Westwood residents told to drop lawsuit threats against opponents of park plan

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some people who live in Westwood Kansas are upset with plans to convert a park into office space and they were hoping to force a public vote. But when they questioned whether Westwood was following Kansas statute, the city threatened to sue them.

Now the Kansas Justice Institute says the resident’s first amendment rights are being violated. But Friday the city echoed its responsibility to defend its contractual relationships.

People were playing with their dogs Friday at the one acre space at 50th and Rainbow that also features a playground, tennis court and fountain. It’s all part of Westwood Park named after Joe D. Dennis, Mayor of the city back in 1973.

Residents who hired an attorney notified the city October 12 under Kansas statute 12-1301 cities have to publish plans to sell park land and allow 30 days for petitioners to force an election.

But the city responded saying the land wasn’t originally purchased with the intent to commit to its present use of a park, never levied a park tax and it was never “dedicated.” Therefore in the cease and desist letter the park was really never a public park pursuant to the Kansas statute.

But it’s other sections of the city’s response to the residents’ attorney that caught the attention of the Kansas Justice Institute.

It’s highly unusual that a city official or government would threaten a lawsuit for basically raising objections for the sale of a city park. It’s in our mind unheard of,” Kansas Justice Institute Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts said.

The letter said the city was prepared to take legal action against the attorney and his clients and pursue legal claims for slander of title. Their attorney said residents have since dropped their objection for fear of being sued.

The Kansas Justice Institute calls it bad precedent and is demanding the city drop the legal threat.

“It makes it incredibly difficult to feel comfortable objecting to the government when the response is the threat of a lawsuit,” MacRoberts said.

Asked about the Kansas Justice Institute’s letter, the City of Westwood responded Friday, “The City of Westwood has received the referenced letter, and is in the process of reviewing it. At this time, the City does not have any further comment thereon. To be sure, the City does feel a responsibility to defend its processes and its contractual relationships, and also the wishes of the majority of Westwood residents, which were initially threatened to be subjected to legal action through legal counsel on behalf of individuals still unknown to the City.

The Westwood City Council and Planning Commission have always welcomed good-faith questions, comments, concerns, feedback, and resident input, and over the last nine months, all of it was instrumental in making the new development and City park project the very best it could be.  Throughout the process, plans were changed and improved to address most if not all concerns raised.

The City also accepted a “protest petition” requiring a supermajority vote of the City Council for approval, which supermajority vote was met.

The City is excited to have recently announced the creation of a Park Planning Steering Committee which will help select a professional park design partner, solicit and provide input on the park features most desired by the community, and otherwise guide the fun work of visioning a much larger, safer, and usable city park.”

Rezoning of the property was approved 5-1 in October. Sale of the park is set to be completed January 4. The Kansas Justice Institute said it hopes the threats of a city lawsuit against residents is dropped before then.