Tag Archives: Pete Meitzner

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s missing water, sales tax, Gidget, smartphone activism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A former Wichita mayor wonders what happened to Wichita’s water supply. Then, I’ll introduce you to Gidget, a Kansas blogger I think you will enjoy. Then, how can you use your smartphone to help candidates and causes? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 56, broadcast August 24, 2014.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Waste, economic development, and water issues.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichitans ought to ask city hall to stop blatant waste before it asks for more taxes. Then, a few questions about economic development incentives. Finally, how should we pay for a new water source, and is city hall open to outside ideas? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 53, broadcast July 27, 2014.

Wichita City Council Chambers

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome

A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.

This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.

Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.

And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.

But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.

What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.

In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.

I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director.

Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?

Where was Mayor Carl Brewer?

If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.

But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.

I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.

But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

About 70 people attended the KPI forum. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.

But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.

water fountain gargoyles fountain-197334_640

Examining Wichita’s water future

From Kansas Policy Institute.

water fountain gargoyles fountain-197334_640A proposal before the Wichita City Council would raise the sales tax in the city by 1% to fund several projects. The biggest piece of the proposal would be to fund additional water capacity for users of the city water system.

On Thursday 17 July, come hear from the City of Wichita and others on the scope of the problems, possible solutions, and the perspectives of several experts in the debate.

Click here to register for this event.

Date: Thursday 17 July
When: 7:30 a.m. registration and 8:00 a.m. start to presentations
Where: Wichita State University MetroPlex Room 132 ( 29th and Oliver)
Cost: Free with Advance Registration

A light breakfast will be served. The session will conclude by 12:15 p.m.

Speaker Line-up and Agenda:
7:30 a.m. — Registration and Breakfast
8:00 a.m. — Kansas Water Office on scope of water usage/needs in SCKS
9:00 a.m. — City of Wichita Proposal: Alan King, Dir. of Public Works, accompanied by Councilman Pete Meitzner
10:00 a.m. — Are Water Markets Applicable in Kansas?: Dr. Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas
11:00 a.m. — Wichita Chamber of Commerce Water Task Force Findings: Karma Mason, president of iSi Environmental

KPI is not taking a position of the water proposal before the City Council. This event is to provide a forum for relevant parties to present their perspective on the issue with the public. Each presenter will have 30 minutes for a presentation followed by an Q&A.

This is the first in a series of KPI-sponsored forums of this nature on the different aspects of the sales tax proposal. Future forums will be held on the economic development and street and transit proposals.

For more information about this event contact Kansas Policy Institute at 316.634.0218. To register, click here.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Vampires on the prowl in Wichita and the city council’s treatment of citizens.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Then proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing. Episode 49, broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Council Chambers

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement

Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.

At the June 17, 2014 meeting of the Wichita City Council, one agenda item was a public hearing to consider adding a property to the city’s facade improvement program. Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas appeared before the council during the hearing to express concern that a member of AFP (me) had made a request for information on the item, but had not received the information by the time of the public hearing. Background on my request and its importance to public policy can be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information. Video of this meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

From the bench, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that this Pete Meitzer District 2 2012item had been “discussed in length last week,” referring to what would be the June 10, 2014 meeting. A reading of council agendas and minutes shows that it was actually at the June 3 meeting when the item was presented. Further, the June 3 matter was a different item. It’s a small detail, but the purpose of the June 3 item was to approve and accept the property owners petition and set the date for a public hearing. That public hearing was held on June 17.

At the June 3 meeting, contrary to Meitzner’s assertion, there was no substantive discussion on this item except for the presentation by city staff. There really was no need for discussion at that time, as the purpose of the agenda item was to accept the petition and set a date for a public hearing. If the petition is valid in its form, I don’t believe the council has any choice but to accept it and set a date for a public hearing. The purpose of the public hearing is to, naturally, hear from the public.

At the June 17 meeting during the public hearing, Meitzner questioned Estes and city staff. He asked if there was a “gap analysis” performed on all special assessments the city establishes. When told no, he asked Open Recordswhy is the gap analysis needed for this project and not for others. The assistant city manager explained that it is required for economic development projects like the one under consideration today, but not for others.

Questioning at the meeting also revealed that there are legal issues regarding whether the gap analysis can be disclosed to the public. The city has told me it will respond to my request for the document by June 20. The city is treating my friendly request for the document as a request made under the Kansas Open Records Act. That law is permeated with loopholes and exceptions that give government many pretexts to avoid disclosure of documents.

The meeting also featured an impassioned attack on Estes and her allies from a citizen speaker. The attack was based on incorrect information, as was explained to the citizen in the meeting.

What citizens can learn from this meeting

If you don’t ask for information on a schedule that pleases the city council, you may be criticized by multiple council members.

Council members may criticize you based on incorrect facts.

Council members may grill you based on their lack of knowledge of — or incorrect understanding of — city policy.

If you ask for information from the City of Wichita, but don’t also ask for the same from other jurisdictions, a city council member may seek to discredit you.

In Wichita, the news is not always news the city thinks you should know

In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.

After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:

The City of Wichita's website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
The City of Wichita’s website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”

It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.

Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.

At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.

But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.

This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Before asking for more taxes, Wichita city hall needs to earn trust

Before Wichita city hall asks its subjects for more tax revenue, it needs to regain the trust of Wichitans. Following, from February, an illustration of the problems city hall has created for itself. And, how it would be helpful if the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper acted as though it cared about ethics, cronyism, government transparency, and corruption.

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

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

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

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

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn't Wichita have a newspaperSo there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

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

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

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

The harm of pay-to-play

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

Wait a minute: Doesn’t Wichita have a newspaper that keeps a watchful eye on cronyism and corruption? With an editorial board that crusades against these ills?

The answer is no. No such newspaper exists in Wichita.

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

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

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

There is a law, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council members shall refrain 01Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

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

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

Here’s the Wichita city code:

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

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

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1975

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ cited in case for economic development incentives

A prominent Wichita business uses free markets to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in that particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

Wichita Economic DevelopmentThis week Bombardier was before the council again asking for property tax abatements. City documents estimate the amount of tax to be forgiven as $1,098,294 annually, for up to ten years. The document prepared for council members did not address sales tax, but generally sales taxes are forgiven when using the program Bombardier qualified for.

The December 10 meeting was useful because a representative of Bombardier appeared before the council. His remarks help us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these principles.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

Economic development incentives reduce riskWe must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the other side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself. I’m sure Bombardier’s shareholders hope that is true.

