Tag Archives: Kevass Harding

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In Wichita, the need 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.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

  • The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
  • A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
  • The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
  • Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
  • When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
  • A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “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.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
  • The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.

Third, 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?

Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?

Wichita's mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
Wichita’s mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita 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.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

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

Some incidents

warren-bailout-poses-dilemmaIn 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to 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.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.
Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

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.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
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.

Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff 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? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

Michigan contractors headline 500These 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.

Jeff Longwell vote to help Michigan CompanyThen 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.

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?

Wichita school board reacts to criticism

apple-wormIn the following video, USD 259 (Wichita public school district) board member Betty Arnold reacts to concerns that citizens expressed at a recent meeting.

It’s common that citizens who disagree with governmental agencies — especially the Wichita school board — are told that they have the wrong information, or that they simply don’t understand the complexities of running government.

A few years ago when board members dismissed the input of an elected official because he disagreed with the board, I wrote in my coverage: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.

When she was board president and citizens disagreed with action the board was considering, Arnold admonished the audience: “This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public. And I hope you understand that.”

If a citizen should want to address the board, they’ll receive a stern reminder of the time limit for speaking. This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures. We’ll probably see this soon as two board members end their terms. Two years ago, while strictly regulating the time of an elected official to address the board, the board found time in the same meeting to make a lengthy “goodbye” to departing board member Kevass Harding. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.

But when citizens and even elected officials and community leaders speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.

Wichitans have choices; perhaps not information

The Wichita Eagle publishes a voter guide before each election. While this is a useful civic service, readers of the newspaper might wonder what is the point of allowing candidates to make statements and claims without being held accountable.

Here are two examples of candidates responding to the question “Assess the city’s success in downtown revitalization so far. How do you see that role evolving in the future?”

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) responded as follows:

The trend in downtown redevelopment is showing a definite payoff in private investment exceeding $250 million since 2009. People are moving downtown and more private developers are starting projects in the area all of the time. I think that the city will still need to play a role in assuring that infrastructure, especially public green spaces and strategically placed parking, is in place so that private development can be attracted.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) answered this way:

Wichita adopted its Downtown Master Plan in 2010 following an 18-month process involving input from several thousand Wichitans. Since the plan’s adoption, there has been a growing confidence in downtown development, which has resulted in more than $150 million in private investment. The City’s role will be to continue to foster private investment supported by public infrastructure improvements where needed.

Both incumbent candidates claim a large investment in downtown Wichita. Although they didn’t make this claim in these answers, it’s usually claimed that the taxpayer investment in downtown pays off in the form of increased tax revenues. This is the cost-benefit analysis that the city relies on and uses to justify taxpayer investment in projects.

 Wichita Downtown Self-supporting Municipal Improvement District SSMID Assessed Valuation 2013-02 b

But evidence of a payoff for the taxpayer is hard to find. At the same time hundreds of millions in investment is claimed, the assessed value of property in downtown Wichita is declining.

We’re left to wonder whether readers of the Wichita Eagle are aware of the apparent contradiction between candidates’ claims and evidence from the real world.

On another issue, the influence of campaign contributions, readers of the Eagle will probably also be uninformed about candidates’ actions. In response to the question “How would you handle a vote on an issue involving a campaign contributor?” Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) supplied this answer:

No different than any other vote. I will vote for the best interest of the citizens Wichita and District III. I answer directly to the voters.

Williams answered the same question this way:

I would continue to handle it the way I always have. The city has good campaign finance laws that make sure no one individual or group can buy a council person’s vote. The law limits the contributions to a low enough amount that no one contribution can make or break a campaign. I treat each donation whether large or small the same and thank the community for their faith and support in what I do.

The candidates’ lofty claims of independence from campaign contributions are difficult to believe. There is simply too much money given, and the candidates’ actions are too suspect.

As an example, in 2012, these two candidates received campaign contributions from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The problem is that both of these groups have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. 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.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, 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.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Williams was also the beneficiary of campaign contributions immediately before a Methodist minister asked the city to approve over two million dollars in tax increment financing. In 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

By the way, this project, under Harding’s management, foundered until the city council offered a bailout. By then Harding had found new partners. No surprise these partners included Key Construction, Williams’ sole source of campaign funds in 2012.

Wichitans who rely on the Wichita Eagle for advice on voting won’t likely be aware of these facts regarding these candidates.

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.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

The common thread running through these incidents? Council members voting to enrich their campaign contributors. Each of these — and there are others — are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful and abusive of taxpayers and erodes their trust in government.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita.

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? 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. A model law for Wichita 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.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (under the current restrictions) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process, which was used by community water fluoridation advocates in Wichita this year. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it must collect about 6,200 valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election. For the fluoridation initiative the council voted to call an election, which was held as part of the November general election. (The initiative failed to obtain a majority of votes, so the proposed ordinance did not take effect.)

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

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

Incidents

In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to 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.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

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.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

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.

Finally: This 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? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

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.

In Wichita, a gentle clawback

Tomorrow’s Wichita City Council meeting will consider a clawback provision for a forgivable loan made by the city. It’s on the consent agenda, so it is unlikely there will be any discussion.

Clawbacks are mechanisms whereby government can be paid back for the cost of economic development subsidies when companies don’t achieve the promised goals, usually employment levels or capital investment. Officials like to look tough on this issue, so they can say they’re fighting for the interests of the taxpayer. An example is Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell, who during his recent campaign was quoted by the Wichita Eagle on this topic: “We need to be consistent with policies that provide a positive return on investment and hold companies accountable with personal guarantees that include claw-back features to protect the taxpayers’ investment.”

It turns out, however, that clawbacks are often difficult to enforce. The most likely reason a company may not meet employment or investment targets is that the company is not performing well financially. This is the case with a Wichita company that received a forgivable loan of $62,000 from the city five years ago. The company has not met the agreed job levels, so it must repay the loan.

