Tag Archives: Government ethics

Yes Wichita logo

For Wichita sales tax, concern over conflicts of interest

Supporters of a proposed sales tax in Wichita promise there will be no conflicts of interest when making spending decisions. That would be a welcome departure from present city practice.

"Yes Wichita" website.
“Yes Wichita” website.
In November Wichita voters will decide on a new one cent per dollar sales tax, part to be used for economic development, specifically job creation. “Yes Wichita” is a group that supports the sales tax. Language on its website reads: “Conflict-of-interest policies will prohibit anyone from participating in decisions in which there is any self-interest.” The page is addressing the economic development portion of the proposed sales tax. It’s part of an effort to persuade Wichita voters that millions in incentives will be granted based on merit instead of cronyism or the self-interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and committee members.

The problem is that while the city currently has in place laws regarding conflicts of interest, the city does not seem willing to observe them. If the proposed sales tax passes, what assurances do we have that the city will change its ways?

Following, from October 2013, is one illustration of Wichita city hall’s attitude towards conflicts of interest and more broadly, government ethics.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

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No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: The harm of cronyism, local and national

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 3

Wichita will soon select a new city attorney. There are a few questions we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Will the next city attorney advise council members to refrain from making decisions worth millions to their friends and significant campaign contributors?

Two years ago as the Wichita City Council prepared to handle the appeal of the award of a Wichita Eagle Appearance Matters editorialconstruction contract, the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)

The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned a short while later: There was Jeff Longwell district 5 2010unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.

On July 16, 2012 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.

It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas. Though legal, the timing of these contributions to Longwell’s campaign is indelicate.

Wichita logic Brewer fishingThe political influence of Key Construction and its partners extends beyond campaign contributions. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

Should the Wichita City Council have made the decision on the airport contract? City documents did not indicate whether the hearing was of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.'”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they were asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction should not have participated in the decision on the Wichita airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Question: Did the outgoing city attorney advise the mayor and council members on this topic? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client privilege. But a good question to ask city attorney candidates is how they would advise council members if another matter like this comes before the council.

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior

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When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
— P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
— Frederic Bastiat

Update: The council deferred this item to a later date.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Then the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

So there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Wichita city code ignored, on purpose

When a city has laws that it doesn’t enforce, what are citizens to do?

City of Wichita logo

Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law.

I wonder whose interests the city attorney represents. The people of Wichita, who want to be governed in a fair and ethical manner? It doesn’t seem so.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

To see the Wichita city attorney explain why this Wichita city code doesn’t have to be followed, see Wichita city government ethics workshop.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Wichita city government ethics workshop

When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.
— Frederic Bastiat

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On Tuesday November 19 the Wichita City Council held a workshop. Two of the three topics presented were state and city laws regarding ethics.

As far as I can tell, the upshot is that the Wichita city ethics code is crafted so poorly that it is without meaning. More on this issue is at Wichita city code seemingly ignored.

The video for the presentation on state ethics is here, and the presentation starts on page 37 of this document.

The video for the presentation on city ethics is here, and the presentation is here.

Curious Wichita ethics enigmas

Wichita City Hall

As he has done previously, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer decided not to vote on a matter involving Spirit Aerosystems at the November 5, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

The mayor didn’t give a reason for recusing himself, but it’s probably because he was formerly an employee at Spirit. So it’s good that he did this. But if we’re going to observe ethics protocols like this — and we should — let’s do them correctly. The mayor should have announced at the start of this item that he had to recuse himself, and then he should have left the bench and probably also the council chambers. Instead, Brewer presided over the presentation and discussion of the item, and then stated he wouldn’t be voting. It’s a small matter, but we might as well do things right.

What is much more important — and curious — is this: Brewer feels he can’t vote on an item involving a company where he was an employee. But, he has no such compunction about voting on matters that send taxpayer money to his fishing buddy, even via no-bid contracts.

Even more curious: Brewer thought it was ethical to vote to send taxpayer money to the movie theater owner who also sells his barbeque sauce.

Add to this confusing mix of ethical judgment calls: The mayor feels he can’t shop for his personal automobile in Wichita because he doesn’t want to be accused of getting a “special deal,” in his words.

If someone can explain this line of reasoning by the mayor and/or the city, I’d appreciate being enlightened.

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car or voting on matters concerning his former employer. But I’m surprised, as this concern for virtue doesn’t match the behavior of the mayor and many members of the Wichita City Council. Shall we run down the list?

Exhibit 1: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Exhibit 2: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Exhibit 3: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

Exhibit 4: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership, too. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters.

Really. It happened.

What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when voting on economic development incentives for his former employer, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office?

That he feels he needs to shop for a car outside the city, but at the same time has no problem voting for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

That he feels he can’t vote to give a tax break to his former employer, but votes to give millions to a campaign contributor, and then sells his barbeque sauce in that person’s business?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these decisions.