Second, the free market system that the speaker praised is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the foundational idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Milton Friedman: Capitalism and FreedomThird, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. When a company is given money with no strings attached except what the company already intends to do and wants to do, that reduced a company’s risk. What has happened, however, is that risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier by the state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

Entrepreneurship, EntrepreneurThe cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior

city-council-chambers-sign-b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The harm of pay-to-play

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

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

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

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

There is a law, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Wichita city code:

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

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

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

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

By Craig Andres, KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ used to justify business welfare

Wichita City HallIncredibly, a prominent Wichita business uses the free market to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in this particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

(Bombardier receives millions each year in other government subsidies; see Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation and Bombardier Learjet should pay just a little for examples.)

While the amount of the incentive granted in the December 10 action is small, the meeting was useful in letting us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these ideas.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

We must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the flip side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself.

Second, the free market system that the speaker seemed to praise is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the fundamental idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others, or to not exchange. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Third, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. What has happened, however, is that the risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier the by state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

The cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.


Get Microsoft Silverlight

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

Wichita city council advances economic development

city-council-chambers-sign-b

Can you fill in the blank?

Wichita City Council says: “By allowing Cessna to avoid paying property taxes, we are showing our support for the company.”

“By requiring other companies to pay their full share of property taxes, we are showing our ________ for these companies.”

Yesterday’s action taken by the Wichita City Council regarding economic development incentives granted to Cessna Aircraft Company through the Industrial Revenue Bond program may be confusing to some people. The Wichita Eagle is not helping citizens understand what is happening when the city issues IRBs. The headline and lede of the article illustrate: “Wichita approves $40.2 million in industrial revenue bonds for Cessna improvements.”

The bonds are a sideshow and not economically relevant. In fact, Wichita has a related program called EDX that implements the benefits of IRBs without the charade of a company buying its own bonds. The Eagle gets around to this, explaining: “Industrial revenue bonds are issued by governments without any taxpayer liability, a type of municipal bond repaid from the proceeds of bond sales. They do not affect the tax revenue or the credit of the issuing governmental entity. The company will buy its own bonds.”

This explanation isn’t accurate, however. IRBs do affect the tax revenue of the issuing governmental entity, because property purchased under the program is exempt from property taxation, and often sales tax. The article does finally explain why Cessna is applying for the IRBs: “The value of the abated taxes could be as much as $37,197 for the first year.”

That — or something like it — should have been the headline to this article. The fact that Kansas law grants tax abatements for bond-purchased property is the only reason that Cessna applied for the IRB program. As Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) explained from the bench and as quoted by the Wichita Eagle: “I’d like to confirm to the public that what we’re doing is voting to allow Cessna to purchase $40 million of their own bonds for all these improvements.”

I’m glad he understands. We still have to endure the spectacle of a governing body voting to allow a company to issue bonds that the company will purchase from itself. Perhaps someday we will have laws that allow a company to issue debt and purchase that same debt without governmental approval.

In remarks from the bench, several council members thanked Cessna for its commitment to Wichita. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) thanked Cessna for showing their commitment to Wichita, “as they have for decades.” I wonder: What do other business owners in Wichita who have to pay their full share of taxes think about Cessna’s commitment to Wichita?

Clendenin also expressed appreciation for their charitable nature and their “humongous” heart. I wonder: Why doesn’t Cessna pay the same taxes that everyone else has to pay so that we may keep more of our own money to be charitable as we see fit?

In their remarks, no member of the Wichita City Council made the argument that is often used to justify economic development incentives: economic necessity. No one proffered that absent these tax breaks, Cessna would be unwilling or unable to make this investment. No one wondered that given that Cessna is such a good corporate citizen, why does it ask to be excused from shouldering the same tax burden that almost everyone else has to bear?

No one spoke on behalf of the other business firms in Wichita that, when wanting to make an investment to expand and hire people, are not able to qualify for the type of favored treatment that companies like Cessna receive.

No one offered any evidence that these jobs are somehow different from other jobs in Wichita that area created every day without companies receiving special tax treatment.

No one argued that the tax burden should be applied fairly and evenly to everyone.

No one made the moral case for free enterprise — rather than cronyism and business welfare — as the way to grow and diversify the Wichita economy.

FITB - Cessna property tax abatements

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

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

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

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

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

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

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

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

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

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

Wichita performs a reference check, the video

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. The video below explains, or click here to view in HD on YouTube. For an article on this topic, see Wichita performs a reference check, sort of.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of

Wichita city hall logo

For a video presentation of this material, click on Wichita performs a reference check, the video.

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Cronies, if you will.

A recent application filed with Wichita City Hall regarding the West Bank Development Project raises two questions: Did the government officials listed as references give their permission, and were any of the references contacted to learn what they knew about the applicants?

The application filed by the River Vista development team shows this: The team, consisting of George Laham, Dave Wells, Dave Burk, and Bill Warren listed numerous local, state, and federal officials as references. Here’s the list of officials that appeared one or more times:

Wichita city manager Robert Layton
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita)
Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita)
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo

Except for Jeff Easter, none of these officials gave permission for their names to be used in this way. (We didn’t get a response regarding Tim Norton.)

Furthermore, none of these officials were contacted by the evaluation committee whose job it is to vet these potential city partners.

A few questions: First, do you think it is appropriate for the city manager to be listed as a reference, given that anyone who reads this document would take it as an endorsement? No, of course it is not appropriate.

Related: Do you think it’s appropriate for the city manager to endorse one of the applicants? We don’t know if the presence of the city manager’s name as a reference implies an endorsement, because George Laham did not ask the city manager if he could be listed as a reference. We know this because we asked.

Further, the committee that evaluated the development teams did not call the city manager to inquire about George Laham. We asked about this, too. But making inquiries of references: Isn’t that what an evaluation committee or vetting team should do? But we know that the evaluation committee did not contact even one of these officials that were listed as references.

These applicants likely knew that the evaluation committee would not contact these references. Therefore, they freely listed these government officials. Which makes us wonder — what is the point of having an evaluation committee?

Even further: Is it appropriate for the city to partner with people who think it’s proper to list the city manager as a reference without asking if that was permissible, knowing that the manager wouldn’t be contacted? Same question regarding the mayor, governor, our U.S. Congressman, and district attorney?

In light of this — numerous government officials listed as references without their permission or knowledge, an evaluation committee that never contacted these officials, and the information that these references could have provided: Do you think the evaluation committee fulfilled its duty to perform due diligence on behalf of the interests of the people of Wichita?

