The Star is angry at being misled by KCMO’s Aviation Department, but that’s how it flies

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The Kansas City Star‘s editorial board sounded its unhappiness Tuesday with the Kansas City, Missouri, Aviation Department. The department that manages the city’s two airports got caught handing the daily paper an incomplete list of who receives free parking at Kansas City International Airport.

A September 11 editorial in the paper charged that the Aviation Department had no policy regarding the use of such passes and failed to monitor how they were used. It also called for an end to free KCI garage parking for local, state and federal officials. The editorial was predicated on a list, furnished to the paper by the Aviation Department, naming 29 local dignitaries who had access to the KCI parking passes.

The Show-Me Institute, a libertarian think tank, had requested the same information before the Star. The list given to Show-Me makes it clear that the Aviation Department duped the Star. The daily paper requested the information on September 4 and received a list on September 9 — one day after the Aviation Department removed five names from it.

But the department’s lack of forthrightness shouldn’t come as a shock.

The names scrubbed from the list of free-parking recipients given to the Star include some conspicuously undeserving figures. Among them: former Missouri House Speaker John Diehl and former Missouri Sen. Paul LeVota, who both resigned their posts this year after revelations of inappropriate behavior with Jefferson City interns. Also left off the list was John McGurk, a Polsinelli lawyer who retained access to his parking pass for a year after having left his position as chief of staff for Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James. None of the three now travel on official state or city business.

This is only the latest example of the Aviation Department’s pattern of obfuscation with the press and the public — a habit that seems to have gotten worse as the department has tried to rally public support for a new airport.

Last year, I reported extensively about the Aviation Department’s misleading case for a new KCI. One example: The Aviation Department had insisted that Environmental Protection Agency guidelines necessitated a major overhaul to KCI. The EPA, however, refuted the existence of the regulation the Aviation Department cited in its written materials given to the media. I also found that the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had no major environmental gripes with KCI.

The Aviation Department also proclaimed that there were major security deficiencies with KCI, only to later have a Transportation Security Administration official testify last year at City Hall that KCI’s current security outlay works fine. Yet, on a tour offered to new KCMO City Council members last month, Aviation Department Director Mark VanLoh continued to insist that security remained a concern at KCI.

During that same tour, Aviation Department officials said fewer than 15 percent of KCI users were from Kansas City, based on a survey that tracked zip codes of vehicles that had used airport parking. But that methodology leaves out passengers dropped off by family, friends, buses or livery.

And when the Aviation Department isn’t stretching reality, it seems eager to bury it. When city officials and airline representatives said in July that a new terminal was the preferred approach for the future of KCI, it made the case that building a new terminal was less expensive than renovating the existing terminals. But when pressed for numbers, department officials offered none. When a council member taking last month’s airport tour asked about cost estimates, again none were made available; city staffers said that perhaps some would surface by the end of the year.

It’s reasonable to want to know cost estimates for the city’s various choices with KCI. It’s also reasonable to wonder how, in a year’s time, it became less expensive to build a new terminal rather than to make renovations once again. After all, the mayor-appointed Airport Terminal Advisory Group last year acknowledged in its final report that a new terminal would cost more than renovations.

The Star’s experience with retrieving public records from the Aviation Department leaves me wondering whether it gave The Pitch incomplete information from a recent records request.

In August, this paper requested an accounting of travel costs for KCMO City Council members paid by the Aviation Department this year and last. The Aviation Department produced records of four trips it had funded for two council members. In May 2014, it paid former Councilman Russ Johnson for his trip to Seoul, South Korea, to attend the ACI Asia-Pacific/World Annual General Assembly Conference & Exhibition. The cost of that trip was $4,301. The Aviation Department also footed the $4,482 trip Johnson took to Kohala Coast, Hawaii, to attend the 28th Annual Aviation Issues Conference in January 2014. Johnson’s trip last April to New Orleans to attend the Airports Council International conference cost the department $1,300. The other listed trip was Councilman Jermaine Reed’s $2,092 journey to Atlanta, for another ACI conference, in August 2014. 

Were there more records for trips that we didn’t receive? With the Aviation Department, the question always lingers.

Questions about the Aviation Department’s trustworthiness isn’t a matter confined to bureaucrats and journalists. The public may get an opportunity to vote on bonds to support KCI’s future. If we’re having a difficult time taking the Aviation Department seriously, how will voters perceive it when such a campaign gets going?

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