Cronyism and other problems in Wichita

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Someone asked for a collection of articles about cronyism and other problems with Wichita city government. Here are a few.

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others
The Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too. Article here.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of
Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Read here or watch video here.

Wichita City Council makes an economic decision
Last year the Wichita City Council was faced with a decision regarding a program designed to stimulate the sales of new homes. Analysis revealed that even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high return on investment, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment. What did the city council do? This video explains the decision the council faced. More information is at Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis and Wichita HOME program has negative consequences.

Fish, sauce, and the law: You make the call
Should Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer vote on an upcoming issue before the Wichita City Council? The City of Wichita code seems to say he should not vote, but the Wichita City Attorney says the law doesn’t apply. This short video explains the issues. For more on this issue, see Wichita city code seemingly ignored.

Where is the downtown Wichita tax base?
There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the goal of increasing the tax base is farther away rather than closer. Assessed value is falling despite hundreds of millions of public and private investment. Article here.

The speck and the logs
What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when shopping for his personal automobile, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office? Article here.

Wichita mayor said to be ‘under lockdown’
When Wichita ABC affiliate KAKE Television ran a news story critical of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, reporter Jared Cerullo wasn’t able to interview Brewer to get his reaction to his critics. The mayor refused to talk to Cerullo. Former KAKE news anchor Jeff Herndon said that KAKE has “repeatedly” tried to get an on-camera interview with Brewer. But the mayor is always busy, Herndon said: “They’ve got him on lockdown. He’s not going to answer that.” Article and audio here.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor
It’s worse than President Obama saying “You didn’t build that.” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer tells us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway. Article and video here.

Wichita: No such document
When asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made. Article here.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on public trust in government
If you ask Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to live up to the policies he himself promotes, you might be threatened with a lawsuit. Video here.

Is graft a problem in Wichita?
In his paper “History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America” Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat. Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita? Article here.

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned
When the Wichita City Council recently received the 2012 Project Downtown Annual Report, a city council member took the opportunity to question and clarify some of the facts and figures presented in the report. Article and video here.

In Wichita, Jeff Longwell has the solution to cronyism
At a recent Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was critical of topics broached by two speakers, admonishing them to “take a different approach.” Article and video here.

Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita
Candidates for Wichita City Council have filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas. Article here.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform
Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself. Article here.

Wichita WaterWalk apartment deal not good for citizens
In 2009, after DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, the Wichita Eagle reported: “‘I’m not going down to City Hall with my hand out,’ DeBoer said. ‘I can’t. The city has put their money in it, and I’m happy with that. We’ve put a lot of our own money in and that’s OK. Now, time to deliver.’” Leasing land worth $479,000 or $1,153,344 for one dollar per year: To me, that smells like a handout. It doesn’t sound like delivering on promises. Article here.

In Wichita, a problem with government ethics
I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas and explained the recent incidents that ought to cause Wichitans and Kansans to insist on reform regarding government ethics. Article and video here.

Wichita’s bailout culture
The Wichita City Council will consider a bailout of a real estate development. If the council takes this action, it is one more step in a series of bailouts granted by the city, and it sets up expectations that the city will continue bailouts, creating a severe climate of moral hazard. Article here.

In Wichita, pushing back against political cronyism
Usually, winning an election is a happy time. In most elections the winning side is happy because they elected a candidate to office who they feel has the better ideas. I’m glad we won. But my happiness is tempered by the realization that we simply prevented something bad from happening in Wichita. Article here.

No-bid contracts a problem in Wichita
Wichita Eagle reporting by Bill Wilson uncovers a problem with no-bid contracts for construction projects in Wichita. Fortunately, the city manager recognizes the problem and will propose a partial solution. Article here.

Kansas needs pay-to-play laws
In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements. Article here.

For Wichita city hall, ethics again an issue
Reports that the Wichita city manager’s fiancee is involved with a group seeking approval from the city for a project indicate that the city’s perspective on ethics could use reform. Article here.

Wichita TIF: Taxpayer-funded benefits to political players
It is now confirmed: In Wichita, tax increment financing (TIF) leads to taxpayer-funded waste that benefits those with political connections at city hall. Article here.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 18, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks shows his “Prezi” that illustrates the disregard for the law shown by Wichita’s mayor. Then, Bob walks viewers through a visualization that illustrates the unintended consequences of government intervention at the Wichita Airport. Finally, Bob introduces Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” which will be the topic of future episodes of WichitaLiberty.TV. Episode 9, broadcast August 18, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

More illumination of Wichita City Council ethics

Today on the Joseph Ashby Show, the host shines additional light on problems with the Wichita City Council.

Joseph Ashby Show, August 8, 2013 (excerpt).