What the evaluation committee might have learned

If the evaluation committee had contacted these references, here’s what might have been learned.

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

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

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not have voted on this matter.

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

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

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

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

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

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

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

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

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

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

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned

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

Wichita Project Downtown Annual Report 2012

In his questions, Wichita City Council Member Paul Gray (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked whether the amount of public investment presented did, in fact, include all public investment.

In his answer, Scott Knebel, who is Downtown Revitalization Manager, said no, not all forms of public investment were included in the figures presented in the report. He told the council that an analysis is being prepared, perhaps to be available in May.

Gray urged Knebel to be more forthcoming when reporting on the level of public investment in order to gain a better level of community buy-in: “If you truly want a greater level of community buy-in, being as forthcoming as we can with the financial analysis of these projects and truly demonstrating what we as a community are putting in through all the different public financing mechanisms available. You may not persuade the people who don’t like public participation in projects — you’re not going to change their viewpoints by that and I don’t expect you to — but the difference is you may get more trust and buy-in from the community that thinks you’re not being forthcoming and honest with them.”

Regarding Wichita news media, Gray said the media may say “‘See, it’s a 90 percent private funded ratio versus 10 percent’ which is not really the case. We’re skewing actual numbers to demonstrate our successes downtown, but I think our successes downtown speak for themselves.”

Knebel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr promised to be more forthcoming with investment figures in the future.

Gray also asked about the city’s practice of building retail space and practically giving it away to developers, who can then lease the space and earn outsized returns at taxpayer expense. I reported this at the time this lease was under consideration by the city council:

According to a letter of intent approved by the city council — and sure to become law after a public hearing at a meeting of the Wichita City Council on September 13th — the city is planning to build about 8,500 square feet of retail space in a downtown parking garage. The garage is being built, partly, to serve a hotel Burk and partners are developing.

Here are the details of the deal Burk and his partners are getting from the taxpayers of Wichita: The city plans to lease this space to Burk and $1.00 per year. Not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 for the entire space — all 8,500 square feet.

That’s the plan for the first five years. For the next 10, the city would charge $21,000 rent per year, which is a rate of about $2.50 per square foot.

For years 15 through 20, the rent increases to $63,000, or $7.41 per square foot. At the end of this period, Burk will have the option of purchasing the space for $1,120,000, which is a cost of about $132 per square foot.

That cost of $132 per square foot is within the range of what sources in the real estate industry tell me top-quality retail space costs to build in Wichita, which is from $130 to $140 per square foot. Rents asked for that space would be from $15 to $18 per square foot per year.

Using the low figure, Burk could expect to collect about $127,500 in annual rent on space he rents for $1.00, leaving a gross profit of $127,499 for him. As the $15 rent is a net figure, Burk’s tenants will pay taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton answered Gray by saying that real estate leasing is not an area of the city’s expertise.

Without Gray’s questions, these important matters of public policy would likely not have been brought to public attention. For mentioning these topics, Gray was — in an attempt at humor by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — branded as “Debby Downer.”

Citizens might expect that as millions in public funds are invested, someone in city hall is keeping track, and that there is a plan for reporting these numbers. Citizens should ask why Mayor Brewer, City Manager Layton, and current council members are not concerned that there appears to be no such plan for accountability.

The notion of reporting that there was only $10.7 million in “public projects” in 2012 is absurd. Just one project, the Ambassador Hotel, received $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, and then was slated to receive $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years. Wichita voters rejected a small part of the ongoing subsidy, but the rest remained.

As to city manager Layton’s answer that the city is not experience in real estate leasing, my response is well, why then did you get involved? It’s not the first time the city has made such a sweetheart lease deal with some of the same parties. It’s become almost routine, as I reported at the time this lease was being considered:

While most citizens might be shocked at the many layers of subsidy offered to Burk, he’s accustomed to such treatment. In 2003, the city offered a similar deal to Burk and his partners for retail space that is part of the Old Town Cinema project. That deal was made with Cinema Old Town, LLC, whose resident agent is David Burk. According to the Wichita Eagle, other partners in this corporation include Wichita theater owner Bill Warren, real estate agent Steven Barrett, Key Construction and seven others.

David Wells, one of the owners of Key Construction, is a partner with Burk on the new hotel project, and Key is slated to build the garage under a process that doesn’t require competitive bidding, even though city money is used to pay for it. Note: Later the garage was put out for competitive bid.

The Old Town project let Burk and his partners lease 17,500 square feet of retail space from the City of Wichita for $1.00 per year for the first five years. Like the proposed project, that’s not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 per year for all 17,500 square feet.

I wonder: Is the fact that these parties — Burk, Key Construction, Bill Warren — are reliable campaign contributors to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members, does that mean anything?

Wichita Eagle reporting on this meeting is at City Council member Paul Gray questions numbers by Wichita Downtown Development.

In Wichita, failure to value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

Wichita could do better regarding open government, if it wants

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The renewal will provide another opportunity for the council to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there soon to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In his “State of the City” address last year, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

Here’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item, last year

Last year I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made no requests this year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members — except for Michael O’Donnell — would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

O’Donnell critics should look inward first

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a mistake when he recently offered his opinion to the Sedgwick County Commission. The mistake was noted and corrected before the commissioners voted, so it had no influence on how the commissioners voted.

Yet, all members of the Wichita City Council have “expressed varying degrees of anger” over O’Donnell’s statement, according to Wichita Eagle reporting. (O’Donnell won’t be censured for remarks to County Commission)

Before these council members and the mayor express much more angst, they should take a look at their own actions, and how O’Donnell successfully opposed their assault on Wichita taxpayers.

In September 2011, all council members except O’Donnell voted to award a no-bid contract to a construction company for a parking garage and retail space as part of the Ambassador Hotel project, then known as Douglas Place and now known as Block One. (Mayor Carl Brewer was absent that day, but earlier he voted for the letter of intent to do the same.)

Then, thanks to O’Donnell and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), the city put the contract out for competitive bid. The result was a price about 20 percent less, saving taxpayers over $1.2 million. (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects, February 5, 2012 Wichita Eagle.)

Ironically, the company that submitted the winning bid was the same company that received the no-bid contract: Key Construction, a company well-known for its owners’ and executives’ campaign contributions to Mayor Brewer and nearly all council members, regardless of political ideology. Also involved in the project was Dave Burk, who along with his wife also make large and regular contributions to a broad range of council members.