But, according to city documents: “the severe downturn in the aviation industry prevented the firm from growing its business as projected.” So the city is allowing the company to repay the loan in five annual installments.

By the way, in 2010 the city granted this company, Burnham Composite Structures, Inc., a property tax exemption worth an estimated $105,746 per year.

Sometimes the city council simply doesn’t want to enforce clawback agreements. Last year the council granted a bailout to Reverend Kevass Harding and his underperforming tax increment financing (TIF) district. New considerations showed that the project would not generate enough incremental property tax revenue to pay the TIF bonds. This should not have been a problem for the city, as the agreement with Harding contained this provision: “The developer will be required by the development agreement to provide satisfactory guarantees for the payment of any shortfall in TIF revenues available for debt service on all ‘full faith and credit’ TIF bonds issued by the City for this TIF district.”

So the city could have held Harding to his promise and taxpayers wouldn’t be hurt, at least not any more than the formation of the TIF district itself hurt.

Despite this provision, the city refinanced the TIF debt using the city’s debt service fund, charging Harding and his partners the same interest rate the city itself pays. See Ken-Mar TIF district, the bailouts.

Ken-Mar TIF district, the bailouts

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council handles two items regarding the Ken-Mar shopping center being redeveloped in northeast Wichita. These items illustrate how inappropriate it is for the city to serve as either entrepreneur or partner with entrepreneurs, and is another lesson in how Wichita needs pay-to-play laws.

In August 2008 the city formed a tax increment financing (TIF) district to benefit the center. This allows $2.5 million of the center’s future property taxes to be earmarked for the district’s exclusive benefit. In January 2009 the city approved a development plan that specified how the public money would be spent, and how the development would proceed.

The developer of the project is Reverend Kevass Harding, a former Wichita school board member who has announced future political ambitions.

The first and most serious issue regarding this TIF district is that changes to the development plan mean that the district will not be able to meet its debt obligations. In the sobering words of the agenda report: “The TIF financial analysis indicates that the incremental tax revenue will not cover the debt service on City TIF bonds.”

City staff is proposing to shift the debt to the city’s debt service fund, using money there to pay off the $2.5 million in temporary TIF financing bonds. Then, Ken-Mar will repay the debt service fund through the district’s incremental tax revenue over a period of 17 years, along with three percent interest.

The original development plan from 2009 includes a table that specifies an interest rate of 4.91 percent for the TIF bonds. Now the city is replacing that with its own debt, and charging Harding and Ken-Mar just three percent interest. My calculations indicate this reduced interest rate will save Harding about $30,000 per year, or about $516,000 over the course of the loan.

This action can only be characterized as a bailout, with all the negative connotations that accompany that word. It’s not the first time Wichita has had to create a bailout for a failing TIF district.

The second item the council will deal with is a change to the development plan. The development agreement from 2009 contemplates that changes will need to be made, “with the approval of City Representative from time to time.”

While the agreement doesn’t explicitly state that changes to the plan must be approved before proceeding, this is the only reasonable way to interpret the agreement.

But in this case, Harding made changes before getting approval from the city. And he didn’t just use a different paint color or different flowers in the landscaping. Instead, he made a big change. He demolished a large portion of the structure that was to be renovated, according to the plan he agreed to.

The world changes. No doubt about that. Changes to plans are necessary to accommodate changes in the world. But this is more evidence of how government is not prepared to serve as entrepreneur, or as partner with entrepreneurs.

There was an agreement in place. Harding changed it, and only several months later is the city going to grant its approval. This places the city in the position of appearing not to care whether its agreements are followed. The council finds itself in the awkward position of approving an agreement to do something that’s already been done.

(This is not an unusual position for the city, as recently it approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing.)

Pay-to-play lesson

Underlying the story of Ken-Mar and Reverend Harding is a lesson on the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. As reported in 2009, Harding and his wife made campaign contributions to Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is presently serving as vice-mayor. These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But in June 2008, just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

The close linkage between the contributions and Harding asking the city council to grant him money illustrates the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. These laws impose various restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts or other largesse to those who have made political contributions.

An example 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.”

In the absence of such laws, and with Harding and Williams unwilling to explain, we’re left with questions like these:

If the Ken-Mar TIF district served a genuine public purpose, why did the Hardings make the campaign contributions to Williams?

Must those who want to form a TIF district make contributions to the council member representing the district?

If council member Williams is accessible to her constituents, why the contributions?

Must those who receive money from the city offer a thank-you contribution?

None of these reflect well on the reputation of Wichita.

Wichita school board: critics not welcome

A recent meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provided insight as to the insularity of the board members and district staff, and as to how little meaningful discussion or debate takes place at board meetings.

At the June 20th meeting, Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board about the upcoming budget. Chappell received a chilly reception — to say the least — from board president Connie Dietz. Chappell has been outspoken in his criticism of the way the state spends money on schools. Chappell knows, as do other critics of the Kansas school education bureaucracy, that if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy and its supporters.

Regardless of the validity of Chappell’s remarks to the board — more on that in another article — the attitude of Dietz is worse than simply being rude. It is shutting up your critics simply because you control the gavel. It is boorish and bullying behavior. It is contrary to good government.

The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens, even elected officials like Chappell, may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.

This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures such as the lengthy goodbye to departing board member Kevass Harding at the same meeting. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.

But when citizens and officials like Chappell speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.

It’s not the first time this has happened to Chappell at the Wichita school board. Two years ago a similar incident took place. In my coverage, I wrote: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

The district, however, believes there is debate. In a recent letter to the Wichita Eagle, board member Lynn Rogers claimed that budget decisions “are being debated heavily.”

The debate, however, is not inclusive or fruitful. Few citizens are even remotely aware of the level of school spending, whether spending is going up or down, and whether spending is related to student achievement. Last year the Kansas Policy Institute commissioned a public opinion survey that revealed just how uninformed and misinformed the citizens of Kansas are on school spending matters. National surveys have produced similar findings.

