Government funds promoting downtown Wichita arena

… it is our opinion that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate the position of a governing body on a matter which is before the electorate. However, this does not mean that public funds may not be expended to educate and inform the electorate.

That’s the opinion of the Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan from 1993. In this opinion, the Attorney General cited this court opinion:

It would be establishing a dangerous and untenable precedent to permit the government or any agency thereof, to use public funds to disseminate propaganda in favor of or against any issue or candidate. This may be done by totalitarian, dictatorial, or autocratic governments but it cannot be tolerated, directly or indirectly, in these democratic United States of America. This is true even if the position advocated is believed to be in the best interest of our country. To educate, inform, to advocate or promote voting on any issue may be undertaken, provided it is not to persuade nor to convey favoritism, partisanship, partiality, approval or disapproval . . . of any issue, worthy as it may be.

Now, look back at the actions of our elected government leaders in the months leading up to the November 2004 election.

Were they presenting educational material about the benefits of a new arena? Were they promoting an open and honest debate of a new arena’s merits?

Or were they cheerleading and advocating for the arena, using their offices and government resources?

I submit that our local governments, our elected officials, and their quasi-governmental surrogates were working in full force for the passage of the arena and its tax.

That’s not just my opinion. Others noticed it too.

An editorial by Phillip Brownlee, published in the Wichita Eagle on September 5, 2004, read in part: “If the plan is to pass, city and county elected officials — supported by business leaders — must continue their strong leadership and high-profile support for the arena.”

After the election, another Wichita Eagle editorial by Rhonda Holman published on November 4, 2004 stated in part: “What made the difference this time, in addition to the effective marketing campaign and all those pennant yard signs, was the unified show of political will on the part of Wichita and Sedgwick County officials. Their willingness to declare the need for such a facility, then argue for raising taxes to meet that need, helped attract necessary support from the businesses that backed the campaign, and finally from voters asked to pay for the arena with a 30-month, 1-percent sales-tax increase.”

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, led by its president Ed Wolverton, was a prominent booster for the arena. Do you know where this organization receives its funds? It is funded through property taxes and its contract with the City of Wichita. Other taxpayer funded institutions, such as the Greater Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, the Hyatt Regency Wichita, and even the Kansas Turnpike Authority contributed money or in-kind resources to the pro-arena Vote Yea campaign, and most of these institutions campaigned for the arena, too.

In a television story about Wichita city manager George Kolb, the reporter said: “Some things Kolb says he filled the council in on were … helping get the downtown arena passed.” The clear meaning of this is that city manager Kolb was proud of how he and the Wichita city council worked to help pass the downtown arena tax. Now if Mr. Kolb had talked about how he helped educate the electorate on the issues surrounding the arena tax ballot measure, that would be acceptable. Instead, he and other government leaders are proud of how they worked to ensure passage of the arena tax. That behavior is contrary to how the Kansas Attorney General said they should act.

I asked our District Attorney to look into this issue of government advocacy for the arena. That office decided, even in light of all this and more evidence, that there was no wrongdoing by our leaders.

Does this seem a correct conclusion by the district attorney, in light of these facts about the behavior of our local government officials?

Were local government officials, especially the Sedgwick County Commission, presenting educational material, or were they campaigning for the arena?

I believe the only conclusion we can make is that they were all campaigning — and campaigning vigorously — for the arena, in spite of what Kansas Attorney General Opinion 93-125 says is acceptable behavior for government officials and the expenditure of public funds.


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