Wichitans need to know that all except O’Donnell — and belatedly, Meitzner — thought it was proper to award their significant campaign contributors with a padded contract that awarded excess profits to Key at the expense of taxpayers.

Wastefully squandering taxpayer money in order to reward significant campaign contributors is not productive economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism of the worst kind, and illegal in some places. In Wichita, however, this is standard operating practice for some council members.

Such blatant cronyism reduces the prosperity of our community. It causes citizens to lose confidence in government. It stirs citizens to petition their government for redress. That literally happened in Wichita, motivated in part by behavior like this.

The bad behavior of the Wichita City Council has received national attention. In its commentary on the successful referendum in Wichita this year, the Wall Street Journal remarked: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

Now citizens are investigating campaign finance reform laws that would, hopefully, reduce the incentive for the shameful practice of awarding no-bid contracts to significant campaign contributors. As the Wichita City Council, except for O’Donnell, has shown no interest in reforming itself, citizens must do it themselves.

Instead of being angry with the departing O’Donnell, the council and mayor should look at themselves first and reform their proven harmful practices.

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.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.’”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita voters reject cronyism — again

Tuesday’s primary election in Kansas was notable for the large number of victories by conservative challengers over Republican senate incumbents. Also important is that voters in Wichita and the surrounding area rejected, for the second time this year, the culture of political cronyism that passes for economic development in Wichita.

On Tuesday incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn defeated a challenge by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell. The contrast was clear: Peterjohn with his long-time, outspoken advocacy for limited government and free market principles, although perhaps tempered a bit based on some votes he’s made. Longwell, however, advocates for “more tools in the toolbox.” In other words, a larger role for government in economic development and centralized planning.

The result: Peterjohn won, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Longwell had the endorsements of many Wichita-area politicians, including Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and all other Wichita City Council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and council members Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita).

Sedgwick County Commission members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton, and Dave Unruh also endorsed Longwell.

In addition to these endorsements, Longwell had a large money advantage over Peterjohn. According to campaign finance reports filed July 30, Longwell had raised nearly $62,000.

Peterjohn’s July 30 report showed about $20,000 raised, so as of that date Longwell had over three times as much campaign money at his disposal than Peterjohn.

The money advantage and the endorsements are linked. On Longwell’s July 30 campaign finance report we learned that executives of a Michigan construction company made campaign contributions immediately before and after Longwell participated in a city council voted that benefited them. Key Construction, a heavy contributor to Longwell’s campaign, also benefited from Longwell’s vote that day. This was just another episode in Longwell’s history of voting for overpriced no-bid contracts and no-interest city loans for his large campaign contributors.

The day after Peterjohn held a news conference questioning Longwell’s Michigan contributions, Longwell held the news conference that announced the above-mentioned endorsements. Many of those endorsers also receive campaign money from those they award with no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largesse.

Despite the advantage in campaign funds and the endorsements, voters in west Wichita and west Sedgwick County rejected the political cronyism that is Jeff Longwell’s legacy in government service.

It’s the second time this year voters have rejected cronyism. In February Wichita voters voted down a tax giveaway to the Ambassador Hotel by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Longwell played a role in that election, too. When citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge the taxpayer-funded giveaway to the hotel, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.”

When it came time for the council to set the date for the special election on the hotel tax, Longwell attempted to have the election commissioner set the date as early as possible, obviously thinking that a short campaign would benefit the hotel developers.

Those hotel developers, by the way, included many of Longwell’s long-time campaign contributors.

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

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

Wichita fails ethics test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Wichita, no election news is good politics

After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:

“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”

It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.

Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.

At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.

But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.

This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

Carl Brewer: State of the City for Wichita, 2012

Last night Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual State of the City Address. The text of the address may be read at State of the City Address.

In his speech, Brewer several times criticized those who act on “partisan agendas.” This is quite a remarkable statement for the mayor to make. Partisan usually refers to following a party line or platform. The mayor didn’t mention who he was criticizing, but it’s likely he was referring to myself and others like John Todd, Susan Estes, and Clinton Coen, as we appear regularly before the city council, usually in disagreement with the mayor and his policies.

What’s remarkable is that the council, even though it has four Republican members, almost always votes uniformly with Democrat Brewer and the other two politically liberal members of the council. The only exception is Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), who is often in a minority of one voting in opposition to the other six. The other Republican members — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

Remarkable also are the many members of the business community who appeal to the council for subsidies, increased government intervention, and more central planning from city hall: many of these are Republicans. Conservative Republicans, many have personally told me.

This describes a lack of partisanship. Most of the mayor’s critics, such as myself, are more accurately characterized not as acting along party lines, but as acting on their belief in economic freedom, free markets, and limited government.

Economic development

The mayor said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context.

According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This miniscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.

The mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay these costs. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

The mayor’s plan going forward, in his words, is “We will incentivize new jobs.” But under the mayor’s leadership, this “active investor” policy has produced a very small number of jobs, year after year. Doubling down on the present course is not likely to do much better.

But there are those who disagree, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh — a conservative Republican, for those keeping track of partisanship — recently called for a “deal-closing” fund of $100 million. A funding source of this magnitude would undoubtedly require a new tax. There are many who feel there should be a new sales tax devoted to economic development and downtown Wichita development. We should not be surprised to see such a proposal emerge, and not be surprised that civic and business institutions will support it.

The mayor repeatedly said that the city has been “courageous.” In reality, Wichita does about the same as everyone else. But there is a way Wichita could distinguish itself among cities.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business has made a convincing case that Kansas needs to move away from the “active investor” approach to economic development. This is where government decides which companies will receive special treatment, be it in the form of tax abatements, tax credits, grants, tax increment financing, community improvement district special taxes, and other forms of subsidy. Being an “active investor” has been the approach of the City of Wichita, and according to the mayor’s vision, this plan is to be stepped up in the future.

In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

Later, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and Kansas rely on for economic development: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

We need business and political leaders in Wichita and Kansas who can see beyond the simplistic imagery of a groundbreaking ceremony and can assess the effect of our failing economic development policies on the entire community. Unfortunately, we don’t have many of these — and Mayor Brewer leads in the opposite direction.

Critical of misinformation campaigns

In his speech, Brewer was critical of those who “spread misinformation.” He was not specific as to who he’s criticizing, and I wouldn’t expect him to name specific people in a speech like this.