Some background material:

Joseph Ashby on Wichita City Council

Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences

Wichita airport statistics: The visualization

Wichita Airport statistics: The video

Wichita Eagle: Wichita City Council rejects conservative blogger for airport advisory board

WE Blog: Peterjohn’s comment was inappropriate

Joseph Ashby Show: Upcoming Wichita City Council meeting

It will be a busy Tuesday in Wichita

Fish, sauce, and the law: You make the call

Joseph Ashby on Wichita City Council

Today on the Joseph Ashby Show, the host shines light on some problems with the Wichita City Council.

Joseph Ashby Show, August 7, 2013 (excerpt).

Some background material:

Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences

Wichita airport statistics: the visualization

Wichita Eagle: Wichita City Council rejects conservative blogger for airport advisory board

Joseph Ashby Show: Upcoming Wichita City Council meeting

It will be a busy Tuesday in Wichita

Fish, sauce, and the law: You make the call

Wichita’s evaluation of development team should be reconsidered

Dump truck carrying coinsIn an effort to avoid mistakes made in the past and inspire confidence in the process, parties wishing to receive economic development subsidies for projects in downtown Wichita are evaluated on a variety of measures. The evaluation matrix released for a project to be considered next week by the Wichita City Council, however, ought to be recalculated.

City documents describe one of two competing projects as this: “River Vista is proposed by River Vista LLC, a development group comprised of George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren.”

wichita-evaluation-matrix-2013-08

It’s this ownership team that ought to cause the city concern. Two of the evaluation criteria are “Past project experience with the City of Wichita” and “References, especially from other municipal partners.” This development team was awarded the maximum number of points possible for each (points being a positive measure). Here are a few things that the evaluation committee may not have considered when awarding these points.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Despite these two cost overruns on city projects, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote in a letter recommending Key Construction on a different matter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” Maybe that’s what the evaluation committee relied on.

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. This no-bid contract awarded to Key was cronyism in the extreme. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for an example of how Key Construction has mastered political cronyism.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

With the history of these parties working in public-private partnerships, the Wichita City Council needs to question the matrix delivered by the evaluation committee.

Could Wichita be the next Detroit?

That Detroit has declared bankruptcy: Does this mean anything for Wichita? From time to time we see news stories wondering if there is a parallel between these two cities — one known as Motor City, and the other as the Air Capital.

wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentration

The similarity is the concentrated nature of the economies of the two cities. Both have, as can be seen in the nearby chart, a greater percentage of jobs in manufacturing than does the United States as a whole.

Furthermore, when considering the dominant manufacturing industry in each city, we see that Wichita is more concentrated in aviation than Detroit is in automobiles. Much more concentrated, 13 percent to six percent.

Joseph Ashby on Wichita and Detroit.

On his radio show, Joseph Ashby talked about the business of making airplanes. He’s an aerospace engineer. The complexity of airplane manufacturing, he says, has protected the domestic industry from foreign competition. But that can change. I would say that change is likely.

Ashby also noted that our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive. He isn’t the first to wonder about this. In 2010 Alan Cobb wrote:

What can we do to prevent Wichita from falling into the hole that is Detroit?

A simple answer is to continue throwing money and other goodies to keep the aviation companies. A better answer is we need to get rid of the notion that our elected officials and others have so much forethought to know what will or won’t be successful in 20 or 50 years. They don’t. …

While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up. …

It‘s the classic example of the seen vs. the unseen. We see the new factory Pontiac builds. We don’t see the businesses that reduce their size, close or just move. The irony is we will still see the Pontiac factory after it is closed and boarded up.

For each tax dollar given to the auto industry, one is taken one away from entrepreneurs trying to create the next GM, Ford, Google or Apple. This may not be too bad the first time or the second time, but over years and decades, the results can be significant. The “next big thing” will be created in a state with a better tax and regulatory climate. (Detroit, corporate welfare and Wichita’s future)

This week the Sedgwick County Commission will be asked to make a forgivable loan — in essence, a grant of free money — to an aerospace company. The City of Wichita will likely be asked to do the same. The State of Kansas is probably offering additional business welfare, although the state won’t say. These actions increase the cost of business for the firms that we need to diversify our economy, and makes it more difficult for them to survive.

Here’s something else: Wichita has a lot of debt. Not Detroit levels, thankfully. But we can’t borrow even $30 million to build a new library without swelling debt ratios over acceptable limits.

How does Wichita have so much debt? Here’s an example. Recently the city spent $400,000 on a project to analyze aging fire stations with the aim of planning future projects. Fire stations are a long-lived capital asset, which is the type of asset and spending spending that is commonly financed with long-term debt. But an analysis to see if the spending is necessary and what type of spending is needed? This is current consumption and should not be paid for by long-term debt. Yet, the city paid for this with borrowed funds. This type of borrowing is common.

