Tag Archives: Wichita news media

Hanging file folders

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

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.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Unknown stories of economic development, Uber, Fact-checking Yes Wichita

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita economic development, one more untold story. The arrival of Uber is a pivotal moment for Wichita. Fact-checking Yes Wichita on paved streets. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 58, broadcast September 14, 2014.

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.

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument

Intrust Bank Arena: Not accounted for like a business

Proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. It’s a business-like way of accounting, but a well-hidden secret.

Sedgwick County Working for YouThe true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.

An example of the incomplete editorializing comes from Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.”

Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle did not mention depreciation expense, either.

There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted, was $255,678. Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for the television cameras.

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially at Sedgwick County in 2013. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”

Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena that opened on January 9, 2010. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any. The Arena had an operating loss of $4.7 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.3 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,295,414 was charged for depreciation in 2013, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $21,190,280.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,295,414 in depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accountingit provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But some don’t recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters such as the Wichita Eagle editorial board is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to his view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct in that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently.

We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

Shame on Legislature - Rhonda Holman

Shame, says Wichita Eagle editorial board

Shame on Legislature - Rhonda HolmanThe Wichita Eagle editorial board, under the byline of Rhonda Holman, issued a stern rebuke to the Kansas Legislature for its passage of HB 2506 over the weekend. (Eagle editorial: Shame on Legislature, April 8, 2014)

Here are some notes on a few of Holman’s points.

She wrote that the legislature should not “undermine teachers’ rights and meddle in education policymaking.” First: There’s controversy over what the bill actually means to the relationship between teachers and their employers. Courts will probably have to intervene. Second: Should the Legislature have a say in policy, or just pay?

Then, she criticized the bill as “passed with only Republican votes” on a “Sunday night.” This reminded me of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the United States Senate. At the time, The Hill reported: “The Senate approved sweeping healthcare reform legislation by the narrowest of partisan margins early Christmas Eve morning” (Senate passes historic healthcare reform legislation in 60-39 vote) That’s right: Votes from only one party, and on Christmas Eve.

Later in her op-ed Holman complained: “With such handling of the various bills, GOP legislative leaders also failed to reflect Brownback’s State of the State assertion that the ‘wonderfully untidy’ business of appropriations is ‘open for all to see.’ They held a conference committee meeting at 3 a.m. Sunday — after media, most legislators and the teachers had left the Statehouse for the night, and with insufficient public notice.” Reading this, I was again reminded of the passage of Obamacare, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her famous explanation as reported by Politico:

“You’ve heard about the controversies, the process about the bill .. but I don’t know if you’ve heard that it is legislation for the future — not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America,” she told the National Association of Counties annual legislative conference, which has drawn about 2,000 local officials to Washington. “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it — away from the fog of the controversy.”

On the expansion of innovative districts, Holman wrote: “Nobody even knows whether the new ‘innovative districts’ program will work or is constitutional,” calling it an “accountability-free concept.” Well, we know that an important provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was ruled unconstitutional (the expansion of Medicaid), and Chief Justice John Roberts had to torture logic and the plain meaning of words in order to shoehorn the individual mandate into the Constitution.

I’m not saying that I approve of the way the Kansas Legislature approved this bill. But if it worked for Obamacare, and if Rhonda Holman and the Wichita Eagle editorial board like Obamacare (they do), well, you can draw your own conclusions.

Also, Holman complained of “unproven ideological reforms” contained in the Kansas school legislation. Two things: First, we know that the present system of public education in Kansas is not working for many children. For example, if we critically examine the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores that Kansans are so proud of, we find that for some groups of students, the national public school average beats or ties Kansas.

Or, if we read the National Center for Education Statistics report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, we can learn that Kansas has relatively low standards for its schools, and when Kansas was spending more on schools due to the Montoy decision from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered the standards.

ideology-definitionI’m of the opinion that whenever someone criticizes their opponents as ideological — as the Wichita Eagle editorial board has — they don’t have a very good argument. They’re likely confusing ideology with partisanship. The Wikipedia entry for ideology says: “An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things. … Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political or economic tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.”

I wish the Eagle editorial board was more ideological. If it firmly believed in economic freedom, free markets, limited government, and individual liberty — that’s an ideology we could live with, and Kansas schoolchildren could thrive under.

Instead, we’re left with the Wichita Eagle editorial board’s ideology of less educational freedom and less accountability to those who pay the bills and parent the students.

Kansas newspapers against the children

apple-wormA Kansas newspaper editorial illustrates that for the establishment, schools — the institution of public schools, that is — are more important than students.

An unsigned editorial in the Garden City Telegram proclaimed “Another attempt to undermine public schools materialized last week in the Kansas Statehouse.” (Legislators turn to ALEC for poor plan on schools, March 25, 2014.)

What was in a bill that so worried the Telegram editorial writers? According to the op-ed, the dangerous provisions are “expansion of charter schools, overhaul of teacher licensing and tax breaks for private school scholarships.”

To the Telegram, these ideas are “radical” and would “undermine” public schools. These ideas are from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), purportedly funded by Charles and David Koch. To low-information newspaper editorialists, the source of an idea alone is sufficient evidence to condemn it. To buttress its argument, the Telegram mentions the Koch Brothers several times along with Americans for Prosperity, the tea party, and other “special interests.”

What’s curious is that the op-ed says “ALEC promotes concepts of free-market enterprise and limited government, which are worthy of discussion in legislative pursuits.” It’s good that the op-ed writers realize this. Very good.

But the next sentence criticizes ALEC’s “one-size-fits-all approach.” That’s a strange claim to make. The education reforms that ALEC supports — and the public school establishment hates — are centered around providing more choices for students and parents. The public schools that the Telegram defends are the “one-size-fits-all approach.” School choice programs foster diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurship in education. Government schools are the opposite.

