Archive for Thursday, August 5, 2004

Strategy behind federal Sunflower legislation puzzling

August 5, 2004

Two months ago, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole introduced an amendment to the 2005 Defense Authorization Act for Sen. Pat Roberts, which allows the Army to negotiate the sale of the 9,065-acre Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant to a developer the Johnson County Commission selects. The developer is surely the Kansas City real estate firm Kessinger/Hunter and Co., which helped craft the amendment's language with county and federal officials.

Roberts' office never released a press release on the amendment, something one of the senator's staff said it never did until a bill was ready for the president's signature. Although that wasn't the case with a measure ensuring the eventual transfer of 2,000 Sunflower acres to Johnson County, the explanation doesn't explain why neither Roberts' office or the county felt it necessary to inform Gov. Kathleen Sebelius or U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore -- whose district includes Sunflower -- to say nothing of the city of De Soto or citizens of the county.

Apparently, Johnson County commissioners were asked to keep the amendment confidential. The reason, one commissioner was told, was that the bill's authors didn't want it to become a vehicle that addressed other issues in the transfer, although the county once again made sure the amendment projected its parkland claim. Those other issues include such things as De Soto's claim to the water treatment plant at Sunflower.

The confidentiality seems fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the legislative process. Open discussion of legislation allows the public to influence legislation and correct flaws. And at first glance, the Sunflower amendment is indeed flawed. As one county commissioner stated, it leaves open the possibility Kessinger/Hunter has already been selected Sunflower's developer.

Making the offense of confidentiality worse, the County Commission voted July 1 to enter a "pre-development" agreement with Kessinger/Hunter before the amendment was exposed by civic activist Micheline Burger. It is inexcusable commissioners took that step without disclosing the existence of the legislation and any possible consequence on the pre-development agreement. As the transfer process moves forward, county residents can legitimately wonder what other deals have been arranged that it was thought best to keep secret.

A second flaw in the amendment is the provision that allows the Army to enter into a deal with Kessinger/Hunter "notwithstanding any provision of law." The all-important provision of law that is guiding the transfer now is federal early transfer legislation, which requires the governor of Kansas to sign a finding of suitability of early transfer. The finding is the stick Sebelius is using in her demand that any Sunflower transfer set aside substantial acreage for a life science research park.

The amendment's authors say it is only permissive. They say it benefits the county because it could remove it from any liability to the environmental cleanup of Sunflower associated with being in the chain of ownership. It is only to be used in association with a county side agreement with the developer and the governor's signature on a finding of suitability.

But a reading of the amendment indicates permissive means permitted, and there is motivation for the federal government and the developer to scuttle for a process that has delayed Sunflower's transfer for more than five years.

A few simple words could clear up the amendment's flaws. Perhaps, now that it has been made public, they will be included in final legislation. As for the Johnson County Commission, a rededication to open government seems to be in order.

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