The November 6 charter proposal continues to generate interest among Kansas City voters. The City has indicated they want to bring it before the voters again. Neighborhood groups and individuals examining the charter proposal are realizing that it was, indeed, a flawed document. A continued interest in the charter proposal has prompted NAG, the Neighborhood Action Group, to review our concerns about that charter proposal.
Generally, our concerns center on the elimination of citizen protections and the imposing of unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on the right of citizens to be involved in their government. The primary function of a charter should be to place restrictions on the city government as a way of protecting its citizens. In that sense, it serves the same purpose as the federal constitution. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "... bind the rascals down with the chains of the constitution." A charter that fails to do so is not in the best interests of the citizens and is an inherently bad charter.
The primary concerns of NAG center on several key areas:
initiative petition process
residency requirement for mayoral candidates
payments in lieu of taxes
elimination of the bid process
elimination of eminent domain protections
Secondary concerns of NAG were procedural:
Exclusion of real neighborhood leaders in favor of the mayor's inner circle during the creation and review of the proposed charter.
Not allowing citizens to vote on individual items, choosing instead, an all or nothing vote.
Difficulty of obtaining copies of the proposed charter
1. The Initiative Petition Process
Initiative petitions are petitions that enable citizens to create laws by persuading their fellow citizens to place an issue on the ballot so it can be voted on by the citizenry as a whole. It is democracy in its purest form as well as being one of the basic tenets of our constitution, the right of free speech. The attitude of the city toward citizen involvement in government is demonstrated by declaring the charter election to be an emergency. By doing that, the city prevented any challenge (by petition or other process).
The proposed charter would have placed restrictions on the right to petition that would have essentially killed any possibility of a petition being created. It did so by:
Reducing the time a petitioner had to gather signatures
Forcing the petitioner to submit a petition for review by city attorneys
Requiring petition signatures be obtained from at least 4 districts
Allowing blocks of signatures to be thrown out because of a single minor discrepancy
2. Residency Requirements for Mayoral Candidates
Residency requirements are not inherently bad. It is the implementation, timing, and intent that cast suspicion on new residency requirements.
The proposed charter would have placed a requirement that a mayoral candidate be a resident of Kansas City for the 2 years immediately prior to the election. The requirement was to go into effect immediately. The practical effect of this rule would have been the elimination of potential candidates such as Alan Wheat. This is a convenient way for an office holder to eliminate a viable political opponent. Changes such as this should be made effective only after the current office holder leaves office.
3. Payments in Lieu of Taxes
Taxes should be levied only as prescribed by law or as voted on by the citizens. The city should be restrained from obtaining tax money in any other way, whether it is called a tax or some other name.
The proposed charter would allow the city to use, "Payment in Lieu of Taxes" as a means of collecting money. This term describes a process whereby the city can take up to 10% of the gross revenues of certain "Enterprise Funds". Enterprise Funds are funds that exist completely outside the city's normal budget process. Operations like the Water and Aviation Departments collect, and use, their revenue without it ever going into, or being disbursed from, the general revenues of the city. Prohibited by state law from taxing these entities, this "PILOT" scheme is an attempt to circumvent state law. This would effectively be a new tax on the water department (NOTE: federal law protects the Aviation Department from such action). Since the Water Department depends on the sale of water to citizens to run its day to day operations, they would have no way to replace the money taken by the city as "Payment in Lieu of Taxes" except to raise your water rates. Estimates of increases in water rates range from 10% to 15%. A city, so desperate for money that it needs special taxes for fire and police departments, will take the maximum 10% of the Water Department's gross revenue and leave the citizens with higher water bills.
NAG does not trust, and will oppose, a city that attempts to obtain revenue by circumventing state law. Neither do we trust any city that tries to disguise a tax as something other than what it is. This city knows that "Payments in Lieu of Taxes" will come from its citizens just like a tax. The citizens that voted against it also knew .