Instead, the debates about policies and budgets take place largely among those who benefit from school spending and increases. And, of course, in the one-sided lectures from the school board bench. Rogers called Chappell’s facts “misleading” despite the fact that the supporting documentation comes from the district itself and the state department of education.

This is not the first time that members like Rogers have revealed just how out of touch they are with the concerns of citizens and how misinformed they can be. For example, he told me during a meeting that responding to requests for information is a burden that prevents the district from educating kids.

In another instance, Rogers said “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.” It turns out that the Wichita Catholic schools expel very few students, less than five per year on average.

Diversity? It’s a sought-after goal of the district. In fact, the district has a committee with the title “Diversity, Equity and Accountability Committee.” But diversity in thought and opinion must not be part of what’s desired. The belligerent and disrespectful behavior of board members, particularly president Connie Dietz, is a deterrent to parents, teachers, students, and citizens who want to be involved and have their voices heard. That is, unless they agree with and praise the board and district.

Without the involvement of everyone, the board and district make decisions without all relevant facts and input, and often with incorrect information about many vitally important matters. That, I believe, is they way they like it.

Wichita school district turf vendor selection process unlawful, board members told

At last night’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, citizens learned that the process used to select the vendor for artificial athletic fields was flawed and violated Kansas law. The district will start over, almost from the beginning, and use a competitive bidding process to select the firm to install the fields at five high schools. The result is that the fields will not be available for the coming football season.

Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart announced that a hearing committee had been working all day, and that its recommendation was to reject and revoke the award of bid to Hellas Construction, and the the project should be put out for competitive bid.

During time for citizen comment, speakers mentioned that the board promised that the bond money would stay local and the hope that taxes would be spent wisely.

The president of Hellas Construction spoke and thought that the bid process was very thorough. He believes that the proposal process had been commingled with a competitive bid process, and that leads to the question as to whether anyone but the second-low bidder has standing to challenge the process.

Board member Kevass Harding asked whether the process — 400 hours of time plus travel expenses — was wrong? Board counsel Tom Powell said the process was thorough. The question, he said, was whether the Kansas bid law applied in this situation. The decision of the committee was that we couldn’t come to a conclusion as to what had been done complied with the bid law.

Board member Connie Dietz asked why this process must be a competitive bid rather than a request for proposal. After a follow-up question, Powell said that this process should have been a competitive bid.

Dietz asked what happens to the timeline, if we support the committee? The district had wanted to have the field in place for the fall, but now that goal is not achievable.

She also asked what happens if the board stands by its previous decision? Powell answered “we’ll go to court.”

After an executive session of about 30 minutes and a few additional questions, board member Barb Fuller moved that the bid be revoked and the turf fields be put out for competitive bid.

Board member Lanora Nolan warned against “buying the cheap.” She said her greatest frustration is when “adult” issues get in the way of what’s best for kids. She also noted that none of the citizens who spoke to the board on this matter mentioned what’s best for kids. That’s heartbreaking, she said, to talk about taxpayer money and not what’s best for kids.

The motion passed unanimously.

After the meeting, citizen John Todd said “How is it that you [USD 259] can break the law — violating a state statute — and anyone that advocates for the taxpayer get criticized because they’re against children.”

It is now apparent that the process of acquiring these turf fields was flawed from the start. Somehow, the district started an expensive selection process that is contrary to what is now apparent the law requires, according to Powell’s interpretation. 400 hours of time plus travel expenses (my request for these expense records is being fulfilled) is now largely wasted, although some of the experience gained will be used in writing the specifications for the bid process.

Also, a season will go by without new artificial athletic fields.

If the board wants to assess blame, it should investigate who it was that authorized this expensive and flawed process. In particular, was the process approved by the district’s legal counsel, either internal or external?

Certainly the district has legal staff at its disposal. Last year during the bond issue campaign the district’s lawyers had time enough to threaten to sue a citizen group because the apple they used was similar to the apple the district uses in its logo.

If the district has the legal resources to harass citizen groups about the use of a generic apple logo, why can’t they get these big things right?

The Wichita school district talks about accountability. Here’s a chance to show that they actually mean it. Investigate and find who is responsible for this.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita district nixes turf builder’s contract.

More unlikely Lavonta Williams voters

I don’t want to emphasize this too much, as these cases are not in the same league as listing an endorsement from a dead man (Wichita political endorsements from the other side and Campaign mailer listed endorsement from dead man ).

But for completeness — possibly, who knows — here’s the rundown on a few more people who are listed on Lavonta Williams’ campaign literature under the heading “Join us in voting WILLIAMS on April 7:”

Elder Herman Hicks. He lives in Derby.

Reverend Kevass Harding. He lives in Bel Aire, outside the Wichita city limits. But he works at a church in district 1, and is involved in Wichita taxpayer-subsidized real estate development there, too. But he can’t vote in district 1.

Brother Clifford Easiley. He lives in precinct 224, in city council district 2. (It’s spelled “Easily” on the mail piece.)

Reverend Lincoln Montgomery. He lives in precinct 218 in the exclusive Willowbend neighborhood. That’s a long way, figuratively, from the inner-city church he serves in district 1.

KenMar Shopping Center, Funded by Righteousness

Can the Lord’s work be funded by taxation? If you’re Reverend Kevass Harding, the answer is sure, why not? He might even think it’s his calling.

Never mind that at its fundamental level, taxation takes money from one person against their will and gives it to another.

Sure, some people will argue that taxes are “the price we pay for civilization” or something like that. Or they will say that since we all benefit from, say, police and fire protection, we all have to pay taxes.

Even if true, these rationalizations are a long way from using taxation to support private real estate development. At least these arguments don’t invoke the name of Jesus. But Harding does in order to accomplish through government, in the form of tax increment financing, what he couldn’t through voluntary action. Is this what Jesus would do?

