Tag Archives: Government ethics

Wichita city council campaign finance reform

Some citizen activists and Wichita city council members believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

On December 1, 2015 the Wichita City Council considered an ordinance regarding campaign finance for city elections. A Wichita Eagle article on the topic started with: “A proposed change in city ordinance would allow corporations, labor unions and political action committees to have a greater influence on Wichita politics. For years, city elections have remained insulated from the power of those groups, unlike national and state elections, because Wichita ordinance specifically forbids them from contributing to local campaigns.” 1

The city believed the proposed action was necessary to comply with recent court rulings. Under the proposed ordinance — which was passed by the council — corporations, labor unions, and political action committees would be able to make a single campaign contribution per election cycle of up to $500, the same limit as for individuals.

During the council meeting, citizens testified as to the terrible consequences should the council pass this ordinance. Here are a few excerpts taken from the minutes of the meeting:

  • “Citizens United has unleashed Frankenstein monsters purchasing our government with their pocket money.”

  • “Stated corruption and conflicts of interest have become institutionalized and what City legal counsel suggests will sell the Council and the City of Wichita to the highest bidder.”

  • “Stated according to a lengthy report last week, by the Pew Research Center, across party lines people are distrustful and concerned about big money in politics.”

  • “Stated big money does not donate, it invests and buys democracy. Stated she is asking the City Council to keep big money out of the City Council elections.”

  • “Allowing big money into City elections is a concern.”

  • “Stated the City has been independent and has a freedom from influence that the state and the nation do not enjoy. Stated you will then be under the thumb of people who want to control you. which is scary to those of them who are highly opposed to this situation and hopes that the Council will think of them and how this vote will benefit them.”

  • “Stated the League [of Women Voters] has studied campaign finance over the years at all three levels. Stated they are currently involved in the study of money and politics and their position currently reads that they want to improve the methods of financing political campaigns in order to ensure the public’s right to know and combat corruption and undue influence, which is their biggest concern.”

In its reporting after the meeting, the Eagle reported more concern: 2

But those who oppose the measure said they were concerned about opening up local elections to party-affiliated groups like PACs and about transparency since PACs do not have to report their individual donors.

“Individuals should decide elections, not corporations,” Frye said.

Several members of the public spoke against the changes.

“People in the shadows are going to be pulling your strings,” said Russ Pataki.

“It’s very worrisome what big money has done to state and national politics. The city has been independent (of that),” said Lynn Stephan to the council before the vote. “You have a freedom from influence the state and nation don’t enjoy.”

So, people are concerned about the corrupting influence of political campaign donations from corporations and political action committees. Citizens — and the Wichita Eagle — believe that currently the city council is free from this influence.

But the reality of city council campaign financing is different.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
In my testimony at the December 1 meeting, I explained that there are a few corporations that stack campaign contributions in a way that circumvents prohibitions. Although I did not mention it at the meeting, sometimes campaign finance reporting laws allowed this to happen without disclosure until after relevant action had happened. To illustrate, here is a timeline of events involving just one company and its campaign contributions.

2008 and 2009
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $3,000.

2010 and 2011
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Carl Brewer campaign, totaling $4,000. Brewer was Wichita mayor running for re-election in 2011.

Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign, totaling $4,000.

2012
The City of Wichita is preparing to build a new airport terminal with a cost of around $100 million. Key Construction and Dondlinger and Sons Construction are two bidders. The contract is controversial. Dondlinger submitted a lower bid than Key, but it was alleged that Dondlinger’s bid did not meet certain requirements.

January 24, 2012
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the James Clendenin campaign, totaling $3,000.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
April 2, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, totaling $4,000. At the time, Longwell was a Wichita city council member.

April 17, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $4,000.

July 16, 2012
An executive of a Michigan construction company and his wife contribute $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for county commission. The company, Walbridge, is partnering with Wichita-based Key Construction to bid on the Wichita airport terminal contract.3

July 17, 2012
The Wichita city council votes in favor of Key Construction and Walbridge on a dispute over the airport terminal contract, adding over $2 million to its cost. Brewer, Longwell, Williams, and Clendenin participated in the meeting and voted. City documents state the job of the council this day was to determine whether the staff who made the decision in favor of Key Construction “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.”4

July 20, 2012
An additional $2,250 in contributions from Walbridge executives to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission campaign is reported.