4 Elimination of the Bid Process
The proposed charter would eliminate the bid process in favor of - who knows what? Eliminating competitive bidding opens the door for back door deals and contracts going to campaign contributors, political friends, or other city hall cronies. This charter would have provided unrestricted opportunities for actions in the interest of a only few individuals. At the same time, it would hide from public scrutiny, a significant portion of the business of the city.
Competitive bidding is the best way to obtain the lowest costs from persons wishing to do business with the city, while allowing citizens to know how the city is managing their tax money.
5. Elimination of Citizen Protections Under the Right of Eminent Domain
Eminent domain was conceived as a tool that allowed governments to take property from its citizens to be used for the common good. Eminent domain has been commonly used to obtain rights of way for roads, public utilities, and the building of structures to be used by, or for, the citizens. Fire and police stations city halls, and courthouses are sometimes built on property obtained through eminent domain.
In the old charter, citizen protections were spelled out over 20 pages. Court challenges made some of the provisions in those 20 pages obsolete. Some were overturned by what is called "case law". Instead of correcting these sections, the city chose to replace them with - "nothing!" When asked what they would use to make decisions about eminent domain issues, they referred to a section at the front of the charter that says a city may make any law not specifically prohibited by the state. In other words, citizens were asked to vote for a blank page to be filled in later by a city hall crawling with developer's lawyers. (NOTE: Developer's lawyers acted as spokesman for the pro-charter proposal on the November 6 ballot.) The trend today is the condemn property for "a higher purpose", rather for the clear common good of the citizens.
NAG opposes the use of eminent domain to condemn property that is the turned over to developers for a "higher use".
NAG vigorously opposes the elimination of eminent domain sections from any charter proposal. If the current charter has flaws, correct them and explain them. Do not eliminate them and claim they will be replaced later. Faulty, or non-existent eminent domain statutes are simply a license for special interests and self-serving politicians to steal property from the citizens.
NAG continues to fight for the citizen's protections and their right to know.
a. The city continues to fail to obtain input from a genuine cross section of neighborhoods or neighborhood leaders. While it is comforting to have your ideas formulated and reviewed by persons and groups friendly to city hall, this process is an open invitation to defeat at the polls. An electorate, not involved in a process until after all the critical decisions are made, is naturally suspicious of that process. As this city is discovering, suspicion translates into "NO" votes.
NAG urges the city to involve genuine neighborhood leaders in issues before the final decisions are made. By the time citizens heard of the light rail and charter issues, all the important decisions had been made and citizen comments were useless. Change this and ballot issues should easily pass as citizens are unlikely to vote against something they helped create.
b. The misguided decision to put a charter proposal to a vote in such a way that the voter's choice was all or nothing was, and will continue to be, a huge mistake. It is the act of a city hall that believes citizens will take the easy way out and just vote for the issue. This is a blatant disregard for the intelligence of Kansas City voters.
NAG urges the city to obtain a new respect for Kansas City voters by letting them vote on changes of the magnitude of the charter on an item by item basis. The danger is that some parts may be rejected. The alternative is the entire issue may be rejected.
c. Copies of the proposed charter were hard to obtain, with city hall quoting $69 for a single copy. The people have a right to know what they are voting on. An informed electorate will make an informed choice at the polls. The city has an obligation to make information available to its citizens. This does not mean the city should spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a media blitz for the sole purpose of persuasion. It means the city makes basic documents readily available to the public, preferably 2 months before a vote is taken. One very simple and inexpensive way to make information available is to place a copy in one public library in each of the 6 districts. This idea has been suggested to city officials several times on different issues. Each time they declare it to be a "great" idea - and each time they do nothing.
NAG urges the city to make information readily available to Kansas City voters well ahead of an election. At a cost of $300,000 to conduct a city election, a few copies in the libraries is a pittance financially.
NAG will continue to be a champion of the people's rights and their right to know about government activities. NAG also champions the right of citizens to be involved in their government, without any approval by that government. These are fundamental rights and can only be taken from the people if the people allow it to happen. We urge all citizens to study, discuss, analyze, and understand the issues they are called upon to vote for. We believe in that way, you, the people will make the right decision and we will all be the better for it.