Further, these school choice programs do not “target” public schools, as claimed in this op-ed. It is true that school choice programs provide competition for public schools. But to say that giving choices to parents and students is targeting public schools assumes a few things: First, it assumes that the institution of public schools is more important than Kansas schoolchildren.

Second, it assumes that public schools are somehow more worthy of taxpayer funds than are charter schools and private schools. But should taxpayer funds be spent where government school bureaucrats want, or where parents believe their children will get the best education?

Third, allowing and encouraging competition is not “targeting.” Proclaiming this reveals lack of understanding of economic competition in markets. In the jungle, the winners kill and eat the losers. But in markets, competition is a discovery process. Competition spurs people to innovate with new products, or become more efficient. As new products and services are discovered and refined through competition, the old products and services must adapt or fall by the wayside. But the old stuff doesn’t die, as do animals in the jungles. People and capital assets from failing enterprises are recycled into the new successful enterprises, and life goes on — except everything is better.

That’s the real problem. Kansas schools are not getting better. Editorials like this are part of the problem. It doesn’t help that the Wichita Eagle excerpted this editorial.

wichita-business-journal-cover-2014-02-28

Wichita Business Journal remodels, features Charles Koch interview

wichita-business-journal-cover-2014-02-28

The Wichita Business Journal has, it its own words, “reinvented” itself, and starts its new life with features on Koch Industries and an extended interview with Charles Koch.

To get started, the weekly newspaper has made its complete digital edition available to read at no charge. Click here for access.

The interview with Koch is wide-ranging, covering the business interests of Koch Industries and Koch’s political involvement, detailing his relationship with Americans for Prosperity. An example quote: “When you start attacking cronyism and people’s political interests, it gets nasty.”

What is the import of the farm bill to Kansas?

Wheat combine on farmCorrecting the Wichita Eagle’s facts will place the importance of the farm bill to Kansas in proper perspective.

In criticizing five of the six members of the Kansas congressional delegation for voting against the farm bill, Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle editorialized this: “Five of the six members of the Kansas delegation just voted against a farm bill — a stunning abdication of leadership in a state in which agriculture is 25 percent of the economy.” (Eagle editorial: AWOL on farm bill, Wednesday, February 5, 2014)

The Eagle editorialist didn’t specify what she meant by “percent of the economy” or where she got these figures. But the most common measure of the size of an economy is gross domestic product (GDP), and it’s easy to find.

Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) for 2012 tells us that the category “Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting” contributed $5,428 million towards the total Kansas GDP of $138,953 million. That means agriculture contributed 3.9 percent to Kansas GDP. The Eagle based its argument on a value of 25 percent, a value that’s 6.4 times the actual value.

If you included the category “Food and beverage and tobacco product manufacturing” you’d add a few additional percentage points. But you’d still have a number that is just a fraction of what the Eagle editorial board believes to be the contribution of agriculture to the Kansas economy.

Now that you have the facts that the Wichita Eagle doesn’t have, how important do you think is the farm bill to Kansas?

Besides this, the Eagle praised former U.S. Senator Bob Dole for his “effort to bind rural and urban interests in agricultural policy by including food stamps in the nation’s safety net for farmers.” In political science this is called logrolling. It’s one of the reasons why government continues to grow faster than our willingness to pay for it. I think the Wichita Eagle likes that.

It’s for things like this that Dan Mitchell created the “Bob Dole Award” for Misguided Conservatives. It’s for those who fit this description:

“If you say something about fiscal policy and a statist can respond by saying “I agree, so let’s raise taxes,” then you’ve made the mistake of focusing on red ink rather than the real problem of too much government spending.”

Mitchell explains the naming of the award:

Naming the award after Bob Dole also is appropriate since he was never a sincere advocate of limited government. The Kansas lawmaker was a career politician who said in his farewell speech that his three greatest achievements were a) creating the food stamp program, b) increasing payroll taxes, and c) imposing the Americans with Disabilities Act (no wonder I wanted Clinton to win in 1996).

For all of these reasons, and more, no real conservative should want to win an award linked to Bob Dole.

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.”

WichitaLiberty.TV January 5, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look back at a few problematic issues regarding ethical government in Wichita in 2013. Topics include: Campaign contributions, the timing of city and school board elections, Mayor Carl Brewer’s integrity and threats, the need for campaign finance reform, the firing of a television news reporter, the apparently non-transparent way the city formulates policy, and the useless feedback systems the city relies on. Episode 26, broadcast January 5, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV September 1, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks presents an analysis of the delinquent real estate tax list and wonders why our institutions don’t provide this simple enhancement. Then, a review of the first two chapters of “Economics in One Lesson” with application to situations in Wichita. Finally, Amanda BillyRock illustrates Chapter 3: Blessings Of Destruction, and examples in Wichita are noted. Episode 11, broadcast September 1, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita mayor said to be ‘under lockdown’

When Wichita ABC affiliate KAKE Television ran a news story critical of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, reporter Jared Cerullo wasn’t able to interview Brewer to get his reaction to his critics. The mayor refused to talk to Cerullo.

Jeff Herndon, KAKE Television news anchor, speaking at Wichita Pachyderm Club, May 17, 2013. Herndon is speaking for himself, and not on behalf of KAKE.

Speaking last week at the Wichita Pachyderm Club, KAKE news anchor Jeff Herndon said that KAKE has “repeatedly” tried to get an on-camera interview with Brewer. But the mayor is always busy, Herndon said: “They’ve got him on lockdown. He’s not going to answer that.”

Herndon was speaking for himself, and not for his employer. In his talk to the Pachyderms, he was critical of Wichita news media — both television and print — for not covering city government rigorously, telling the audience: “We need more reporters on that city government beat, and not just on decisions they make. We need to hold them accountable for the decision. We don’t do that.”