But when the mayor criticizes people for being uninformed or misinformed, he needs to look first at himself. He and city staff also need to engage their critics and be responsive to requests for information.

As an example of misinformation, the mayor cited this evidence that city policies are working: “The proposed Ambassador Hotel with a 3-to-1 private to public investment ratio.”

The city arrived at this ratio by employing a very narrow definition of public investment. When tax credits from the State of Kansas and federal government as well as other sources of public subsidy are accounted for, the ratio drops to less than two to one.

It’s true that considering only the city’s artificially narrow definition of public funding, the ratio does reach three to one. But Wichitans also have to pay part of the costs of the tax credits and other subsidies.

The city has also been less than honest in its promotion of the cost-benefit ratio for the Ambassador Hotel project. The city officially cites a cost-benefit study produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. Part of that study produced a cost-benefit ratio of 2.63 to one, and that’s what the city uses as justification for its participation in the project.

But the full story of the costs and benefits of this project are contained in these numbers from the WSU analysis:

                                    ROI   Cost-benefit ratio
City Fiscal Impacts General Fund  163.2%        2.63
City Fiscal Impacts Debt Service  -17.2%        0.83
City Fiscal Impacts                -9.8%        0.90

WSU evaluated the impact of the Ambassador Hotel on the City of Wichita’s finances in two areas: The impact on the city’s General Fund, and separately on the city’s Debt Service Fund. The two were combined to produce the total fiscal impact, which is the bottom line in this table.

The City of Wichita cites only the positive impact to the General Fund figure. But the impact on the Debt Service fund is negative, and the impact in total is negative.

It’s true that the ROI and cost-benefit ratio for the General Fund indicate a positive investment return. But the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the General Fund is $290,895, while the cost to the Debt Service Fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large.

Citizens ought to ask: Who is spreading misinformation?

It is difficult to get a response from city hall regarding questions like these. So far city economic development director Allen Bell has not agreed to meet with representatives of Tax Fairness for All Wichitans, a group opposed to the subsidies for the Ambassador Hotel. (I am part of that group.) The city and its allied economic development groups will not send representatives to participate in a public forum on this matter.

Simplistic answers

The mayor criticized those who “provide simplistic answers to very complicated challenges.” He may be — we don’t really know — referring to those like myself who advocate for free market solutions to problems rather than reliance on government. Certainly the mayor believes that government must act — “courageously” he said — to confront our problems.

A problem with the mayor’s plan for increased economic interventionism by government is the very nature of knowledge. In a recent issue of Cato Policy Report, Arnold King wrote:

As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.

When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.

Relying on free market solutions for economic growth and prosperity means trusting in the concept of spontaneous order. That takes courage. It requires faith in the values of human freedom and ingenuity rather than government control. It requires that government officials let go rather than grabbing tighter the reins of power.

Mayor Brewer, five of six city council members, and the city hall bureaucracy do not believe in these values. Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles of freedom and liberty “simplistic.” Instead, his government prefers crony capitalism and corporate welfare. This is the troubling message that emerges from Brewer’s State of the City address.

Meitzner clarifies: I’m not opposed

In my coverage of the December 20th, 2011 meeting of the Wichita City Council, I noted the opposition of many council members to the upcoming hotel guest tax election, and how they wanted a quick election date so as to dispose of a citizen uprising as quickly as possible. I had nominated the remarks of Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) as perhaps the worst, writing: “Perhaps the worst impression to come out of this meeting is that many Wichita city council members simply don’t care much for what citizens think. It’s hard to pick the most telling example, but Meitzner’s concern that we need to ‘avoid community discourse and debate’ ranks right at the top.” (Wichita City Council sets hotel tax election date, December 26, 2011. The official minutes of the meeting record: “Council Member Meitzner asked if there is any way to have this election moved up to avoid any community discord or debate.”)

At yesterday’s council meeting, Meitzner sought to clarify his remarks in a portion of the meeting where members may offer corrections to the minutes. Meitzner said he didn’t dispute what he actually said at the December 20th meeting, but that what he meant to say was that “I support public debate, including when public discord occurs, as it provides a chance for factual information to be shared about any issue, including this one.”

That’s a good step forward, and I thank Mr. Meitzner for that. Perhaps he can work to change the attitudes of the mayor and some other council members. Then, he and the council can work on their hostility towards the Kansas Open Records Act. See Open records, rights of Kansans disrespected at Wichita City Council and In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency

Despite receiving nearly all its funding from taxpayers, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau refuses to admit it is a “public agency” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. The city backs this agency and its interpretation of this law, which is in favor of government secrecy and in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act.

In the following excerpt from the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas, this issue was discussed. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle appeared along with myself and host Tim Brown.

Brown said this episode was “one of the silliest things I have ever seen. Clearly, Go Wichita fits under the definition of a public agency.”

He also said “The idea that an agency like this that gets millions of dollars from the city would not agree — willingly and happily — to comply with the Open Records Act is really some of the greatest governmental foolishness that I have ran across.”

Brown also said that the level of understanding of the Kansas Open Records Act evidenced by the Wichita City Council is “appalling.”

Offering advice to the council, Brown said that transparency is good for government, as it creates public trust. When agencies go to great lengths to avoid complying, it looks like they’re doing something wrong, even though there probably is no wrongdoing.

Although he did not mention him by name, Brown addressed a concern expressed by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). He accurately summarized Meitzner’s revealed attitude towards government transparency and open records as “democracy is just too much trouble to deal with.”

Tim Brown is the host of This Week in Kansas. The show airs at 9:00 am Sundays on KAKE channel 10, and complete episodes may be viewed at KAKE Television This Week in Kansas.

More information on this matter may be found at

Wichita City Council sets hotel tax election date

In response to a successful petition effort aimed at overturning a Wichita charter ordinance, the Wichita City Council last week considered an agenda item that gave the council two choices: Rescind the ordinance, or set a date for an election. The charter ordinance concerns rebating a portion of the Ambassador Hotel’s guest tax collections back to the hotel for its own use.

The most important issue to the council seemed to be holding the election on a date convenient to the hotel developers. The recommendation from Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman was that the election, if the council decides to hold it, should be on February 28, 2012.

During discussion, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) asked a series of questions designed to produced a response that if the election were held earlier, and if that would make it more expensive, would the developer have to pay these extra costs? (The agreement with the city states hotel developers are responsible for the cost of the election, which has been estimated at $50,000.)

She also expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.” She assumed that the developer would like to have the issue resolved as soon as possible.

Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) asked the hotel developers if they would agree to pay extra to hold the election sooner. David Burk appeared on behalf of the hotel development team, and said he would like to see the election held as soon as possible, and would pay additional for that. He said it is “hard on our community,” and that “each day that goes by we’re casting a bad sign on future development in downtown, and in Wichita in general.”

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) framed the issue as the election commissioner needing more time “beyond what is required by law.” He suggested that the item be delayed until later in the meeting and that the election commissioner be summoned to appear before the council. A motion was made to that effect, and it passed.

When the election item was continued later in the meeting, Longwell engaged Commissioner Lehman in a series of questions attempting to manage the election calender for her. Lehman explained the various reasons as to why February 28 is a reasonable date for the election. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office has agreed with this assessment, she added.

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer said: “This is an issue that really — there’s a lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing. And when we have a special election, I believe that this council and the community deserve the right to be able to have it — have an election as quickly as possible. By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest. But trying to be fair and giving individuals a fair — coming and going — with a fair process, so that every citizen can be heard. And so the sooner you can actually do it, the better off that we are.”

The mayor made a motion to set the election date as February 28, and it passed with all members except Williams voting in favor.

Discussion

This episode provided another example reinforcing the realization that Wichita has a city council — with the exception of one member, Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) — that is entirely captured by special interests. In this case the special interests are a hotel development team consisting of partners who have made significant campaign contributions to many members of the Wichita city council.

An example: While city attorney Gary Rebenstorf explained to the council that one option was to rescind the ordinance, there was no discussion of that among council members.

Another example was the measures the council went through to try and get an early election date, something that many observers feel favors the hotel developers. In particular, it was disconcerting to see Longwell attempt to micromanage the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner. He has no business doing that, especially when his motive is so transparent.

And why would the council be so eager to please the hotel developers and their desired election date? Don’t the desires and concerns of the other side have any relevance? To this council, the answer is no.

Perhaps the worst impression to come out of this meeting is that many Wichita city council members simply don’t care much for what citizens think. It’s hard to pick the most telling example, but Meitzner’s concern that we need to “avoid community discourse and debate” ranks right at the top. To Meitzner, it seems that things like discussing and debating issues are harmful, if they would get in the way of satisfying his campaign contributors, or his vision for molding the future of Wichita from the top down.

The rest of the council members, with the exception of O’Donnell, deserve scorn as well.

Then there are the mayor’s remarks. He spoke of giving individuals a “fair process” so that they may be heard, but also that the election needs to be held quickly. These two goals contradict each other.

Mayor Brewer also repeated his practice of making vague criticisms of his opponents without being specific, this time referring to “lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing.” Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — usually does not mention the names of those he criticizes or specifics of the issues involved. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people — and on the specifics of actual issues — for the things he says.

Open records, rights of Kansans disrespected at Wichita City Council

Yesterday the Wichita City Council decided to issue another contract to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I appeared to recommend that the council not issue this contract until an issue regarding the Kansas Open Records Act is resolved. Explanation of why Go Wichita should be considered a “public agency” and comply with records requests is found in Wichita open records issue buried.

A few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made no requests this year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members — except for Michael O’Donnell — would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Carl Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government.

Suing your government is costly. Citizens will realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel

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

Looking at the candidates these people contribute to, we find that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. At first glance, it’s puzzling.

But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

All told, parties associated with the proposed Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project contributed at least $24,500 to current city council members during their most recent campaigns. This is split between two groups of people: executives associated with Key Construction and their spouses, and David Burk and his wife.

Those associated with Key Construction contributed $16,500, and the Burks contributed $8,000.

At a recent city council meeting, Mayor Brewer, along with council members Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams expressed varying degrees of outrage that people would link their acceptance of campaign contributions with their votes and conduct as officeholders.

But Burk and some others often make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How else can we explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to big-government liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Jeff Longwell, Pete Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

Burk and the others must be expecting something from these campaign contributions. There’s no other reasonable explanation. Candidates and officeholders who accept these contributions know that Burk and his business partners are likely to appear before the council asking for money. If they find this distasteful or repugnant, they could simply refuse to accept Burk’s contributions, as well as those from people associated with Key Construction. But they don’t.

This is what writers like Randal O’Toole mean when he wrote “TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others.”

Some states and cities have “pay-to-play” laws which govern conduct of officeholders who have accepted campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts. 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.”

If Wichita had such a law, the city council couldn’t muster a quorum of its members to vote on the Douglas Place project, so pervasive are the campaign contributions.

Contributions by Douglas Place participants

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 Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member and with his heart set on becoming the next mayor, leads the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Douglas Place 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 Douglas Place project: $6,000.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is also vice mayor, received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/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 Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

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

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

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

This article has been updated to include information from campaign finance reports filed in January 2012.

At Wichita City Council, facts are in dispute

Some Wichita City Council members, including Mayor Carl Brewer criticize people who speak at council meetings for using inaccurate information. Although most citizens who speak are willing to take questions at the time they present their testimony, most council members will not engage in dialog with them, instead choosing to level their criticism at a time when the speakers are not able to defend themselves.

So let’s take a look at some of the statements made by city council members at the September 13th meeting, where the council approved by a six to one vote a package of incentives for the Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel.

James Clendenin

At the September 13th meeting, James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) said “I heard a lot of misinformation, and I heard a lot of good information.” He seemed to be most interested in the jobs that the hotel will create. Referring to the contention that the hotel will create 100 jobs, he said: “That’s all people ask me about — how many jobs. Just tell me jobs. I want to know jobs — jobs, jobs, jobs — people want to know jobs. I know that when Old Town was started 20 years ago, no jobs where in that part of the city. 20 years later we have jobs. … But I see people employed 20 years later that would never would have been employed unless a developer stepped up.”

I can understand the concern for jobs and how council members want to be seen doing things that they believe will create jobs. But it’s difficult to see how this hotel will create new jobs, except perhaps on the several times each year that the hotel might be used to support the larger conventions the city hopes to draw.

Instead, it’s much more likely that the hotel will simply draw most of its customers from the pool of people already planning to come to Wichita. And this hotel will have a big advantage in competing for these existing customers, especially those looking for a high-end hotel. As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the hotel developers said that without the city subsidy, the rooms would cost $250 per night. Their plans, however, are to offer the rooms for $150.

