Let’s begin closest to home, at City Hall, where the mayor of Kansas City, Sly James, has tried to erect a cone of silence around the plan to build a much-needed new airport terminal. Increasingly obsessed with leaks, he has threatened City Council members with ethics complaints if they reveal anything about the four competing plans before a decision has been made.
When you act like that, the public naturally starts to wonder what you’re hiding and for whose benefit. Sure, there are proprietary design aspects of the various plans, but do you not think, Mr. Mayor, that the public has a right to compare what the different options would look like and how their financing would work? If you’re so confident that your favorite is best, why not let it compete in the open?
Only when it’s too late to change anything will the plans be revealed and voters asked to approve a $1 billion project put together with zero public input.
The whole effort has been so hush-hush and insidery that you’d swear the mayor either has something to hide or has so little faith in voters that he initially believed a no-bid plan, misleadingly presented at the last possible minute, was the only way to get a new terminal built.
But process matters, and the mayor’s ongoing attempts to keep the public out of the loop has me rethinking that support and wondering what else we don’t know.
How are the various bids being evaluated? Why were we told that Burns & McDonnell was the only firm interested in the project when that was not the case? How does the mayor, who claims that only council members and Star reporters are concerned about any of this, not understand that Kansas Citians have every right to know their own business?
Why do we keep hearing that through private financing, the airport will be built “without spending any tax dollars” when that would also be the case with (less costly) public financing? It’s air travelers who will pay either way. (And George Brett, can you please stop suggesting otherwise in your disappointingly deceptive ad?)
Across the aisle and at the state level, another public official doing a very serviceable imitation of an aspiring autocrat is Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who ran on ethics reform but relies on dark money. Just last week, he wrote another “thank you” to a funder, the St. Louis pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts, by naming a company vice president to the University of Missouri Board of Curators.
In July, he awarded the company a no-bid contract to fight opioid addiction. Do you really believe, Governor, that accountability only requires sharing family news on Facebook?
Finally, at the national level we likewise have leaders acting as though transparency is for other people.
On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department has pursued three times as many leak investigations in the last six months as the Obama administration did in three years. And Obama’s team was so aggressive on that front that he was often, correctly in my view, accused of criminalizing journalism.
Most to blame for this general lack of transparency, however, are those partisans who see nothing wrong when it’s their guy who feels no need to answer to the public in between elections. Whatever we are willing to accept from our elected officials is exactly what we’ll get from them. And it’s past time to start expecting much, much more.