Finally, a big problem that contributed to Detroit’s problems is corruption. Wichita isn’t Detroit when it comes to corruption. But we could be headed that way. We have serious problems like overpriced no-bid contracts for the mayor’s fishing buddy, mysterious campaign contributions from a Michigan company involved in a large contract before the council, and a Methodist minister’s foray into real estate development and politics. We have city ordinances regarding ethics that seem to have a clear meaning, but the city attorney says they don’t apply.

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Notwithstanding these serious issues, it’s darkly comical to note this: Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer has voted several times to grant various forms of business welfare to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters. It still is, as of last week.

Are there no adults in the room?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 21, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks recommends the Crony Chronicals website and explains the harm of cronyism. Westar, our electric utility, is asking for a rate increase, and cronyism is part of the application. Finally, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer feels he can’t shop for his personal car in Wichita, but dishes out no-bid contracts and millions in subsidies to his cronies. Episode 5, broadcast July 21, 2013.

Concern over state office building decision politics

Speculation that politics might influence a decision over the location of State of Kansas offices is amusing, given that one of the players has a history of awarding campaign contributors and friends. Will he now advocate for keeping politics out of governmental decision-making?

When the State of Kansas said it is going to move offices from its downtown location, a local politician expressed concern to the Wichita Eagle:

“It raises a red flag,” says Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita). “I have a concern there is a history of the governor rewarding financial contributors with state contracts. I know he has contributors in Wichita that own (buildings) that fall into that category. … I don’t want that to be the reason we’re moving.”

In another Eagle article, Ward said his second priority is “to find out who owns the building where the departments may move ‘to make sure this isn’t going to help a political contributor.'”

I welcome Rep. Ward’s concern regarding politicians rewarding financial contributors with government contracts. Of course, he might have taken a moment to find out who actually owned the building before making charges of political payback.

It would be interesting to know if Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer shares Ward’s concern about political payback as he intervenes and tries to keep the state offices in their current location.

Will Brewer argue that the state should keep politics out of this decision? If so, this will be the same Carl Brewer who operates in this fashion:

Votes for no-bid overpriced contracts to political contributors: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions. Then Brewer was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to him and many other council members.

Sits in judgment of campaign contributors: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Recommends his cronies, even when they’ve harmed city finances: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” Despite the city’s experience with this company, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-small

Entangles business welfare and personal business: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership. Then when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theater.

Given this history, it’s difficult to imagine Brewer arguing that the office location decision should be made free from political considerations. His behavior — and that of some other council members as well — shows that making investments in Wichita politicians is highly lucrative.

This decision is being made in Topeka at the state level, not at Wichita City Hall. It’s still amusing, however, to see Rep. Ward express concern over political campaign contributions influencing Wichita government.

Wichita city code seemingly ignored

When a city has laws that it doesn’t enforce, what are citizens to do?

City of Wichita logo

Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law.

I wonder whose interests the city attorney represents. The people of Wichita, who want to be governed in a fair and ethical manner? It doesn’t seem so.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

The speck and the logs

car-lot-calls-cops-shopper-wichita-mayor

When Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer recently shopped for a car, it made the front page of the newspaper, and for a reason that doesn’t seem very newsworthy. Buried in the story, however, is a short passage that holds actual news. Carrie Rengers reports in the Wichita Eagle:

[Brewer] says he knows a lot of dealers in Wichita … but he says he has to be careful about trying to get a good deal while shopping in the city.

“I don’t want to be accused of getting any type of special deals or anything else,” he says. “You have that handful of people that’s always searching for some type of conspiracy.”

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car. But I’m surprised, as this concern for virtue doesn’t match the behavior of the mayor and many members of the Wichita City Council.

Do we need to run down the list?

Exhibit 1: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Exhibit 2: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Exhibit 3: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

Exhibit 4: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-small

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership, too. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters.

Really. It happened.

What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when shopping for his personal automobile, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office?

That he feels he needs to shop for a car outside the city, but at the same time has no problem voting for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

That he’s worried that a car dealer might feel he can gain something by giving the mayor a “special deal,” but votes to give millions to a campaign contributor, and then sells his barbeque sauce in that person’s business?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these two behaviors: Hyper-sensitivity to ethics when buying his personal car, as contrasted to total numbness to unethical cronyism that is against the law in some states and cities.

In Wichita, Jeff Longwell has the solution to cronyism

Wichita City Hall Sign

At a recent Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was critical of topics broached by two speakers, admonishing them to “take a different approach.”

The speakers had mentioned votes made and actions taken by the council and the appearance of influence or linkage to campaign contributions.

Longwell’s concern is understandable. As perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of cronyism on the council, he’s dished out millions in taxpayer subsidy to his significant campaign contributors. His acceptance of campaign contributions last summer from a Michigan construction company that had business before the council lifted cronyism to new heights.

After that, I thought that we wouldn’t ever see a more blatant instance of the appearance of impropriety. That is, until Mayor Carl Brewer started selling his barbeque sauce at a movie theater he’s voted to grant taxpayer subsidy to, several times.