Brewer is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for higher office, perhaps challenging Kansas Governor Sam Brownback next year. Brewer’s term as mayor ends in April 2015. He is not eligible for election to another term as mayor because of Wichita’s term limits law.

KAKE Television news story: Controversy over hotel sales tax vote

Notes:

  • The KAKE news story referred to is Wichita Mayor Scrutinized For Controversial Vote. Both text and video are available.
  • On his radio program, Joseph Ashby had an interesting take on Herndon’s remarks and Wichita new media.
  • Video of the city council meeting that was the subject of the KAKE news story is here.
  • Explanation of the public policy angle that drove citizens to testify at the April 16 city council meeting is here.
  • The original article that identified the problem and to solutions is Pay-to-play laws are needed in Wichita and Kansas. In that article I wrote: “When one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. 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.”

Joseph Ashby on local news media, anti-conservative bias

Wichita city hall logoLast week KAKE Television news anchor Jeff Herndon addressed the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Today, on the Joseph Ashby Show, the host commented on Herndon’s views on Wichita news media, and drew some conclusions about anti-conservative bias in Wichita news media.

Joseph Ashby Show, May 23, 2013 (excerpt).

The KAKE Television news story referred to is Wichita mayor comes under scrutiny for controversial vote.

Wichita Eagle editorial board on the truth

Wichita Eagle Opinion: Brownback Numbers are Suspect

A recent Wichita Eagle editorial penned by Rhonda Holman took Governor Sam Brownback to task for a mistake made in reporting Kansas spending numbers. (Eagle editorial: Brownback ’s numbers are suspect.)

Specifically, Holman wrote:

What’s going on here is clear: Brownback is embracing and repeating numbers that help promote his agenda, including what he sees as the need to push back against a court order for more state funding of public schools.

But Kansans need to trust that what they hear from their governor, especially again and again, is rooted in truth, not cherry-picked, spun or flat wrong.

So let’s look at the use of numbers by the Wichita Eagle editorial board. When discussing school spending, the editorialists refer to base state aid per pupil and treat that as though it was the totality of school spending.

Base state aid per pupil is just part of school spending, and most schools spend much more than that. Specifically, base state aid per pupil for the last school year was $3,780. But the state spent an average of $6,983 per pupil that year, which is an additional $3,203 or 84.7 percent more than base state aid. Overall spending from all sources was $12,656 per pupil. Both of the latter numbers are higher than the previous year.

Also, base state aid per pupil has declined in recent years. That’s a convenient fact for school spending boosters. They can use a statistic that contains a grain of truth in order to whip up concern among the uninformed over inadequate school spending. They can cite this as an argument for increasing spending, even though spending has been rising.

(By the way, when citizens in Kansas and across the nation are asked questions about school spending, we learn they are totally uninformed. Even worse, several candidates for the Wichita school board are similarly uninformed. See Wichita school board candidates on spending.)

Further, citing only base state aid reduces “sticker shock.” Most people are surprised to learn that our schools spend $12,656 per student. It’s much easier to tell taxpayers that only $3,780 was spent. But that’s not a complete picture. In fact, using base state aid as a measure of school spending defines “cherry-picked,” a practice of which Holman accuses the governor.

Informed readers are left wondering whether the Eagle editorial board is ignorant of these facts, or does it have an agenda to push — just like they accuse Brownback.

Here’s something else from Holman in the editorial:

Plus, Brownback has said that “29 percent of Kansas fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level.” That’s a misuse of the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey, in which Kansas actually ranked 10th best in the nation. The better measure is the state assessment, which found 10.1 percent of fourth-graders failed to meet the state standard in reading that year.

The high ranking of Kansas on the NAEP can be explained by the demographic composition of Kansas students compared to other states. As I show in Kansas school test scores, in perspective, Kansas students score better than Texas students on the NAEP. This is a fact congruent with Holman’s citing of Kansas’ high ranking among the states.

But it is also true that Texas white students score better than Kansas white students, Texas black students score better than Kansas black students, and Texas Hispanic students score better than or tie Kansas Hispanic students. The same pattern holds true for other ethnic subgroups. If we examine figures for low-income students, we see a similar pattern.

How can this be? You have to look more closely at the figures than the Wichita Eagle editorial board is willing or able. But if you do this, you will understand more about Kansas schools.

As far as relying on Kansas state assessments to gauge our schools’ performance, we need to be careful. When compared to other states, Kansas has low standards, and these standards have declined.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards, and we can see that Kansas has standards that are below most states. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state. An analysis of these tables by the Kansas Policy Institute shows that few states have standards below the Kansas standards.

The editorial board might also wonder why scores on the Kansas assessments — the ones under control of Kansas education officials — are rising, while NAEP scores are not.

A reader sent in this comment, which I believe is apt:

To paraphrase a trusted source:

“[The Eagle's] numbers matter because they’re being used by [Democrats] and [government employees' unions] to guide and justify state spending policy decisions, especially in education. The [Eagle] has used [misleading statistics] to drum up public support for plans to [raise] income taxes and to [support] a recent court decision that found the state isn’t meeting its constitutional mandate to provide adequate funding for schools.”

I don’t expect a correction anytime soon.

Wichita Eagle editorial board: When writing that “Kansans need to trust that what they hear from their governor, especially again and again, is rooted in truth, not cherry-picked, spun or flat wrong” please apply this standard to yourself.

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.

Downtown Wichita issues not appreciated

Once again, the Wichita Eagle editorial board misses the point regarding downtown Wichita development.

There may be some that are opposed to downtown simply because it’s downtown, or for other silly reasons. That seems to be the focus of Rhonda Holman’s editorial today.