So with the help of taxpayers, the developers get to offer a $250 product for $150. That’s quite a competitive boost. My research shows that currently there are four downtown Wichita hotels offering rooms at that rate or higher. I wonder how they will feel when undercut by a taxpayer-subsidized competitor? (First, the owners of these hotels will have to realize that they, too, have received substantial subsidy.)

As to the impact of subsidies like Tax increment financing, or TIF: The important paper Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development by Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman comes to these conclusions:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF. (emphasis added)

Later, the paper concluded: “TIF subsidies might be helping growth within the TIF district, but they are hurting growth outside the district by a larger amount.”

This paper addresses economic growth, which is not, strictly speaking, equivalent to jobs, although the two are closely related. A paper that does address the impact of TIF on jobs is from Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of the report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in the abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district. (emphasis added)

I would ask that council member Clendenin and the others read research like this before they come to their conclusions.

Furthermore, we might ask the hotel developers if they are going to run their hotel as a jobs program, or are they going to seek to minimize the use of labor, employing only as much as is required to run the hotel the way they want? In a competitive marketplace, this is what businesses are forced to do, if they want to stay in business.

Finally, the contention of Clendenin that there are people who are employed only because of Old Town is laughable.

Pete Meitzner

Newly-elected council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) seemed impressed and secure in that the hotel developers have agreed to personally guarantee any shortfall in property tax revenue below what is necessary to cover the payments on the bonds the city is issuing under tax increment financing.

This guarantee is quite unlikely to ever be tapped, and is an example of offering something at little risk and no cost to the developers. Then, gullible city council members lap it up.

Here’s how the arithmetic works: According to city documents, the projected debt service required to pay the TIF bonds in 2016 is $340,000. For the same year, the projected revenue from the hotel’s property tax that is applicable to the TIF bond repayments is $262,000. (Remember these property taxes are taxes the hotel must pay, no matter what they’re used for.)

For the hotel owners to become in a position where they would have to pay to cover a shortfall, the value of the hotel would have to drop by 23 percent. That’s not likely to happen, and if something like that did, it would be a signal of severe problems across the entire city, or country, for that matter.

Jeff Longwell

Speaking from the bench when he could not be rebutted by citizens, Council Member Jeff Longwell criticized citizens who testified, saying they are using “wrong numbers.” Longwell’s criticisms deserve scrutiny.

During the council meeting, there were several ratios presented as a way to evaluate the hotel, and Longwell confused them. He said: “You can argue if it’s 6 to 1, or 5 to 1, but I’ll tell you, even if it’s as low as 2.6 to 1 return, folks, that’s a great investment.”

The 6 to 1 ratio is the ratio of private investment to public investment, as calculated by the city.

The 2.6 to 1 return is a payback to the city, based on expected increased tax revenues compared to the city’s cost. This is calculated by the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

The 6 to 1 ratio is based on balance sheet concepts. It refers to assets.

The 2.6 to 1 ratio is a calculation from an income statement. It refers to income relative to expenses.

The only conclusion to draw is that Longwell is sorely confused. Perhaps worse, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development had just explained these numbers in response to a question by Meitzner. But Bell didn’t correct Longwell. Neither did the city manager, who undoubtedly knows the difference between the two sets of numbers.

Besides this, the 6 to 1 ratio is calculated using an extremely narrow view of the city’s investment in the project, and an overly expansive assessment of the developer’s investment. It ignores many subsidies being provided to the developers, some at city expense, and also at the expense of state and federal taxpayers.

Further, for that ratio to make any sense, you have to assume city ownership of the hotel. “We” — meaning the city of Wichita — don’t own the “6″ part of the ratio. The hotel developers do. It’s not a public asset.

Janet Miller

Like Clendenin and Longwell, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) criticized the inaccurate information presented by citizens: “A lot of the information that was shared this morning was not accurate. … I’m not going to be able to address everything.”

Here’s an example of the reasoning of Miller. Referring to the issue of tax money being diverted to the Douglas Place project, she said: “Other taxes, such as the historic and federal tax credits are not property taxes, they’re not sales taxes, those are credits toward income taxes. So unless you’re paying the income taxes those are not your taxes.”

Here Miller is ignoring the effect of tax credits on the budgets of states and the federal government. Tax credits reduce the revenue of the issuing body by the amount of the credit. So when the state of Kansas issues $3,800,000 in tax credits to the Douglas Place project, it reduces revenue to the state by that same amount.

Now if the state were to reduce its spending by that same amount, specifically based on the issuance of this tax credit, we’d be left with no impact on the state’s budget.

But the state isn’t going to to that — it never has. So taxpayers across the state must make up the difference — directly contradicting Miller’s contention that “those are not your taxes.”

The same reasoning applies to the federal tax credits of $3,500,000 that this project is seeking.

Miller also contended that the guest taxes paid by this hotel are “not your taxes.” According to the city’s budget, the purpose of the Tourism and Convention Fund, which is funded by the guest tax, is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its outlined priorities are to be “debt service for tourism and convention facilities, operational deficit subsidies, and care and maintenance of Century II.”

So, yes, I would say that the guest tax is “our” tax. There are those who are asking for millions to renovate Century II. Since this hotel’s guest tax — most of it — will not be going to that goal, someone else has to pay.

Further, to the extent that the new hotel draws guests from other hotels, that guest tax is being diverted away from the Tourism and Convention Fund. (Of course, we have to remember that many other hotels have a similar deal to benefit from their guest taxes. Last year the city gifted the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown, part of the heavily subsidized WaterWalk project, $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.)

Miller also took issue with those who contend that the original plan called for Key Construction to build the parking garage: “While there was a general contractor, and that part of the project would not have been bid out, the rest of it would have been bid thorough the city’s process. So the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out through the city’s bid project.”

Miller is specifically contradicted by the letter of intent that she voted for at the August 9th meeting of the council. The letter states: “Douglas Place LLC, will acquire and rehabilitate the Douglas Building and will construct the parking garage and urban park.”

Does she think that the principals of Key Construction — who are part of the development team of the Douglas Place project, and who have made heavy campaign contributions to Miller and others — would let someone else build the garage?

Furthermore, at the same meeting City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said it was the developer’s preference that the garage be built without competitive bidding — again contradicting Miller’s contention that the garage would be bid on.

And if we take Miller’s statement at face value — “the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out” — does this imply that 94 percent of the project will be bid out? This would imply that the hotel itself would be placed for public bid, and I don’t think there’s been any consideration of that.