These incidents are embarrassing for Wichita. So I can understand that Longwell doesn’t want them mentioned in public. I’m sure that’s what he would prefer.

That’s why it’s surprising that he would speak out at a council meeting. Why call additional attention to your bad behavior?

I think I know the answer: It is not possible to shame Longwell, Brewer, and most other council members. They believe their conduct is honest, forthright, and above reproach. They believe it is their critics who are harming the city’s reputation.

But in many cities, the routine practice of most Wichita City Council members would be a violation of the city’s ethics code, or even of city law. An example is from Westminster, Colorado. Its charter reads:

The acceptance or receipt by any Councillor or member of that Councillor’s immediate family, or an organization formed to support the candidacy of that Councillor, of any thing of value in excess of one-hundred dollars ($100) from any person, organization, or agent of such person or organization, shall create a conflict of interest with regard to that Councillor’s vote on any issue or matter coming before the Council involving a benefit to the contributing person, organization, or agent, unless such interests are merely incidental to an issue or question involving the common public good.

In commenting on this ordinance, CityEthics.org noted:

Westminster goes right to the heart of the matter — not the contribution itself, which is central to citizens’ expressions of their political preferences — but the effect of the other sort of contribution, the large contribution intended, possibly, not only to express a political preference (or not even, since often large contributions are given to both or all candidates by the same individual or entity), but also to influence the candidate.

If the contribution was not intended to influence the candidate, then the contributor won’t mind that the candidate cannot participate or vote on any matter dealing with the contributor’s interests. In addition, the candidate will not be placed in the position of appearing to favor someone who gave him or her a sizeable contribution or — and this is certainly possible if the candidate is truly independent — having to vote against a strong supporter. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, so long as there was no intent to influence.

In Wichita, we don’t have any laws or codes of ethics that prohibit or discourage what Westminster, Colorado does. We don’t even have many council members who think these are desirable.

Instead, the solution preferred by Wichita’s political class is to follow Jeff Longwell’s advice: Just don’t talk about it.

Troubling incidents involving Council Member Jeff Longwell

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, last summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Why should we in Wichita care if they do?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

When asked about the Michigan contributions, Longwell stated “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people,” according to the Wichita Eagle.

But analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found only three contributions totaling $1,500 from addresses outside Kansas.

From Michigan to Wichita’s Jeff Longwell: The campaign contributions

Two weeks ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)

The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned this week: There was unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.

It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas.

This is not the first time Jeff Longwell has placed the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of taxpayers. Last August the council, with Longwell’s vote, decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council, including Longwell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer funds to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to Longwell and other council members. Only one council member voted against this no-bid contract.

Later that year when citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge a taxpayer-funded giveaway to the special interests that fund his campaigns, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.” (Wichita Eagle, September 14, 2011)

After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” (Review & Outlook, March 6, 2012)

It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.

It’s all part of Longwell’s disregard for citizens in favor of his campaign contributors. In 2008 the city council, with Longwell approving, made a $6 million no-interest and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren. The contracts were not made available until just hours before the meeting where the loan was voted on. When a reporter asked about journalist and citizen access to these documents in a timely fashion, the reporter wrote “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier, Longwell said.” (Little time to review Warren loan terms, July 1, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

Companies Bill Warren controls contributed at least $7,500 to Longwell’s current campaign.

In 2011, when discussing signage policy at merchants that charge an extra community improvement district sales tax, Longwell said that including the specific add-on tax rate would be confusing to shoppers, because different CIDs may charge different add-on rates. Again, disregard for citizens.

Jeff Longwell defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well. We won’t create prosperity and jobs by over-spending on no-bid city contracts that provide out-size profits for Longwell’s political sponsors.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections?

Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws to reign in the practices of Jeff Longwell, Carl Brewer, and other city council members. For the good of our city and state, we must end the “pay-to-play” system of votes for political campaign contributions.

Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell

A campaign finance report filed by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell contains contributions from executives associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal.

Longwell is running for Sedgwick County Commission, District 3. He faces Karl Peterjohn in the August 7, 2012 Republican party primary.

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

These parties and dollar amounts appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance report filed on July 30, 2012:

John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Walbridge, $500
Terry Rakolta (apparent spouse of John Rakolta), $500
Vincent J. Deangelis, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Walbridge, $500
Ronald Hausman, Executive Vice President, Walbridge, $500
Ester Hausman (apparent spouse of Ronald Hausman), $500
Scott Penrod, Vice President, Walbridge, $250
Randy Abdallah, Senior Vice President, Walbridge, $250
Elizabeth Wasiniak, Walbridge, $250

The total is $3,250. The first two contributions were made on July 16, 2012, and the rest on July 20, 2012, according to Longwell’s campaign finance report. The Wichita city council handled the Key/Walbridge contract at its July 17, 2012 meeting.

Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members. Brewer and Key executives also travel together on fishing expeditions.

Timeline

February 24, 2012: Bids for new airport terminal opened. Dondlinger Hunt did not meet the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) contract goal for participation at the time of bid opening, as required by the bid documents. Dondlinger supplies additional information.

April 2, 2012: Wichita Airport Authority staff found Dondlinger Hunt bid insufficient to meet federal requirements.

May 31, 2012: Director of Airports, acting as reconsideration official, affirmed that Dondlinger Hunt bid is non-responsive.

June 22, 2012: Contract Compliance Officer for the City of Wichita also found Dondlinger Hunt bid to be non-responsive.

July 3, 2012: Board of Bids found Dondlinger Hunt bid to be non-responsive.

July 16, 2012: John Rakolta, Chairman and CEO of Walbridge, and Terry Rakolta contribute $1,000 to Jeff Longwell’s campaign.

July 17, 2012: Wichita City Council on 5 to 2 vote found Dondlinger Hunt bid to be non-responsive. Key/Walbridge is presumptive contract winner.

July 20, 2012: Other Walbridge executive contribute $2,250 to Jeff Longwell’s campaign.

July 30, 2012: Campaign finance report filed.

In Wichita, a problem with government ethics

Wichita and Kansas lag behind states like Illinois and New Jersey in laws regarding ethical behavior by elected officials. Last week Wichita saw a lesson in how Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test in government ethics. Besides Brewer, long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), as well as Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) have also displayed a callous disregard for ethical behavior by government officials.

Today I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas and explained the recent incidents that ought to cause Wichitans and Kansans to insist on reform regarding government ethics. Pay-to-play laws would be a good start. See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

For earlier reporting on this matter, see Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract, For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point, and Wichita fails ethics test.

Wichita fails ethics test

Yesterday Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test, showing that Wichita elected officials, except for one, aren’t interested in ethical behavior.

The problem is worse than portrayed in a Wichita Eagle editorial, which commented on the appearance of the mayor’s and council’s action. In Wichita, we don’t have the mere appearance of a problem, we have an actual and real problem.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the mayor and all members of the city council except for Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) don’t see that’s a problem for them to award no-bid contracts to campaign contributors. They also don’t see that it’s wrong to preside over a hearing in a quasi-judicial manner and award contracts to a campaign contributor. See For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point and Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract.

In some states and cities, the routine action of the mayor and council members would be illegal. It ought to be illegal in Kansas. There was no discussion from the council bench about this, and none in the executive session council members took.

Coincidentally, a group spoke during the public agenda portion of Tuesday’s council meeting about their concern for what they say is the corrupting influence of campaign money in politics.

None of the group stayed to observe the city council provide a lesson in how most of Wichita’s elected officials willfully ignore the issues the group is concerned with. From the bench Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke approvingly of the group’s cause. But last year Miller voted for a no-bid contract to be awarded to her campaign contributors, and she voted in Tuesday’s airport contract hearing.

The behavior of Mayor Brewer and most members of the council gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

An example of a pay-to-play law is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life — the Wichita way.

For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point

Tomorrow Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the Wichita City Council will make a decision that will let the city learn the ethics and character of its elected officials.

The issue is whether the mayor and five of six council members will decide to preside in a quasi-judicial matter over a case involving a major campaign contributor and personal friend. Now we know that the mayor has also intervened on behalf of Key Construction, recommending exclusively that the firm be hired for a construction project.

My reporting in Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract details the campaign contributions made by executives of Key Construction and their spouses.

On Sunday Bill Wilson of the Wichita Eagle reported on the letter Brewer sent to a retail store planning to build in Wichita. Key was the only construction company the mayor recommended. (Letter from mayor at center of construction bid controversy.)

Wichita has shown it is willing to disregard the taxpayer in order to award out-sized profits to Key Construction. The most recent scheme — which didn’t pan out for Key — had the council willing to overspend by $1.3 million through a no-bid contract planned for Key. Only the action of council members Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) prevented the award of the no-bid contract and saved Wichita taxpayers $1.3 million.

Despite this, Mayor Brewer wrote in his Key Construction recommendation letter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

But in February, Wilson of the Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Continuing, Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

With a record like this, we have to wonder why Mayor Brewer would recommend Key Construction. Besides the campaign contributions and fishing trips, that is.

The Wichita mayor’s behavior gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Until such laws are in place, it is up to the personal judgment and character of the mayor and each city council member who has accepted campaign funds from Key Construction to decide whether they should act as judge in a case where Key is a party and stands to benefit financially. The decisions they make will let us know the future course for government ethics in Wichita. They either take a stand for good government, or fall farther into the morass of political cronyism.

Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will conduct a hearing for review of the award of a contract for the construction of the new Wichita Airport terminal. But because of relationships between nearly all council members — especially Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — and one of the parties to the dispute, the city council should not participate in this decision.