But speaking from a perspective of economic freedom and individual liberty, it’s government interventionism in downtown that I object to. This is what harms Wichita, not the fact that people are living and working downtown or anywhere else, for that matter.

The political cronyism involved in many projects in downtown Wichita is what harms our city. When government takes from one and gives to another, everyone is worse off — other than the recipients. I understand that it’s easy to look at a subsidized project — be it downtown or elsewhere — and see people working at jobs. It’s much more difficult, however, to see the harm that the government intervention causes: Prosperity and jobs are lost due to inefficient government allocation of capital through political, not market, mechanisms. In the whole, we are worse off, not better.

If you don’t believe this — if you insist that the city government can create jobs and prosperity through its interventions, and that these have no net cost — then you have to ask why the city is not involved in more development.

It is the principled objection to government involvement that many do not understand, including, I think, the Wichita Eagle editorial board. An example: In September 2011, after I and others started a campaign to overturn a city council decision to award a tax subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel, the hotel’s lead developer asked to meet with me. In the meeting I explained that I would oppose the city’s action if applied to any hotel, located anywhere in Wichita, owned by anyone. He said that he sensed my opposition was based on principle, and I agreed.

The curious thing is that this seemed to puzzle him — that people would actually apply principles to politics.

The political allocation of investment capital in Wichita leads to problems of the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety. There is a small group of people that repeatedly receive large amounts of taxpayer subsidy. These people and others associated with their companies regularly contribute to the campaign funds of city council members and candidates. These council members then vote to grant these people taxpayer-funded subsidy, year after year.

City council members also vote to award them with no-bid contracts. That’s terrible government policy. Especially when one recent contract was later put to competitive bid, and turned out to cost much less than the no-bid price. City council members, all except one, were willing to award their significant campaign contributors with an overpriced no-bid contract at taxpayer expense.

The company that won the no-bid contract was Key Construction. Its owners and executives were the sole contributors to the campaign fund of Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), also running for reelection this spring, and also having voted for the no-bid contract for Key, also received many contributions from Key and its executives in 2012. That company, along with person associated with one other company, were the sole source of Clendenin’s campaign funding that year.

Doesn’t the Wichita Eagle editorial board see a problem here? Doesn’t the newsroom?

There was a time when newspaper opinion editors crusaded against this type of behavior.

Newspaper editorial writers ought also to be concerned about how taxpayer funds are spent. The City of Wichita, however, has established non-profit organizations to spend taxpayer funds. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, for example, is funded almost exclusively through taxes. Yet, it claims that it is not a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act, and therefore need not fulfill records requests seeking to bring transparency as to how the agency spends its taxpayer funds. The city, inexplicably, backs WDDC in this interpretation of law that is contrary to the interests of citizens.

Secrecy of this type regarding taxpayer funds is not good public policy. There was a time when newspaper editors railed against government secrecy like this.

We need a newspaper editorial board that understands principle vs. political expediency. As a first step, let’s ask for an editorial board that recognizes these abuses of citizens and is willing to talk about them.

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 Eagle fact checks Ambassador Hotel campaigns

As campaign chair for Tax Fairness for All Wichitans, I’m very concerned that the campaign is accurate and truthful in everything it does. I insist on adhering to that standard, starting with myself.

Now that the Wichita Eagle has published its fact checking article (Fact-checking claims on the Ambassador Hotel vote), I can say that this goal has been met. While the Eagle took issue with one of my claims, upon closer examination, there really is no issue at all.

But the same can’t be said for the claims made by the “Vote Yes” side. That side of the issue is championed by a group named “Moving Wichita Forward,” managed by Sheila Tigert. While the Eagle article said there were “three instances where semantic liberties have been taken with the facts surrounding the development,” the article finds four problems.

Specifically, the jobs claim made by Moving Wichita forward “is a stretch,” according to the director of the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. The number claimed is grossly exaggerated.

Second, Moving Wichita Forward’s claim of “No new taxes” is refuted by the two cents per dollar Community Improvement District tax created for the hotel’s exclusive benefit.

Third, Moving Wichita Forward ignores the economic impact of the $7.3 million in tax credits the hotel is receiving. Taxpayers across Kansas ($3.8 million) and the entire country ($3.5 million) have to make up the missing tax revenue that was diverted to the hotel developer.

Fourth, Moving Wichita Forward “incorrectly frames the project’s return on investment for the city of Wichita.”

The Eagle took issue with my claim that Wichita’s Tourism and Convention fund is losing $2 million this year, and therefore needs revenue from hotel guest taxes.

The Eagle consulted Wichita assistant finance director Rob Raine, who disputed the claim of the loss. But to believe what Raine contends, you would have to suspend belief in the economic reality of events. You would also have to come to the realization that Wichita city budget documents can’t be taken at face value.

Dave Trabert, who is president of Kansas Policy Institute and has experience with accounting, left a comment to the Eagle article that explains. He wrote:

A little fact-checking of the city’s claims about its budget might be in order. Page 328 of Wichita’s 2012/2013 Annual Budget shows the following for the Tourism and Convention Fund:

2012 Adopted:
Budgeted Revenues            $5,977,210
Budgeted Expenses            $7,983,130
Budgeted Loss               ($2,005,919)

2012 Beginning Fund Balance  $2,400,664
2012 Budgeted Loss          ($2,005,919)
2012 Ending Fund Balance       $394,745

The City also budgeted for a $379,042 loss in 2013, which would bring the fund balance down to just $15,703.

The Vote No group is not misreading the budget as claimed by the city. If anything, the city is attempting to misguide the Eagle reporter. If the city isn’t going to lose money this year and next as budgeted, they should openly explain what costs are being eliminated or revenues added to make up the difference. Until then, citizens must reasonably conclude that the budget is accurate.