Miller also addressed the issue of special assessment financing. That is part of the Douglas Place project, with $1,500,000 to be used for facade improvement and lead paint and asbestos removal. Miller said: “Just as a reminder: The facade improvement and asbestos removal expenses, all of that — those dollars are being repaid through special assessments. For those of you who are critical of special assessment financing, I would encourage you to look at your annual tax bill and see if it says special assessment on there. If it does, we have loaned your developer money to put in public improvements around your property. There’s a very large share of Wichita’s outstanding debt that is developers’ specials. So if we want to be critical of developers specials, that’s gonna be a really big conversation that will include all the housing developers in this city and how those dollars are lent and repaid over years.”

There’s a big distinction between the way special assessment financing is used for new development as compared to this project. On new developments, special assessment financing is used to pay for public improvements like streets, sewers, water mains, and storm water drainage. After they are built, these assets are then owned by the city. They become city assets, but were paid for by the developer.

That’s not going to happen with this hotel. Its owners will not deed over the building’s facade to the city. It will remain a private asset.

Furthermore, in new development, the assets that special assessment financing is used to pay for support development that generally ends up on the tax roles, providing the tax revenue stream that city council members promote as good. But not so with this hotel. Being in a TIF district, its property taxes — except for 30 percent — do not benefit the city, as they are used to benefit the developers.

In Wichita, private tax policy on the rise

In a free society with a limited government, taxation should be restricted to being a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way. But in the city of Wichita, private tax policy is overtaking our city.

The Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel to be considered tomorrow by the Wichita City Council, makes use of several of these private tax policy strategies.

By private tax policy, I mean that the proceeds of a tax are used for the exclusive benefit of one person (or business firm), instead of used for the benefit of all. And in at least one case, private parties are being allowed to determine the city’s tax policy at their discretion.

The taxes collected by this private tax policy is still collected under the pretense of government authority. But instead of going to pay for government — things like police, fire, and schools — the tax is collected for the exclusive benefit of one party, not the public.

In Wichita and across Kansas, one example of taxation being used for the benefit of one person or business is the Community Improvement District (CID). Under this program, the business collects an extra tax that looks just like sales tax. Except — the proceeds of the extra CID tax are funneled back for the exclusive benefit of the people who own property in the district. The Douglas Place project is asking to collect an extra tax of two cents per dollar for its own benefit.

CIDs are a threat to unsuspecting customers who likely won’t be aware of the extra tax they’ll be paying until after they complete their purchases, if at all. Wichita decided against disclosing to citizens the amount of tax they’ll be paying with signage on stores. Instead, the city settled for a sign that says nothing except to check a city website for information about CIDs.

CIDs also present the City of Wichita as a high-tax place to live and do business. It’s a risk to our city’s reputation. Especially when you consider the Jeff Longwell strategy, which is that since these taxes are often used by hotels and other businesses that cater to visitors, Wichitans don’t pay them as much as do visitors.

Another example of private tax policy is when a tax such as Wichita’s hotel guest tax is redirected from its original goal. According to a description of the Tourism and Convention Fund in the city’s budget, the goal of the guest tax is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its priorities are to be “Fund priorities are: 1) debt service for tourism and convention facilities, 2) operational deficit subsidies and 3) care and maintenance of Century II.”

But in the case of the Douglas Place project, the city is asking for a charter ordinance to be passed that would route 75 percent of this tax directly back to the Douglas Place owners. That’s not the proclaimed purpose of the guest tax, unless we consider private hotels to be part of the city’s tourism infrastructure. (I think some people think that way.)

At least in the case of Douglas Place the city is being more upfront with its citizens. The charter ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the city council for passage, a higher bar than in the past. And, the city isn’t borrowing money to give to the hotel. That’s what the city has done in the past, as in the case of the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown that is part of the WaterWalk project. One of the many layers of subsidy going in to that hotel was that the city simply gifted the hotel $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.

Some will say that’s not really a gift, as the hotel will pay back the loan. But the loan is being repaid with taxes the hotel — more properly, its guests — must pay anyway. This is public taxation for private enrichment.

If you need further evidence that the city is turning over taxation to private hands, consider this: The charter ordinance is subject to a protest petition, and if sufficient signatures are gathered, the city council would have to either overturn the ordinance or hold an election to let the people decide.

Now, if such a tax is truly in the public interest, the city would hold such an election and bear its costs itself. But that’s not the case. In the agreement between the city and the Douglas Place developers, we see this: “If Developer requests a special election solely for the purpose of passing the charter ordinance in the event a sufficient protest petition is submitted, Developer shall reimburse the City for the actual out of pocket costs and expenses of conducting such election.”

In other words, the city is turning over to private interests the decision as to whether to have such an election. At least the citizens of Wichita won’t have to pay for it, if such an election happens.

Another example of private tax policy that the Douglas Place project is using is Tax increment financing, or a TIF district. This mechanism routes property taxes back to the development. In the case of Douglas Place, $3,325,000 of its own property taxes are being used to pay for its parking garage. That’s a deal most citizens can’t get.

Normally property taxes are used for the general operation of government. Not so in TIF districts, another example of public taxation for private enrichment. Again, these are taxes that the property must pay anyway.

Private taxation funds political entrepreneurship

In Wichita, especially in downtown, we see the rise of private tax policy, that is, the taxation power of government being used for private purposes. This private tax policy is pushed by Wichita’s political entrepreneurs. These are the people who would rather compete in the realm of politics rather than in the market.

Examples of Wichita’s political entrepreneurs include the developers of Douglas Place: David Burk of Marketplace Properties, and the principals of Key Construction.

Competing in the political arena is easier than competing in the market. To win in the political arena, you only have to convince a majority of the legislative body that controls your situation. Once you’ve convinced them the power of government takes over, and the people at large are forced to transfer money to the political entrepreneurs. In other words, they must engage in transactions they would not elect to perform, if left to their own free will.

In the free marketplace, however, entrepreneurs have to compete by offering products or services that people are willing to buy, free of coercion. That’s hard to do. But it’s the only way to gauge whether people really want what the entrepreneurs are selling.

One of the ways that political entrepreneurs compete is by making campaign contributions, and the developers of Douglas Place have mastered this technique. Key Construction principles contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

All told, Burk and his wife contributed at least $7,500 to city council candidates who will be voting whether to give Burk money. Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is: Burk will be asking these people for money.

Wichitans need to rise against these political entrepreneurs and their usurpation of a public function — taxation — for their own benefit. The politicians and bureaucrats who enable this should realize they should be serving the public interest, not the narrow and private enrichment of the few at the cost of many.