The Wichita Eagle story KenMar part of pastor’s work in neighborhood tells us of Harding’s belief that “he is doing the Lord’s work, in part, in renovating the run-down KenMar Shopping Center at 13th and Oliver.”

The story also states “The project is a private, for-profit venture, he said, but it springs in part from his spiritual vocation.”

This taking of money, shrouded in morality and spirituality, is even more egregious than most. High atop his moral high horse, Harding believes he is doing good for the community. For the entire city, I’m sure he believes.

Here’s something from another man of religion, C.S. Lewis, reminding us about moral busybodies: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Proposition K and TIF Districts Collide

A recent story in the Wichita Eagle by Dion Lefler (Tax plan could leave city with TIF debt) illustrates the some of the problems that can happen with complex economic development efforts.

The problem in this case lies in the interaction of Proposition K, an effort to reform property tax appraisals in Kansas, and tax increment financing, or TIF districts.

The idea behind TIF districts is that as property is developed, its value will rise enough that the increased property taxes will pay off bonds that the city issued to benefit the developer.

Proposition K, however, alters the way that appraised values rise. According to the Eagle’s analysis of the TIF district benefiting the Ken-Mar shopping center, under Proposition K this district will generate $4.3 million less than what is needed to pay off the bonds.

So what would the city do if faced with this shortfall? The Eagle article suggests “The city could cut spending elsewhere or raise the mill levy to fill the gap.”

That would be a huge windfall to the developer of this project, which is Wichita school board member and Methodist minister Kevass Harding.

But not so fast. The city requires beneficiaries of TIF financing to make up any difference between tax revenues and what’s needed to pay off the bonds. So it appears that the taxpayers may not be on the hook, after all.

The difference, I believe, is that the debt owed to the city would simply be an obligation of Harding and his ownership team. It’s only as good as their ability and willingness to pay. Without Proposition K, the monies needed to pay the bonds would be in the form of property taxes, and the city could take various measures to collect that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

Isn’t this a fine mess? Last summer when this TIF district was being considered, I wondered out loud to the city council “Why don’t we strip away all the confusion and obfuscation surrounding TIF districts and just give the developers $2.5 million?” (See Reverend Kevass Harding’s Wichita TIF District: A Bad Deal in Several Ways.)

I didn’t know then that the confusion and obfuscation would get worse.

From Kevass Harding to Lavonta Williams

One of the unusual sightings on the campaign finance report filed last month by Lavonta Williams, current Wichita city council member and candidate for re-election, is two contributions totaling $1,000 from Kevass Harding and his wife. These contributions represent the maximum it was possible for two people to give at the time.

These contributions are unusual in that the Hardings don’t show up very often on the lists of contributors to local politicians. On May 20, 2008, Kevass Harding contributed $250 to Donald Betts, Jr. in his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Then on November 24, 2008, Teketa Harding contributed $50 to Kansas House candidate Cheryl McFarthing.

So the Hardings do contribute a little bit now and then. But the $1,000 to council member Williams represents a new step forward for the Hardings.

I have a theory as to why the Hardings made these contributions, but it will have to remain just that, as none of the parties have answered direct questions about this contribution. All that we know for certain is that these contributions were made last June, right before Harding’s application for the Ken-Mar TIF district went before the Wichita city council, of which Lavonta Williams is a member, in July and August.

I’ve asked both parties to explain whether there was or was not a connection between the contributions and the application for the TIF district. Williams answered the question obliquely, not addressing the questions that Wichitans want the answer to (see Lavonta Williams Campaign Contributions Raise a Few Questions). Harding didn’t respond to email or telephone inquiries. But that’s not surprising, as last summer he wouldn’t return my telephone calls. That’s even though I am his constituent, as he is the at-large member of the Wichita school board.

So we’re left to wonder.

Prudence Requires Postponement of Wichita TIF District

Remarks to be delivered to the Wichita City Council on January 6, 2009.

Mr. Mayor, members of the council:

Last month it was discovered that procedures used to investigate the background of potential city business partners were lacking in some respects. It is now recognized that the process that were in place failed to give city council members information that they needed in order to make a fully-informed decision about the desirability of partnering with a certain development firm.

Today the council is facing a similar situation. As with the previous case, the TIF district itself has already been approved. Now the actual project plan is before you.

Also as with the case last month, these developers made application under the vetting process that this council has now realized was faulty.

To my knowledge, no one has made any allegations that the developers before you today have problems like those that caused the postponement of the project in December. But since these developers applied for and were approved for TIF financing under a system that is now recognized as flawed, we really don’t know.

There is one thing in particular I would like to know: The developers have been asked to agree to what the city calls a “Tax Increment Shortfall Guaranty.” It seems to me that this guaranty is only as good as the financial condition of the guarantor. Has the city examined financial statements of Reverend Harding and his partners, in order to determine whether they have the financial capacity to make good on this commitment, if it becomes necessary?

I think the citizens of Wichita would sleep better at night if these developers would go through the new qualification process that the city is preparing. It’s been reported that this new process will be ready soon. Mr. Mayor, why don’t we wait a month or two and investigate these developers under the new process that is presently being developed? Then the citizens of Wichita can have confidence in this council and the project the taxpayers have been asked to subsidize.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, there’s another issue that I’d like to call your attention to. That’s the possibility that the city or county — perhaps both — might decide to raise their sales tax rates in exchange for lowering the property tax mill levy. If that were to happen, what would be the impact on TIF districts? The assumptions used in the projection for this TIF district assume that the mill levy in future years is the same as it is today. But if either the city or county were to reduce or eliminate its mill levy, it seems that this — and other — TIF districts would not generate enough property tax to service their debt.

Records Requests Sent Today

Today, I’ve made two records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act.

The first, to USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is this:

All correspondence between USD 259 and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and its representatives from July 1, 2007 to the present. I ask for both written and electronic correspondence such as email. This would include email between USD 259 and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture’s email accounts at sjcf.com, and also email accounts of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture representatives such as Joe Johnson, Kenton Cox, and Ken Arnold that may not be at an sjcf.com email address.