In a later comment Trabert added: “The city is also falsely claiming that reserves are ‘appropriated,’ implying that reserves are part of the $8 million in expenditures. Page 328 of the budget very clearly identifies the $8 million in budgeted expenditures and reserves are not part of that total. The budgeted $2 million net loss is deducted from beginning reserves as explained in my earlier post.”

The tourism and convention budget may be viewed on page 328 of this document: Wichita Adopted Supplemental Budget 2012-2013. An excerpt from the budget of the relevant page may be viewed at Wichita Tourism and Convention Fund Budget 2012 – 2013.

Wichita voters should not be mislead by Moving Wichita Forward, a campaign that is now shown to have little concern for being truthful.

More information about the election and its issues are at Wichita Ambassador Hotel information sheet and Fact checking the Wichita Ambassador Hotel campaign.

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council revealed a council — except for one member — totally captured by special interests, to the point where the council, aided by city staff, used a narrow legal interpretation in order to circumvent a statutorily required public hearing process.

The issue was a downtown hotel to be developed by a team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties. The subsidies Burk wants, specifically tax increment financing (TIF), require a public hearing to be held. The city scheduled the hearing for September 13th.

That schedule, however, didn’t suit Burk. In order to provide him a certain comfort level, the council agreed to issue a letter of intent stating that the council intends to do the things that the public hearing is supposed to provide an opportunity for deliberation.

I, along with others, contend that this action reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Carl Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, part of which holds that our laws are more important than any single person.

Several times council members — and once city attorney Gary Rebenstorf — explained that the letter of intent is non-binding on either party. But: No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against the incentives involved, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I think there is very little possibility of that.

Persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

During the discussion, no one was able to explain adequately why a letter of intent — if it is non-binding and therefore does not commit the city — was asked for by the developers. Despite the lawyerly explanation of Rebenstorf and council members — including the mayor — the letter does have meaning. Practically, it has such a powerful meaning that it makes the holding of the public hearing on September 13th a mere charade, a meaningless exercise in futility.

It’s not just me and a handful of others who contend this. The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, who is usually in favor of all forms of public spending on downtown, wrote: “Even though the letter of intent will be nonbinding, it risks making the Sept. 13 public hearing on tax-increment financing seem like a pointless afterthought.”

In his remarks, City Manager Bob Layton explained that the meeting was the first time for council members to “formally vet this project and all of the incentives.”

He added: “If the council were to say, for instance, there were two or three pieces of that that you had discomfort with, that would then put everyone on notice that the deal may not go forward.” He said this is the purpose of today’s action, and he added that the action is non-binding.

I would suggest that since the council, with the exception of Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), found no problems with issuing the letter of intent, it has no problems with the deal, and this is what makes the September public hearing, as Holman said, a “pointless afterthought.”

Astonishingly, the manger said while this is “not intended to be the normal process,” he said that he “kind of like it” as it gave an initial opportunity to gauge the sentiment of council members.

I’m glad the manager didn’t mention the sentiment of the public, as with little notice as to the content of the deal and its incentives, citizens had no meaningful opportunity to prepare.

An example of the contorted logic council members use to justify their action: Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) explained that issuing letters of intent is a common practice in real estate deals. He confused, however, agreements made between private parties and those where government is a party. Private parties can voluntarily enter into whatever agreements they want. But agreements with government are governed by laws. Yesterday, the city council announced its intent to do something for which it is required to hold a public hearing. That didn’t violate the letter of the law, but it certainly goes against its spirit and meaning. Longwell said he has no problem with that.

Their bureaucratic enablers helped out, too. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, in his testimony, said we are working towards becoming a “city of distinction.” That we are, indeed — a city distinguished by lack of respect for the rule of law and its disregard for citizens in favor of special interests.

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

In response to a question from the mayor, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private dollars to public dollars for this project is about 2.2 to 1. Whether these numbers are correct is doubtful. It will take an analysis of the deal to determine the true numbers, and the details have been available for only a short time. But if correct, this ratio falls well short of the stated goals. Two years ago, when agitation for a new round of downtown planing started, boosters spoke of a ratio of 15 to 1. Eventually planners promised a ratio of 5 to 1 private to public investment for downtown. This project, while of course is just a single project and not the entirety of downtown development, doesn’t reach half that goal.

Order of events and media coverage

During the meeting, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) conceded that “the order of events is confusing.”

Before that, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) claimed that there had been much media coverage of the proposed hotel, and that the public was actually getting two opportunities to talk about this project. She said that the media had published information about today’s meeting and the public hearing on September 13th.

Miller is gravely mistaken. Until a Wichita Eagle article on Saturday, I saw no mention of the letter of intent, and no detail of the form of subsidies to be considered for this project. The city’s list of legal notices contains no mention of the action that was taken at this meeting.

Questions not answered

During my remarks to the council, I related how last year the Wichita Eagle alleged that David Burk, the managing member of this project — and I quote here: “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.”

This Eagle article and a companion article went on to quote these people as having trouble with and being concerned, to varying degrees, with Burk’s acts: City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf; City Council member Jeff Longwell; City Council Member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor; then-Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, now on the Sedgwick County Commission; and City Manager Robert Layton.

In particular, the manager said, according to the Eagle, 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. Despite the fact that nearly all the property taxes Burk pays directly enriches himself and only him, he still doesn’t want to pay them. And according to the Wichita Eagle — not me — he engaged in deception in order to reduce them.

None of the four people in the council chambers — Rebenstorf, Longwell, Williams, and Layton — explained their apparent change of mind with regard to Burk’s acts.

Burk, who addressed the council immediately after I asked if he cared to explain his actions, decided to avoid the issue. In his shoes, I probably would have done the same, as there is no justification for the acts the Eagle accused him of doing. He, and his political and bureaucratic enablers in Wichita city hall, have to hope this issue fades.