January 2013
Williams and Clendenin file campaign finance reports for the calendar year 2012. This is the first opportunity to learn of the campaign contributions from Key Construction executives and their spouses during 2012. For Williams, the Key Construction-related contributions were the only contributions received for the year. Clendenin received contributions from Key Construction-related individuals and parties associated with one other company during the year.

Is there a pattern? Yes. Key Construction uses its executives and their spouses to stack individual contributions, thereby bypassing the prohibition on campaign contributions from corporations. This has been going on for some time. It is exactly the type of corrupting influence that citizens are worried about. It has been taking place right under their eyes, if they knew how or cared to look. And Key Construction is not the only company to engage in this practice.

Just to summarize: The Wichita city council was charged to decide whether city officials had “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.” That sounds almost like a judicial responsibility. How much confidence should we have in the justice of a decision if a majority of the judges have taken multiple campaign contributions from executives (and their spouses) of one of the parties?

In some ways, it is understandable that citizens might not be aware of this campaign contribution stacking. The campaign finance reports that council members file don’t contain the name of contributors’ employers. It takes a bit of investigation to uncover the linkage between contributors and the corporations that employ them. For citizens, that might be considered beyond the call of duty. But we should expect better from organizations like the League of Women Voters.

Certainly there is no excuse for the Wichita Eagle to miss or avoid things like this. Even worse, it is disgraceful that the Eagle would deny the problem, as it did in its November 23 article quoted above.

In summary, some citizen activists — most council members, too — believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

Political campaign contributions are a form of speech and should not be regulated. What we need are so-called pay-to-play laws, which regulate the linkage between campaign contributions and council member participation in matters that benefit donors.5

Either that, or we need council members with sufficient character to recognize when they should refrain from voting on a matter.


Notes

  1. Ryan. Kelsey. Wichita City Council considers changes to campaign finance, salaries. Wichita Eagle, November 23, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article45993895.html.
  2. Ryan, Kelsey. Wichita council votes to change local campaign finance law, raise council salaries. Wichita Eagle, December 1, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article47329045.html.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/.
  4. Wichita City Council agenda packet for July 17, 2012.
  5. Weeks, Bob. *Kansas needs pay-to-play laws.” Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/kansas-needs-pay-to-play-laws/.

Exchange Place incentives, including free sales tax and an ethics bypass

A downtown Wichita project receives free sales taxes and a bypass of Wichita’s code of conduct for city council members. Remarks to the Wichita City Council, March 3, 2015.

Regarding the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita, I’d like to remind the council of the entire subsidy package offered to the project.

There are historic preservation tax credits, which may amount to 25 percent of the project cost. These credits have the same economic impact as a cash payment, and their cost must be born by taxpayers.

There is $12.5 million in tax increment financing, which re-routes future property tax revenues back to the project for the benefit of its owners. Most everyone else pays property taxes in order to pay for government, not for things that benefit themselves exclusively, or nearly so.

There is a federal loan guarantee, which places the federal taxpayer on the hook if this project isn’t successful.

The owner of this project also seeks to avoid paying sales taxes on the purchase of materials. City documents don’t say how much this sales tax forgiveness might be worth, but it easily could be several million dollars.

Mayor and council, if it in fact is truly necessary to layer on these incentives in order to do a project in downtown Wichita, I think we need to ask: Why? Why is it so difficult to do a project in downtown Wichita?

Other speakers will probably tell you that rehabilitating historic buildings is expensive. If so, working on historic buildings is a choice they make. They, and their tenants, ought to pay the cost. It’s a lifestyle choice, and nothing more than that.

But I’m really troubled about the sales tax exemption. Just a few months ago our civic leaders, including this council, recommended that Wichitans add more to our sales tax burden in order to pay for a variety of things.

Only 14 states apply sales tax to food purchased at grocery stores for home consumption, and Kansas has the second-highest statewide rate. So we in Kansas, and Wichita by extension, require low-income families to pay sales tax on their groceries. But today this council is considering granting an exemption from paying these taxes that nearly everyone else has to pay.

These tax subsidies are not popular with voters. Last year when Kansas Policy Institute surveyed Wichita voters, it found that only 34 percent agreed with the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. Then, of course, there is the result of the November sales tax election.