Then, to the City of Wichita:

All correspondence between the City of Wichita and HH Holdings, LLC and its representatives from January 1, 2007 to the present. I ask for both written and electronic correspondence such as email. This would include email between the City of Wichita and Kevass Harding at both business and personal email addresses, between the City of Wichita and Key Construction and its representatives at both business and personal email addresses, and between the City of Wichita and Landmark Commercial Real Estate at both business and personal email addresses.

Wichita School District: TIF Action Tests Accountability and Ethics

Remarks to be delivered to the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, at tonight’s meeting.

Regarding the Ken Mar Redevelopment District: There is simply no way to look at this TIF district other than as a transfer of $2.5 million from the taxpayers to Reverend Harding’s group. Why? According to material prepared by the City of Wichita, the development was $2.5 million short in its funding. But after the creation of the proposed TIF district, the project is fully funded.

Furthermore, as I explained at an earlier meeting of this board, a TIF district allows developers to pay for things — using their own property taxes — that non-TIF developers must pay for themselves. If this were not so, how does the TIF district benefit the development?

Some say that but for the creation of the TIF district, the project would not happen, and therefore no increased tax revenue would be collected. But as recently reported in the Wichita Eagle, these binary, either/or choices are rarely the actual case. For this development, it has been reported that the development already has $11 million in funding. So it appears that the TIF district is not required for something nice to happen to Ken Mar.

The real problem with this TIF district, however, is the conduct of the applicant, who is a member of this board.

At a meeting of the Wichita City Council, Reverend Harding told the council that he had informed his fellow school board members of what he was doing. But two members of this board have told me personally that he did not do that. So there’s a discrepancy somewhere.

Then, I am Reverend Harding’s constituent. He has not responded to my several email and telephone messages with questions about this project.

In meetings of the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission, he spoke about himself and what he wants to do for the community. But he hasn’t explained why the taxpayers need to subsidize his project with $2.5 million.

He hasn’t explained why he has voted for property tax increases, but now seeks to avoid paying some of those increased taxes. He hasn’t explained why district residents should vote to increase their property taxes — by way of the proposed school bond issue — but desires to avoid paying some of those taxes himself.

And importantly, in his role as school board member, he hasn’t explained why the school district should forgo tax revenue just so Ken Mar can be redeveloped even grander.

Recently the Sedgwick County Commission took up this matter even though they were not required to, just as this board is not required to. The commission heard testimony from the public. The commissioners spoke, and then they voted. Although the commission did not vote the way I asked, the matter was handled with a reasonable degree of openness and transparency.

This board now faces a test of accountability, openness and transparency, and most importantly, ethics. So I ask that this board consider a resolution vetoing the formation of this TIF district. Those members with a conflict of interest may then recuse themselves, and the remaining board members can vote. This must be done tonight, as any delay means automatic consent to the formation of the TIF district.

If this is not done, the citizens of the Wichita school district will wonder if the fix is in, if a political insider used his position and connections for personal gain. They will be justified in wondering.

Being Open and Transparent: A Sedgwick County Commissioner’s View

Yesterday (August 27, 2008) I testified briefly at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission opposing the formation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district that will benefit a Wichita political insider. My concern that I wanted the commissioners to be aware of is was that the applicant, Wichita school board member Reverend Kevass Harding, has not acted in an open, transparent, and ethical manner.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said that he had thought that Harding was being open and transparent. I suppose if you’re a full-time county commissioner who, presumably, thinks about these matters on a full-time basis, and you have a staff of well-paid professionals to prepare reports and other documents for you, and you have an applicant who is seeking $2.5 million in taxpayer subsidy and would do just about anything to secure that sum, you probably don’t have any problems finding out what you want to know.

But for average citizens who don’t watch county commission meetings on television, who don’t pour over the minutes of the meetings, and who may not read the sketchy coverage of this matter in newspapers, they won’t be aware of what’s going on.

This is another example of how many members of the Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission are out of touch with the citizens they govern. Three of the last three county commissioners to face the voters for re-election have been defeated. A fourth faces an opponent this November.

My remarks from yesterday:

The concern I have with the formation of this TIF district is that the applicant may be using his political connections for profit, and he has not been forthright with his constituents and the community.

The Wichita school board, of which Reverend Kevass Harding is a member, is required, as is this commission, to consent to the formation of this TIF district. The problem is that since no vote is required by the school board, how can we ask him to declare his conflict of interest and recuse himself from discussion and a vote?

He told the Wichita City Council that he had told city staff and his colleagues on the school board of what he was doing, but it’s not to them that he has en ethical obligation. Instead, his obligation is to the residents of Sedgwick County, the City of Wichita, and USD 259. It is to them that he has the ethical obligation to make sure that this matter is handled with openness and transparency. To my knowledge, he has not done that.

This smacks of a political insider using his connections for personal profit.

Furthermore, the applicant has not been responsive to community concerns over this TIF district. I am Reverend Harding’s constituent, as he is the at-large school board member for USD 259, and I am a resident of that school district. He has not returned my several telephone calls and email messages regarding this matter.

For these reasons, I urge this commission to veto the formation of this TIF district. Let the applicant apply again, this time being open and forthright with the citizens of Sedgwick County, and perhaps this matter can be viewed differently.

Will George Fahnestock Vote For the Wichita School Bond Issue?

Wichita’s mysterious “Boondoggler” posted today that George Fahnestock, the businessman selected to lead the campaign for the proposed bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public schools, doesn’t live in the Wichita school district. The post is Fahnestock’s Motivation? A map of his house, along with school district boundaries, may be viewed here.

Earlier this year, USD 259 board members Lynn Rogers and Kevass Harding made an issue of the fact that a mailing address used by Citizens For Better Education, an anti-bond group, was in the Maize school district. A “fact check” sheet on USD 259’s website raised the same issue. You can almost feel the glee school district officials must have felt when they learned this.