The contract, worth about $100 million, was awarded to Dondlinger and Sons and its partner. Dondlinger has built many large projects, including INTRUST Bank Arena. But the city then ruled that Dondliger’s bid is “unresponsive.” The reason is that Dondlinger may not have met bid requirements regarding disadvantaged and minority business enterprises.

The firm next in line to receive the contract is Key Construction of Wichita. If the city council finds against Dondllinger, Key gets the contract, presumably. That’s the source of the problem the city council faces, as Key is heavily involved in politics, with its executives and their spouses often making the maximum allowed campaign contributions to nearly all members of the council. Personal relationships may play a role, too.

For the mayor and current council members, here is my tabulation of how much Key-associated persons made to each member’s most recent campaign:

Carl Brewer: $4,500
Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita): $4,000
Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita): $3,000
Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita): $2,500
Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita): $1,500
James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita): $1,000
Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): $0

Is there a pattern to these contributions? That is, does Key make contributions to candidates with a specific political philosophy, such as conservatism or liberalism? Of the top three contributors, two have distinctly liberal ideas about taxation and spending, while the other is touting conservative credentials as he campaigns for another office. Patterns like this suggest that the contributions are made to gain access to officeholders, or for favorable consideration when the donor asks the council to vote to give it money or contracts. Key Construction does that a lot.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The political influence of Key Construction extends beyond campaign contributions, too. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

These political investments have paid off for Key Construction, as it has received a number of no-bid contracts over the years. Last August the council decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted for the no-bid contract to Key Construction, although Mayor Carl Brewer was absent. It is likely that he would have voted with the majority, however.

Later the city decided to place the contract for bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price some $1.3 million less.

What citizens need to know is that the city council, except O’Donnell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million on a project awarded to a politically-connected construction firm.

So should the Wichita City Council make the decision on the airport contract? City documents don’t indicate whether Tuesday’s hearing is of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council is being asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.'”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they’re being asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction need to recuse themselves from Tuesday’s decision on the Wichita Airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Finally, this episode is another example of why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Kansas needs pay-to-play laws

In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates.

And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no common thread linking the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose political ideals they agree with. Instead, they’re donating so they can line their own pockets. These donors are opportunists.

As another example, for the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259 (Wichita public school district), my analysis found that 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms, and others who directly stand to benefit from school construction. Do these companies have an especially keen interest in the education of children? I don’t think so. They are interested in themselves.

Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. The law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500, requiring that these contracts be awarded by a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding.

Cities, too, are passing pay-to-pay laws. Notably, a recently-passed law in Dallas was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers who are generous with campaign contributions to almost all council members. Not that this is new to Wichita, as the city has often done this in the past.

Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life.

In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens. But many politicians don’t want campaign contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract without an open bidding process. The contractor the city wanted to give the contract to was Key Construction, a firm that actively makes political contributions to city council members, both conservative and liberal.

For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer.

Here’s what’s interesting: Brewer and city council members say the campaign contributions don’t affect their votes. Those who regularly make contributions say they don’t do it to influence the council. Therefore, it seems that there should be no opposition to a pay-to-play law in Wichita — or the entire state — like the one in Santa Ana.

But until we get such a law, I can understand how Wichita city council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to vote to give money to. It’s not about supporting political ideologies — liberal, moderate, or conservative. It’s about opportunists seeking money from government.

The practice stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow at the expense of taxpayers. Pay-to-play laws can help reverse these trends.

You may download a printable copy of this article at Kansas Needs Pay-to-Play Laws.

Wichita ethics kerfuffle quashed; lessons learned

On Friday the Wichita Eagle reported that the involvement of Wichita public relations consultant Beth King in a project seeking city approval was a problem for three members of the Wichita City Council. Not so, however, for the city manager, the mayor, and three other council members.

The crux of the problem is that King is engaged to be married to Wichita City Manager Robert Layton.

But now, as reported in the Wichita Eagle King will step down from her assignment of providing public relations support to the project. With that, the problem is solved, according to city hall standards. The story reports: “About an hour after King announced her resignation, Layton announced that all staff work and recommendations on the STAR bond proposal by GoodSports will be approved by Mayor Carl Brewer in an effort to enhance the project’s transparency.”

So now the issue is put to rest. What have we learned?

In a press release, on comments left on this site, and in personal email correspondence, King says that she has made changes to her business model based on her involvement with the city manager. That’s fine.

But King is not a government employee or elected official. She is not constrained by the special set of ethics rules that should apply to those working in government.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and manager Layton, however, are — or should be — constrained by ethics rules different from the private sector. And while Layton has come around — only after realizing that three city council members were concerned — Mayor Brewer still doesn’t see a problem.

That is the lesson Wichitans need to learn from this episode.

