assessment specifically targets disadvantaged populations, as defined by the federal government in Title VI of the National Environmental Policy Act. The goal of the Act is to provide equal opportunities for those communities to provide feedback on any topic of concern related to the streetcar project. If this assessment is not completed, then the City will no opportunity to receive federal funding. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity with the streetcar project and that means we must get it right by doing everything we can to receive matching federal dollars.

Burns and McDonnell is part of a team that completed the environmental assessment for the downtown streetcar starterline. That environmental assessment was the recipient of the FTA’s 2013 Outstanding Achievement Award for Excellence in Environmental Document Preparation and the starterline went on to receive a $20 million TIGER grant, the largest in the country and the only one for streetcar.

CFRG’s ethics complaint shows that either they don’t see the value in engaging residents from every socio-economic background in this critical infrastructure project or they know they are fighting a losing battle and have resorted to PR stunts. This is not the first time this group has engaged in such misleading tactics and I doubt it will be the last. Meanwhile, we will continue to work through the process to secure federal funding based on facts and data.”  

A report by the Kansas City Business Journal points out that people, not committees, must make ethics complaints. CFRG’s complaint is signed by Coffey, but the committee itself is listed as the party making the complaint.

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