So when it turns out that the celebrity spokesman for the bond issue doesn’t live in the Wichita school district, I wonder what the board’s reaction will be.

To me, it’s not a very substantive issue. There are many more important reasons to oppose this bond issue. But it raises these questions:

Shouldn’t a celebrity spokesperson for an issue at least be able to vote on the issue? Fahnestock, by not living within the boundaries of USD 259, isn’t eligible to vote for the bond issue.

Then, what is Fahnestock’s motivation for wanting the bond issue passed? As part or whole owner of two companies that work in the heating and air conditioning field, would that be any motivation?

Why is business support for this bond issue so weak that a businessman who lives within the district can’t be found to speak up for the bond?

Wichita’s Naysayers Shortchanged in Council’s Record

On August 12, 2008, the Wichita City Council considered the establishment of a TIF district that would benefit Reverend Kevass Harding and his real estate development team. At the council meeting Reverend Harding spoke, and then John Todd spoke, and then myself. We all spoke for, I would guess, roughly the same amount of time.

On Monday August 18 I looked at the city’s website to read the minutes from that meeting. I printed the part of the minutes that covered this item. My printout may be seen in this image. But you don’t need to look at the printout to see what concerns me:

Reverend Harding’s remarks are covered using about 227 words in the minutes.

John’s remarks are covered using 24 words.

Mine are covered using 11 words.

Why the discrepancy? The mayor calls John and I “naysayers.” It is as simple, and as blatant, as that?

(John’s testimony may be read in the post Testimony Opposing Tax Increment Financing for the Ken Mar Redevelopment Project, and mine may be read in Reverend Kevass Harding’s Wichita TIF District: A Bad Deal in Several Ways. I make these remarks available on this website before I deliver my testimony, and I email notice of its posting to all council members plus a few other people at city hall.)

Even more curious, after we three testified, Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his “covered wagon” speech. You can read my transcription of it in Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008, and some commentary in Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Saves Us From Covered Wagons.

But nowhere in the minutes is it recorded that the mayor spoke, much less what he spoke about.

Then, even more curious, the minutes of this meeting are not available on the city council’s website today (Wednesday August 20, 2008). The minutes of the August 5 meeting are missing, too. A short while ago I wrote and asked for an explanation.

August 21, 2008 update: The missing city council minutes have been located. I forgot that they’ve been moved. The page Council Meetings Video On Demand is where minutes may be found.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered these remarks after John Todd and I testified against the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district benefiting Wichita minister Kevass Harding. My remarks can be read here: Reverend Kevass Harding’s Wichita TIF District: A Bad Deal in Several Ways. John’s remarks are here: Testimony Opposing Tax Increment Financing for the Ken Mar Redevelopment Project.

I took the time to transcribe the mayor’s remarks not only because I think Wichitans need to know more about his philosophy of the way government should work, but also because they reveal a few of the mayor’s beliefs that I found astonishing. The mayor appeared to be speaking informally, without prepared remarks.

Commentary on the mayor’s remarks is here: Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Saves Us From Covered Wagons. Video is at Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on role of government and free enterprise.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: You know, I think that a lot of individuals have a lot of views and opinions about philosophy as to, whether or not, what role the city government should play inside of a community or city. But it’s always interesting to hear various different individuals’ philosophy or their view as to what that role is, and whether or not government or policy makers should have any type of input whatsoever.

I would be afraid, because I’ve had an opportunity to hear some of the views, and under the models of what individuals’ logic and thinking is, if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.

Because the stance is let’s not do anything. Just don’t do anything. Hands off. Just let it happen. So if society, if technology, and everything just goes off and leaves you behind, that’s okay. Just don’t do anything. I just thank God we have individuals that have enough gumption to step forward and say I’m willing to make a change, I’m willing to make a difference, I’m willing to improve the community. Because they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that improving the quality of life, improving the various different things, improving bringing in businesses, cleaning up street, cleaning up neighborhoods, doing those things, helping individuals feel good about themselves: they don’t want to acknowledge that those types of things are important, and those types of things, there’s no way you can assess or put a a dollar amount to it.

Not everyone has the luxury to live around a lake, or be able to walk out in their backyard or have someone come over and manicure their yard for them, not everyone has that opportunity. Most have to do that themselves.

But they want an environment, sometimes you have to have individuals to come in and to help you, and I think that this is one of those things that going to provide that.

This community was a healthy thriving community when I was a kid in high school. I used to go in and eat pizza after football games, and all the high school students would go and celebrate.

But, just like anything else, things become old, individuals move on, they’re forgotten in time, maybe the city didn’t make the investments that they should have back then, and they walk off and leave it.

But new we have someone whose interested in trying to revive it. In trying to do something a little different. In trying to instill pride in the neighborhood, trying to create an environment where it’s enticing for individuals to want to come back there, or enticing for individuals to want to live there.

So I must commend those individuals for doing that. But if we say we start today and say that we don’t want to start taking care of communities, then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.

So I think this is something that’s a good venture, it’s a good thing for the community, we’ve heard from the community, we’ve seen the actions of the community, we saw it on the news what these communities are doing because they know there’s that light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve seen it on the news. They’ve been reporting it in the media, what this particular community has been doing, and what others around it.

And you know what? The city partnered with them, to help them generate this kind of energy and this type of excitement and this type of pride.

So I think this is something that’s good. And I know that there’s always going to be people who are naysayers, that they’re just not going to be happy. And I don’t want you to let let this to discourage you, and I don’t want the comments that have been heard today to discourage the citizens of those neighborhoods. And to continue to doing the great work that they’re doing, and to continue to have faith, and to continue that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is a value that just can’t be measured of having pride in your community and pride in your neighborhood, and yes we do have a role to be able to help those individuals trying to help themselves.

Reverend Kevass Harding’s Wichita TIF District: A Bad Deal in Several Ways

Remarks to be delivered to the Wichita City Council on August 12, 2008.