Campaign contributions

Council member O’Donnell asked about a parking garage to be built at a cost of $6 million to the city: Will the city be putting this project out to competitive bid? Bell replied no, that is the developer’s request. City attorney Rebenstorf added that there is a charter ordinance that exempts these types of projects from bidding requirements.

O’Donnell said that awarding the construction contract to a company that has made campaign contributions to all council members (except him) “seems a little questionable.”

The company in question is Key Construction. Its principals regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates. Similarly, Burke and his wife also frequently make the maximum contribution to city hall candidates.

O’Donnell is correct to publicize these contributions. They emit a foul odor. In our political system, many people make contributions to candidates whose ideology they agree with, be it conservative, liberal, or something else.

But 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 that Schlapp and Longwell, despite their proclamations of fiscal conservatism, have shown themselves to be willing to vote for any form of developer welfare Burk and others have asked for. They create tangled webs of tortured logic to explain their votes. Meitzner, along with his fellow new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita), seems to be following the same path.

Several council members and the mayor took exception to O’Donnell’s raising of this matter. Clendenin, for his part, objected and said that the public has had over 30 days to consider and take exception with this project. This contention, like Miller’s, isn’t supported by any facts that I am aware of. It appears that the first mention of any of the details of the plan and the subsidies is contained in a MAPC agenda that appears to have been created on July 29. Besides not being 30 days in advance, the MAPC agenda is an obscure place to release what Clendenin believes is adequate public notice.

Regarding the issue of campaign contributions, the mayor — without mentioning his name — strongly criticized O’Donnell for bringing up this matter. Many people watching this meeting felt that the extreme reaction of Brewer and others to O’Donnell’s observation reveals a certain uneasiness regarding these contributions. I don’t believe the mayor and council members are taking illegal bribes, although when any city is enriching people with millions of dollars of developer welfare there is always that threat, and in some cities and states such practices are commonplace.

The fact remains, however, that there is a small group of campaign contributors who — over and over — ask for and receive largess from city hall.

The mayor’s criticisms

In his comments, Mayor Brewer accused opponents of providing only partial facts about matters, because the full facts did not support their case. He was referring to my remarks that a lawsuit brought against the city by a party who felt the city had reneged on a letter of intent was litigated all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. In my remarks I didn’t mention who won that case — the city did — and the mayor believes this is an example of slanting the facts.

The mayor went on to make accusations of “grandstanding” from some of the public and “some council members” because there are cameras in the council chambers. He mentioned that news media are present at every meeting and that council meetings are broadcast on television.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In addition, Bill Wilson, the reporter the Wichita Eagle sent to cover the meeting, has a documented bias against the concept of free markets, and against those who believe in them.

The mayor, when delivering his criticism, does not use the names of those he criticizes. It would be useful if he did, but it would mean he has to take greater accountability for his remarks.

Following are links to excerpts of testimony from the meeting — perhaps examples of the “grandstanding” the mayor complained about: John Todd, Shirley Koehn, and Bob Weeks.

Wichita Eagle editorial page: arm of Democratic Party?

Today’s letters section of the Wichita Eagle carries a letter from the executive director of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party promoting an event that will poke fun at Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

A letter to the editor of any newspaper that discusses public policy, including Kobach’s agenda, is relevant. But this letter is a promotion — an advertisement — for a partisan political party event. It’s not billed as a fundraiser, but it has all the characteristics of one, including tickets selling for as much as $100.

Printing letters like this harms the image of Eagle, if it wishes to retain credibility as a neutral arbitrator of public opinion and policy.

Wichita Eagle endorsements out of step with Wichita

Yesterday’s primary election for Wichita city and school board races revealed a Wichita Eagle editorial board increasingly out of step with voters, who followed several of the board’s recommendations but also voted strongly against several Eagle-endorsed candidates. It’s not the first time this has happened.

The endorsements are not the Eagle’s prediction of who will win, but instead are “recommendations as information to consider as you make up your own minds about the candidates.”

For the race for Wichita mayor, voters strongly followed the Eagle’s endorsement of incumbent Carl Brewer. That contest attracted several challengers, but none with the stature to raise the money necessary to seriously challenge an incumbent in a city-wide election.

For city council district 2, the Eagle editorial board strongly endorsed Steve Harris, calling him “best choice by far.” Pete Meitzner was mentioned as a credible candidate. But the winner of the election was Charlie Stevens, who the Eagle dismissed as an also-ran. The Eagle’s recommended candidate Harris finished in third place behind Meitzner, although the margin is small at 1,302 votes to 1,292 votes.

For city council district 3, the editorial board recommended James Clendenin, and he won. Its second choice of Hoyt Hillman finished in third place behind Mark Geitzen, who will advance to the general election with Clendenin. Geitzen, too, was characterized by the Eagle as an also-ran.

In city council district 4, the Eagle named June Bailey the “standout candidate.” She finished in third place behind Joshua Blick and Michael O’Donnell, the latter placed by the Eagle in the also-ran category.

For the at-large seat for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, the Eagle recommend Sheril Logan, and she won.

A distinguishing feature of the candidates the Eagle endorsed for city offices is their support for government intervention in the local economy through the use of economic development incentives and outright subsidy. (But always to be used prudently, of course, with scrutiny and discretion.) In particular, district 2 council candidate Harris embraced government intervention and was endorsed by several of Wichita’s most prominent crony capitalists. Other candidates like Clendenin and Bailey look favorably on big government, too.