For Wichita city hall, ethics again an issue

Reports that the Wichita city manager’s fiancee is involved with a group seeking approval from the city for a project indicate that the city’s perspective on ethics could use reform.

Nearly two years ago Wichita public relations executive Beth King was involved with a group seeking tax increment financing from the city. At the time I met with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and expressed my concerns that since King was dating City Manager Robert Layton, there might be a conflict of interest. If not, then at least the appearance of that.

Brewer assured me that there were policies in place to guard against problems, and there was no need to be concerned. During the city council meeting where this issue was discussed, the manager did remove himself, saying that the assistant manager had handled the issue.

But evidently, the mayor’s policies haven’t worked, at least for some council members. According to Wichita Eagle reporting today, three council members believe King’s involvement in the current project is a problem, and the mayor was surprised to learn of King’s involvement.

Brewer and other city council members describe King’s roll as minor — just public relations — and therefore not a problem.

CityEthics.org has a model ethics code that cities and counties might adopt. It states: “An official or employee may not use his or her official position or office, or take or fail to take any action, or influence others to take or fail to take any action, in a manner which he or she knows, or has reason to believe, may result in a personal or financial benefit, not shared with a substantial segment of the city’s population, for any of the following persons or entities …”

Surprisingly, the code does not mention “fiancee” as a person to whom this code should apply. But I think common sense tells us that it should.

The Eagle article described Brewer as “disappointed that council members raised the issue to the media.” If the mayor is concerned that this issue is harming the reputation of the city, there is a solution: Act, Mr. Mayor, as though you are concerned. Establish clear ethics guidelines for the conduct of city employees.

Simply removing one’s self from discussion of, or involvement in, a particular issue isn’t sufficient remedy, however. Most people know where their boss’ interest lie.

Wichita city hall silent on handling of ethics issue

A correction has been noted in this article.

On Tuesday the Wichita city council will hold a public hearing regarding a request by Real Development for a $2.5 million increase in tax increment district financing. While this proposal should be opposed on its merits, there is reason to give extra scrutiny to this matter. That’s because Real Development employs the services of Wichita public relations executive Beth King. What matters to public policy is that last year she and Wichita City Manager Robert Layton began a dating relationship which continues to the present.

Documents released to me in response to a records request indicate that King is no mere publicist. Instead, it is apparent she plays an active role in negotiations between city staff and Real Development.

The mayor, city manager, and city staff have policies in place to control what is an obvious conflict of interest. The efficacy of these policies might be the subject of discussion and debate — except there is no discussion.

The Wichita Eagle has researched a story on this matter. Reporters interviewed the mayor, city council members, and government ethics experts. (The following sentence in this article is in error. Eagle newsroom management says research was never developed into a story. See here for more.) But Eagle newsroom management has squashed the story, citing the difficulty of drawing a line between public and private behavior. (The Eagle has mentioned the dating relationship and briefly described the city’s response as a small part of a story marking Layton’s first anniversary as Wichita city manager.)

The Eagle’s editorial board has not written on this issue, either.

The line between private and public life is difficult to draw, no doubt. But when a company actively represented by a person who is involved in a dating relationship with the city’s top executive is asking the city for millions in tax increment financing, the line has definitely been crossed.

There needs to be a public discussion of the city’s response to this matter. The people of Wichita need to know that the city believes the conflict of interest has been handled, and by what measures. We need to hear from experts — and regular citizens — as to whether these policies are an appropriate and effective response.

In a meeting with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Friday afternoon, I told him of my concern about the lack of public disclosure of the measures the city has taken. The mayor stressed several times that the manager’s private life is not a subject for public discussion, and I agree.

The mayor feels that by providing information to news media and having been interviewed, his obligation is fulfilled. That could be true if the management of the Wichita Eagle, our town’s only daily newspaper, printed the story that would let citizens know of the city’s policies regarding this matter.

But since that story is apparently not forthcoming from the Eagle, I feel that the city needs to come forward and tell citizens of the policies it instituted and why the city believes they are effective. It is not appropriate for the city manager to do this, since he is the subject of these policies. Instead, this is the job of the mayor, as he is the political head of the city.

Besides this issue there is another area of concern. King served as campaign manager for Mayor Brewer and Council Member Lavonta Williams. Should theses elected officials abstain from participating in a decision involving a client of their campaign manager? At the minimum, these relationships need to be disclosed.

In his first state of the city address, the mayor addressed government accountability, stating: “I’m talking about public trust in government.” Citizens become cynical, however, when they feel there is a group of insiders — commonly called the “good ol’ boy network” — who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. An obvious conflict of interest can’t simply be swept under the rug — as the city has done in this case — without fueling this cynicism. There’s a tension between widespread knowledge of this matter and the city’s refusal to deal with it in public. This is the case whether the city’s policies are an effective and appropriate response, or if they are not.