There’s several reasons why this council should not approve this request for TIF financing.

Material in today’s agenda packet doesn’t specify an amount, but past materials indicated that the project was $2.5 million short of the total needed for the project.

Now some on this council feel that TIF financing isn’t an outright subsidy or gift to the developers of a project. But let me ask you this: if the project is $2.5 million short without TIF financing, and then with City of Wichita TIF financing the project is fully funded, what does that tell you about the value of the TIF district to the developers of this project?

Under TIF financing, the City of Wichita doesn’t directly give developers the money. Instead, the city issues bonds, and then uses the proceeds from the bonds to do things that directly benefit the developers.

Now if the developers borrowed that money from a bank, they’d have to pay back the loan. Each year the developers would have to make the loan payments, and also, just like everyone else, they’d have to pay their property taxes. (Those taxes have increased as now the development is worth more due to the improvements made by the developer. That’s the “increment” in TIF.)

But with a TIF district, the bank is the City of Wichita, which issued bonds to pay for things the developers needed to make the project work. So the developers have to pay back the city. But instead of making payments on a loan from a bank and their property taxes, all the TIF developers have to do is pay their property taxes. By merely paying the same taxes that everyone else has to pay based on the value of their property, their loan is repaid.

That’s why a TIF district allows developers to effectively avoid paying some or all of the increased property taxes on their development. When a development is undertaken without the benefit of a TIF district, developers have to repay loans and pay higher taxes. With a TIF district, all the developers have to pay is higher taxes.

I’m tempted to ask this rhetorical question: Why don’t we strip away all the confusion and obfuscation surrounding TIF districts and just give the developers $2.5 million? This way, we fund the development, the shopping center is remodeled, and we wouldn’t have to come back year after year, evaluating the TIF district to see if it is meeting its goals, perhaps pouring in more funds if it isn’t. Instead, we could just give Reverend Harding’s group $2.5 million, wish them good luck, and be done with it.

But I don’t want to seriously pose that question, because I’m afraid of what this council’s response might be.

Besides this, there’s another reason to oppose this TIF district, or at least insist this be handled in a special way. Reverend Harding is a member of a board that has to give its tacit approval to the formation of this TIF district. That board doesn’t have to take any positive action; all it has to do is nothing. I spoke to this council about the thorny ethical issues surrounding this on July 8th. At that time Reverend Harding said that he informed the city and his colleagues on the Wichita school board of what he was doing. But it’s not to them that he has an ethical obligation. Instead, it is to the citizens of Wichita and the residents of USD 259 that he has the ethical obligation to make sure that this matter is handled with appropriate transparency. To my knowledge, he has not done that.

Finally, I have asked Reverend Harding several questions, but he has not answered me, even though I am his constituent: How much tax revenue will the Wichita public school district forgo if this TIF district is granted? And given Reverend Harding’s votes to increase property taxes and his urging for taxpayers to pass an expanded bond issue, shouldn’t he set an example and pay his full share of taxes like everyone else?

Questions Wichita Reverend Kevass Harding Will Not Answer

The Reverend Kevass Harding, a member of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is also a real estate developer (New life for Ken-Mar Shopping Center: Harding plans to revitalize 13th Street mall, March 14, 2008 Wichita Business Journal).

The problem is that Harding plans to ask the taxpayers of the City of Wichita to pay for part of his development. Not outright, but through a scheme known as tax increment financing, or TIF. Through this scheme, property taxes that the development pays — taxes that would normally be used to fund general city, county, and school district operations — would instead be rebated to Harding and his team of developers. Well, not directly to Harding’s company, but the increased taxes the development will pay will be used to repay bonds that paid for things that benefited the development.

This is bad enough. But Harding, as member of the school board, must know that the effect of the TIF district is that less money will flow to USD 259. As the school board firmly believes that taxpayers never send enough tax money to USD 259, I wonder how board members will react to one of their own seeking to avoid paying property taxes. (Well, not really avoiding paying property taxes, but asking that the taxes he pays directly benefit himself, rather than the city, county, and school district.)

It may turn out, however, that we’ll never know how Harding’s colleagues on the school board feel about this. As explained in Reverend Kevass Harding and His Wichita TIF District, the board of USD 259 doesn’t have to approve the Reverend’s request. All they have to do is nothing, and the request will pass. This is a problem, too.

I’ve sent these questions several times to two email addresses for Reverend Harding. I’ve called and left telephone messages at the number listed on his USD 259 contact page, and at his church, too. He hasn’t responded.

Reverend Harding, if you do decide to answer these questions, I will gladly post your responses. You can contact me here

1. Why is there a financing shortfall for this project that makes it necessary to seek the TIF district financing?

2. The TIF district financing provides your company with the benefit that the property taxes that would otherwise go to various governmental entities would instead be redirected back to your project. Specifically, the funds would be used, according to City of Wichita documents, to pay for site acquisition costs. Would you please comment on the equity of your firm having its site acquisition costs paid for by the public, when most real estate development companies in Wichita do not have this privilege?

3. As a member of the Wichita public school district board, you have voted to increase taxes and are on record as supporting a bond issue that would further increase taxes. Have you calculated how much tax revenue the Wichita school district would forgo if your TIF district request is approved?

4. Please comment on the apparent hypocrisy of your company seeking to avoid paying the property taxes that you, in your role as school board member, demand others pay.

Wichita City Council’s misunderstanding of tax increment financing

On July 8, 2008 I testified at a public hearing at a Wichita city council meeting. Afterward, a council member told me that I had a “glaring error” in my arguments. I won’t identify this member in order to avoid embarrassing the member. The minutes of the meeting don’t identify the member who said this, but video is available.

