Kansas City’s Eternal Emergency
Kansas City leaders may aspire to be Portland or Denver, but their legislative actions make us more akin to third world dictatorships. Declaring emergencies to circumvent important legislative requirements is unacceptable. That it does so often and has for years is no salve.
On May 2, Kansas City’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard testimony on ordinance 130335, which would pay an engineering firm several million dollars for streetcar planning. It also declared an emergency. What is the emergency? When asked, Chairman Russ Johnson said, “If you look on the agenda you will see that numerous ordinances have an emergency clause on there. It is fairly routine to place an emergency clause on capital projects because it makes the ordinance become effective immediately rather than [after] a 10-day waiting period. The term emergency is in the Charter. Maybe that was the wrong term, maybe it should be some other type of term but the Charter authors use the term emergency.”
In other words, Johnson claims the word has no real meaning, it is just a term the city can slap on an ordinance to get past important legislative restrictions.
Johnson is partially correct. At least four other items on the agenda that day declared emergencies, and the city has been operating this way for years. It is also wrong.
Section 503 of the City Charter defines emergency ordinances: “An ordinance recognizing an emergency is an ordinance which in whole or in part falls within any of the following categories and is recognized in the ordinance as an emergency.” The categories are elections, expenses of government, appropriation of money, public improvements, inter-fund borrowing, and fixing interest rates. As a result, the city recognizes an emergency whenever it wants to dispense with the regular requirements of governing, such as multiple hearings, 10-day waiting periods, or a voter’s right to referenda.
The Charter has those requirements to protect voters and to serve as a check on legislative abuse. It allows for emergency legislation when there is, well, an actual emergency. The courts have upheld this view, saying that merely recognizing an emergency is not sufficient to dispense with the rules.
In Hatfield v. Meers, 402 S.W.2d 35 (Mo. App. K.C. 1966), the court ruled, “[T]he affixing of an emergency clause to a statute or ordinance does not, of itself, make it an emergency measure within the meaning of the law.” The court went further and offered an actual definition. “The word ’emergency’ has been defined as follows: ‘an unforeseen combination of circumstances which calls for immediate action’”
What about an engineering firm’s work on the streetcar project is unforeseen or needs immediate action? Nothing.
The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled similarly. In Padberg v. Ruse, 404 S.W.2d 161 (Mo. Banc 1966), the court rejected the notion that a Saint Louis County effort was an emergency just because the County Council said so. “There is nothing in the subject matter of either ordinance which even suggests an emergency. One transfers some employees to the Merit System. The other changes an office from elective to an appointed status. It is hard to imagine anything less emergency in nature.” Likewise, in Kansas City, nothing about these ordinances is an emergency. They were adopted incorrectly and the courts should strike them down.
Kansas City government has abused this provision so often and for so long that City Council members do not even recognize the abuse. Johnson says the term is merely a poor choice of words — as if those words have no bearing on his job. This is unacceptable and, frankly, embarrassing. Sloppy legislative work like this risks the important work the City Council has done on many issues. Anyone who petitions the court is likely to be granted an injunction against most everything passed in this manner, as they should.
Declaring an emergency because the City Council is impatient — or because it fears public input — is an affront to democracy and a return to Kansas City’s darker past.
Patrick Tuohey is the western Missouri field manager at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.