While Clendenin won in his district, voters preferred other candidates to Harris and Bailey. In particular, Stevens in district 2, Gietzen in district 3, and O’Donnell in district 4 have an explicit free-market perspective in their messages. The Wichita Eagle editorial board believes in all things opposite — crony capitalism, large-scale interventionism in the name of social engineering, and reliance on government rather than free people to solve problems and create prosperity — so it’s no surprise the names of these three candidates and their positions were buried. The Eagle’s political and economic preferences, however, are increasingly out of step with what Wichita voters want.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday February 18, 2011

Wichita-area legislators to meet public. Tomorrow members of the South-Central Kansas Legislative Delegation will meet with the public. Tomorrow’s meeting is in the Sunflower Room of the Sedgwick County Extension Education Center, 21st and Tyler Rd, at 9:00 am. Generally these meetings last for two hours. The first of these meetings, two weeks ago, was focused more on hearing the concerns of citizens rather than allowing legislators to speak a lot. … Two other meetings have been scheduled. One is on March 19th — right before the legislature adjourns for its break — at Derby City Hall, 611 Mulberry Road. Then on April 23 — right before the “wrap-up session” — at the Wichita State University Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th Street (at Oliver).

This Week in Kansas. On This Week in Kansas Joe Aistrup of Kansas State University and co-author of of the new book on Kansas politics Kansas Politics and Government: The Clash of Political Cultures, Richard Schrock of Emporia State University and Education Frontlines, and myself join host Tim Brown to discuss immigration and abortion bills in Kansas, concealed carry on college campus, and public schools medicating students. This Week in Kansas airs on KAKE-TV channel 10 at 9:00 am Sunday.

Mandatory union political spending questioned. From Derrick Sontag of Americans for Prosperity, Kansas: “It was Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.’ On that note the Kansas Legislature is considering House Bill 2130, commonly referred to as ‘paycheck protection.’ Money derived from public employee union membership dues, for example, is often spent on functions outside of bargaining and administrative activity. That’s certainly the prerogative of a union but the problem is in some instances members may not choose to support union political activity, yet their money is going towards just that. … This is not a bill designed to eliminate unions. Rather it provides workers the ability to protect themselves from financially supporting political candidates they otherwise wouldn’t support. The unions that effectively present their case as to why political activity should occur will more than likely earn the financial support of a number of its members. Members of public employee unions should have the right to fully safeguard against their money being spent on political causes and candidates they don’t support.”

Tom Woods: Rollback. This week I traveled to Kansas State University to attend a lecture by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.. His topic, mostly, was his new book Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse. Of the book, Woods explains: “The book does two things. First, it lays bare the true fiscal position of the U.S. government, and shows why some kind of default is not merely possible but inevitable. … By far the more central part of the book is this: the critical first step for reversing this mess and checking the seemingly unstoppable federal advance is to stick a dagger through the heart of the myths by which government has secured the confidence and consent of the people. We know these myths by heart. Government acts on behalf of the public good. It keeps us safe. It protects us against monopolies. It provides indispensable services we could not provide for ourselves. Without it, America would be populated by illiterates, half of us would be dead from quack medicine or exploding consumer products, and the other half would lead a feudal existence under the iron fist of private firms that worked them to the bone for a dollar a week. Thus Americans tolerate much government predation because they have bought into the myth that state intervention may be an irritant, but the alternative of a free society would be far worse.”

$100 million in cuts. It’s two years old, but this video places a proposal by President Barack Obama to cut $100 million from the federal budget in context. As the video explains, the scale of numbers so large — millions, billions, trillions — are often difficult to grasp. … Currently some Republicans in Congress are trying to cut $100 billion (1,000 times as much) from the federal budget, and it’s a difficult process. Even a cut of this size is not enough. As Tom Woods recently wrote in Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse: “America is staring default in the face, and the boldest proposal we hear is for trimming $100 billion. That’s like taking three dollars off a trip to the moon.”

Brownback plan ignored in Wichita. At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council I explained to council members a few points of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s economic development plan and how several actions the council was considering were directly in opposition to that plan. No council member asked a question. No Wichita news media reported on how the council ignored the governor’s plan. Especially troubling is how the Wichita Eagle had two reporters attending the meeting, yet there was no mention in that newspaper as to how the council voted several times against the principles of the Brownback plan. … Especially puzzling are the votes of Sue Schlapp, who held a leadership role in the Brownback campaign. Video and more is here.

National League of Cities junket defended. Speaking of Schlapp and other city council members, the Wichita Eagle printed a letter from the Executive Director of the National League of Cities defending the value of the conference for city council members. Fair enough. But the problem is that Wichita is sending council members to the conference who will serve less than one month after the conference. These council members — Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, and Roger Smith — ought to refrain from spending taxpayer money on this trip, which is a junket for lame ducks.

Wichita Eagle quality control could use improvement

When presented with evidence of errors in its stories, the Wichita Eagle, Kansas’ largest newspaper, is not being responsive in correcting its errors.

On July 12, the Eagle ran the story 84th District race a repeat for 2 candidates, highlighting the two Democratic Party candidates for a Kansas House of Representatives district. The article said there was no Republican filer, when in fact Dan Heflin had filed as a Republican. This could be seen clearly at either the Kansas Secretary of State’s listing of candidates, or at the Sedgwick County Election Office’s listing.

The article was written by “courtney looney,” a name I wasn’t familiar with at the Eagle. I couldn’t find an email address or telephone number, so I couldn’t contact the reporter directly. I, and one other person, left a comment to the story calling attention to the error. As of today, the error is still in the story. I couldn’t find evidence of a correction.

In another example, on August 10 the Wichita Eagle printed the story Kansas’ justice-selection process unique, in which the reporter wrote: “Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate and approval of the governor. Then the issue goes to voters during a general election.”

The process is described correctly except for the role of the governor. Unlike regular legislation, the governor does not sign or approve a constitutional amendment. The only parties involved are the legislature and the people voting on the amendment in an election.