My purpose in testifying that day was not to question the merits of tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Instead, I was identifying an ethics problem that a Wichita school board member has regarding his involvement in a proposed TIF district. (See Reverend Kevass Harding and His Wichita TIF District.) In my testimony I stated, with a qualification, that the applicant for this TIF district was asking for relief from paying some of the property tax for his real estate development. After my testimony, a council member told me that I was wrong, that the TIF district won’t allow someone to avoid paying property taxes. True, I said. It was sloppy for me to have said that without clarification, but it wasn’t the point I was making that day.

But since the city council member brought up the point, let’s examine how TIF districts work. I am sure you will be able to agree that the use of TIF districts allow developers to effectively avoid paying some of their increased property taxes.

In material prepared by Wichita’s Office of Urban Development and presented at the March 18, 2008 city council meeting, we may read this: “The developers have identified a financing shortfall of $2.5 million, for which they are seeking tax increment financing assistance. The preliminary project budget presented to City staff indicates that TIF funds would need to be used for site acquisition costs in order to spend $2.5 million on project costs eligible for TIF funding.”

So without the formation of the TIF district, the developers are $2.5 million short. With the TIF district, they’ve got the money they need. We must conclude, then, that the TIF district financing, no matter what it is used for, is worth $2.5 million to the developers.

Now if the developers borrowed that money from a bank, they’d pay back the loan over some period of years. Each year, out of the cash flow the project generates, the developers would have to make the loan payments, and also, just like everyone else, they’d have to pay their property taxes. (Those taxes have increased as now the development is worth more due to the improvements made by the developer. That’s the “increment” in TIF.)

But with a TIF district, the “bank” is the City of Wichita, which issued bonds to pay for the benefits the developers needed to make the project work. So the developers have to pay back the city. But instead of making payments on a loan from a bank and their property taxes, all the TIF developers have to do is pay their property taxes. By merely paying the same taxes that everyone else has to pay, their loan (the bonds issued by the City of Wichita) is repaid.

That’s why a TIF district allows developers to effectively avoid paying some of the increased property taxes on their development. When a development is undertaken without the benefit of a TIF district, developers have to repay loans and pay higher taxes. With a TIF district, all the developers have to pay is higher taxes.

It is as simple as this.

Reverend Kevass Harding and His Wichita TIF District

Remarks to be delivered to the Wichita City Council, July 8, 2008.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, today I will not discuss the desirability of tax increment financing (TIF) districts in general, or the merits of this one in particular. I’ll leave that for the August 12 public hearing. Instead, I wish to express my concerns about a thorny situation involving the applicant and overlapping governmental jurisdictions.

In Wichita, Reverend Kevass Harding, a member of the USD 259 (Wichita public school district) board is also a real estate developer. His development group is asking the City of Wichita for the creation of a tax increment financing district (New life for Ken-Mar Shopping Center: Harding plans to revitalize 13th Street mall, March 14, 2008 Wichita Business Journal).

In Kansas, when a city creates a TIF district, the affected county and school district have 30 days to veto its creation. When Wichita creates TIF districts, the county and school district usually agree. To my knowledge, there has been no veto by either. These overlapping taxing jurisdictions don’t have to pass a resolution to agree to the TIF district. All they have to do is not pass a resolution that vetoes it.

In this case, Reverend Harding is asking Wichita for relief from paying some of the property tax for his real estate development. (Some might disagree that the TIF district provides relief from paying taxes, but that’s not important for now. It is undoubtedly a benefit of some type, and that’s what matters.) Then the Wichita public school board, Reverend Harding being a member of that, has to give its agreement for the TIF district to proceed.

The problem is that the way the school board indicates its agreement to the establishment of the TIF district is by doing nothing. Only passive agreement is required. Negative action is what is required. If the school board was required to pass a resolution agreeing to the TIF district, Reverend Harding could declare a conflict of interest and sit out the vote. That’s positive action. That happened last week in this very chamber.

But since no vote is required by Reverend Harding or his board — only passive assent — how can we ask him to recuse himself? Can we insist that he cease to do nothing? That’s the problem with requiring someone to take negative action.

So what do we do?

The best solution is for Reverend Harding to withdraw his request for the creation of the TIF district that benefits his development. Then there is no problem with conflicts of interest. This is also congruent with Reverend Harding’s votes to increase taxes while a member of the school board. His business would pay the same taxes he demands others pay.

Failing that, one way we could handle this situation is that the city could ask the school board to agree to pass a resolution agreeing to the TIF, even through they aren’t required to do this. Then Reverend Harding could publicly acknowledge his conflict of interest and step aside.

But should the City of Wichita even care about this? Is it the city’s responsibility to ensure that other governmental entities act ethically and transparently?

In the end, it may not matter, as to my knowledge, neither Sedgwick County nor the Wichita public school district has vetoed the creation of a TIF district passed by the City of Wichita. But I think the citizens of Wichita and USD 259 would appreciate this situation resolved in a way that avoids all conflicts of interest.

Distaste for tax increases faded quickly on Wichita school board

In a candidate questionnaire from the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce before the recent USD 259, the Wichita public school district board member election, Kevass Harding answered “No” when asked if he would support a tax increase for Wichita schools. The other successful candidates — Betty Arnold, Jeff Davis, and Barb Fuller — were more artful in their responses, promising “financial responsibility” and the usual empty pledges to spend wisely and efficiently. Ms. Fuller did say “I would not want to raise these taxes,” referring to local property taxes.

The election took place in April 2007. In August 2007, just four months later, all Wichita school board members, including those mentioned above, voted to increase taxes. It didn’t take long for Kevass Harding to reverse his position. It didn’t take long for Barb Fuller to overcome her dislike for raising taxes. Power has a way of doing these things.

In February 2008, all members except Jeff Davis approved the idea of a $350 million bond issue, asking voters to decide the issue. There is no doubt, however, what position the board members take on the necessity of the bond issue and its tax increase. And before you get the impression that Mr. Davis was overtaken by a sudden wave of wisdom regarding tax increases, he voted no only because he felt his district wasn’t slated to get enough. He later changed his vote.