Kansas City councilman’s relationship with KCI contract winner raises ethics concerns

·3 min read

The Kansas City Council needs to take a fresh look at its code of ethics.

That became clear last week as details emerged of Councilman Dan Fowler’s role in the committee that selected Vantage Airport Group for the concessions contract at Kansas City International Airport.

As we reported, one of Fowler’s key political advisors — Jason Parson, of Parson + Associates — is a major partner in the Vantage bid. In fact, Parson owns a part of the airport deal.

Fowler, a member of the selection committee, voted for the Vantage proposal. He and Parson insist there was no conflict of interest in the vote.

Wednesday, City Council member Katheryn Shields supported Fowler’s explanation. We all have friends, Shields said. If we can’t do business with people we know, nothing would get done.

That isn’t exactly how the city’s Municipal Officials and Officers Ethics Commission sees it.

Quietly, five members of the seven-person commission held a lengthy hearing on the potential Fowler conflict on Sept. 10. They heard Fowler’s defense, from him: that he last paid Parson in 2019, and he approached the airport deal “objectively.”

It wasn’t quite good enough for the ethics commission, which pointed out the obvious: The Fowler-Parson connection, and the airport concessions vote, look terrible.

“How do we know this person didn’t get a leg up or an opportunity that another person didn’t get?” asked commission member Carlose Estes. “I think the optics are what feel uncomfortable in this scenario.”

Commissioner Michelle Stark Kaufman agreed. “I’m not sure this is a case where we can say ‘yes, we’re confident that there was no special consideration given,’“ she said.

Even Fowler admitted the connection looks bad. “Is there an appearance of impropriety? I suppose one could think that,” he told the ethics commission. Well, yes.

Ethics commissioners agreed Fowler had not violated the city’s specific ordinance on conflicts of interest, which prohibits decisions based on relationships with spouses and families, or clear self-interest.

But they worried he had skirted to the edge of another part of the ethics code, which simply says, “No official or employee shall grant any special consideration, treatment or advantage to any citizen beyond that which is available to every other citizen.”

Did Vantage, or Parson, get “special consideration”? Kansas Citians should consider that question.

The commission voted unanimously to draft an advisory opinion pointing out their concerns about Fowler’s behavior. The city is still drafting that opinion, even as a vote nears on the Vantage contract.

We believe Fowler should recuse himself from a final vote on the Vantage agreement. Then he and his colleagues should consider adding to the ethics code by requiring recusal when a council member has significant political or financial ties to a contract bidder.

At minimum, those ties should be made public before any vote. As we know, the Vantage recommendation was made secretly.

These aren’t mere technicalities. Fowler was the only elected member of a committee that picked a company for a highly-sought multimillion-dollar airport contract. Fowler’s friend is part of the company he voted for.

Shields’ “everyone does it” excuse is not acceptable. Kansas Citians must have faith that contracts are handed out on merit, not on who you know at City Hall.

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