Might I also remind the people of Wichita that some of their taxpayer-funded subsidies are earmarked to fund a bailout for a politically-connected construction company for work done on a different project, one not related to Exchange Place except through having common ownership in the past? I don’t think it is good public policy for this city to act as collection agent for a private debt that has been difficult to collect.

This project is slated to receive many million in taxpayer-funded subsidy. Now this council proposes to wave a magic wand and eliminate the cost of sales tax for its owners. People notice this arbitrary application of the burden of taxation. They see certain people treated differently under the law, rather than all being treated equally under the law. People don’t like this. It breeds distrust in government. This council can help restore some of this trust by not issuing the Industrial Revenue Bonds and the accompanying sales tax exemption.

The ethics problem for the city

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with friend and major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with friend and major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Today Brewer voted for benefits for Wells, in apparent contradiction of city code.
Although I did not mention this to the council, Mayor Carl Brewer should not have voted on this matter. The politically-connected construction company that benefits from this deal through a taxpayer-funded bailout Key Construction. Its president, Dave Wells, is a friend of the mayor, as well as frequent and heavy campaign financier for the mayor and other council members.

This is a problem, as there is a law in Wichita. Here’s an excerpt from Section 2.04.050 Code of ethics for council members from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

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

Dave Wells and Carl Brewer are friends. The mayor has said so. But the City of Wichita’s official position is that Section 2.04.050 does not need to be followed. Even children can see that elected officials should not vote economic benefits for their friends — but not the City of Wichita.

The odd ethics of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer

The Wichita city council should repeal a law that the council doesn’t follow.

As he has done previously, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer decided not to vote on a matter involving Spirit Aerosystems at the November 4, 2014 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

The mayor didn’t give a specific 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 go all the way. The mayor should have announced at the start of this agenda 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 equally difficult to understand — is this: Brewer feels he can’t vote on an item involving a company where he was an employee long ago, but he has no qualms about voting on matters that send taxpayer money to his fishing buddy, even through overpriced 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 this to the confusing mix of ethical judgments: 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 Mayor Carl Brewer 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 and other business ventures 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.

Exhibit 5: Given all this, Mayor Brewer saw it fit to praise Wells and Burk at the city council meeting on December 16, 3014. Effusively praise the two, that is. Also, Bill Warren –the owner of the movie theater that sells the mayor’s barbeque sauce — is a partner in this apartment project.

Really. All this 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?

How can a person decide he must shop for a car outside the city, but votes for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

Why would an elected official decline to vote on 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?

How can someone justify participating in a quasi-judicial hearing involving his campaign contributors and friend involving a large city contract?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these decisions.

We have a law, maybe

Presentation by city attorney to Wichita city council, November 2013.
Presentation by city attorney to Wichita city council, November 2013.
There is a law in Wichita. There is a city code that reads “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” Mayor Brewer voted for that law in 2008. But the former city attorney felt that council members did not need to follow that law.

When someone called attention to this law at a city council meeting when the mayor was about to award incentives to his fishing buddy, he threatened to sue the speaker. See Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on public trust in government.

If the former city attorney’s interpretation of this law is correct and city council members do no need to follow this law, the city needs to do something. The council needs to repeal this section of the city code. There’s no need to have such a law if council members don’t have to obey. Also, 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. But giving that impression would be false.

Will the next Wichita mayor advocate enforcing our ethics laws?

Wichita has laws that seem clear. But the city attorney said they don’t mean what they seem to say. Will our next mayor stand up for ethics?

Wichita has a city code that seems to give guidance to council members (the mayor is a council member) on ethical behavior. The code says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

But Mayor Carl Brewer and many council members have done just that. Many times, in fact. And the Wichita city attorney said that the city code doesn’t really need to be followed.

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

Following, from July 2013, what Wichita city code says and what the city attorney said about that law. We have a new city attorney this year, so maybe things will change. But I have a feeling that change must be started from the top, which is the mayor. The city attorney, indirectly, works for the mayor and council.

Wichita city code seemingly ignored

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

City of Wichita logoHere’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, though, 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.

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.”

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: 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.

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

city-council-chambers-sign-b

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, though, 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

city-council-chambers-sign-small

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 HallAs 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

city-council-chambers-sign-mediumSomeone 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.

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.

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.