In this case, I knew the identity of the reporter, so I sent an email message about this error. A comment writer called attention to the error, too. I never got a response, and the story still appears on the Wichita Eagle website with the error intact. Finally, on August 17 the Eagle printed a correction.

The story was printed in the Lawrence Journal-World under an Associated Press byline, and the error was there, too. The story may have been printed in other newspapers.

For a final example, on August 11 the Eagle printed the story Wichita City Council OKs tax districts, in which the reporter wrote: “The approval means the hotel can charge an extra cent or two of sales tax for up to 22 years, with the revenue rebated to them after the state and city remove 7 percent in administrative fees. That will mean about $9.6 million in revenue from the extra sales tax for the $12 million hotel.”

John Todd, a friend of mine with an interest in this issue, called me and asked me if it was true that the extra sales tax this hotel can charge through the Kansas Community Improvement District program would be worth $9.6 million over 22 years as reported. I said no, the CID is just one part of a package of subsidies the city created for this project, with the total package being worth $9.6 million or thereabouts. The total package is reported on at Waterwalk hotel deal breaks new ground for Wichita subsidies.

A simple back-of-the-napkin calculation can confirm this, using publicly available sources of data: The hotel may have up to 130 rooms. A study commissioned by the city regarding this hotel found that “In 2008, the proposed Fairfield Inn’s competitive set’s average daily rate was $86.31.” In January, Goody Clancy, the firm planning the revitalization of downtown Wichita, said that Wichita hotels are doing well with an occupancy rate of about 67 percent, with a companion chart showing downtown hotels at about 70 percent.

Doing the arithmetic (130 rooms times $86.31 daily rate times 365 days per year times 70 percent occupancy factor times two percent CID tax rate) results in about $57,336 in revenue per year from the CID tax. Or over the 22 year life of the CID, about $1.3 million. It’s possible the hotel might generate additional CID revenue through sales of drinks or other incidentals, but this would likely be a small amount.

Even if one disputes the assumptions and substitutes a higher room rate or occupancy factor, there’s no way the CID will come close to generating the revenue the Eagle article reports.

Todd called the reporter, and the reporter was insistent that the reported figures are correct, saying he received them from Wichita economic development director Allen Bell. I think this means we shouldn’t expect a correction.

It’s part of human nature to make mistakes. I do, and when I do, often I get an email from someone at the Wichita Eagle notifying me of such. When I realize I have made a mistake, I correct it, as can be seen in this example.

But the Wichita Eagle isn’t doing the same in a timely manner, and sometimes not at all.

It’s not as though I’m disagreeing with opinions presented in editorials on the opinion page (and people in Wichita have enough trouble with those). The problems here are with facts that can easily be verified. In particular, when the Eagle mistakenly reports the governor’s role in amending the constitution, and then doesn’t quickly issue a correction and leaves the erroneous story on its website, I think we have a problem.

Anderson, former Congressional candidate, to host Wichita radio show

Today former candidate for United States Congress from the fourth district of Kansas Jim Anderson announces that he will host a weekly talk radio program in Wichita.

The show, titled “The Jim Anderson Program” will air on Saturday afternoons from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm on KNSS radio, 1330 AM.

This is a step forward for Wichita, as it is one of the largest cities without local talk radio that focuses on public affairs. Following is the press release from KNSS:

WICHITA, KS — Entercom Radio Wichita is proud to announce the formation of South Central Kansas’ newest live and local talk radio show, “The Jim Anderson Program”, which will debut on Saturday, August 21st, from 1-3pm on NewsRadio 1330 KNSS.

Former 4th district Republican congressional candidate, Constitutional Conservative, and small business owner, Jim Anderson, will host this live and local talk show program that will address wide-ranging issues from politics, culture, history, current events, and discussing their implications on the local, national and international scene. The program promises to be a no holds-barred and nonpartisan mouthpiece as well as demand accountability and seek truth. “We are going to hold people’s feet to the fire,” Anderson stated. He continued, “for too long, we the people have been to blame for not holding our local, state, and national representatives accountable, it is and has been our fault. My goal is to provide a voice and a platform so regular citizens, like myself, can do just that with the powerful and influential who have forgotten that power is derived from the consent of the governed”.

“It is our hope that Jim’s passion, fire, and genuineness will create a program that people can’t miss, a program where they have a voice, and one that is not too far away to interact or gain attention of,” says KNSS Program Director, Tony Duesing.

The Jim Anderson Radio Program can be heard every Saturday, from 1-3pm on NewsRadio 1330 KNSS.

Wichita Eagle editorial endorsements: helpful, or not?

Yesterday’s primary election in Kansas provided a measure of the influence of the Wichita Eagle editorial board. Voters ignored many of its endorsements, indicating that the newspaper — its editorial side, at least — is increasingly out of touch with its readers.

Starting from the top, here’s how the Eagle endorsed and what the voters did. An endorsement is a recommendation to voters, and not intended to be a prediction of the outcome.

For the Republican Party nomination for United States Senate, the Eagle endorsed Jerry Moran. He won. For the Democratic Party side of this race, the Eagle picked Kansas Senator David Haley. He finished in third place.

For the Republican party nomination for United States Congress from the Kansas first district, the Eagle picked Kansas Senator Jim Barnett, noting his “balanced legislative record.” The Eagle dismissed challenger Kansas Senator Tim Huelskamp, calling him a “hard-right conservative with a hard edge.” This race was in a three-way tie in the last poll, but voters chose Huelskamp with 35 percent of the vote to Barnett’s 25 percent and Tracey Mann’s 21 percent.

(There is a pattern here. According to the Eagle editorial board, conservatives are “hard,” while liberals are portrayed as soft and cuddly — or “balanced” and “nuanced,” at least.)

For the Republican party nomination for United States Congress from the fourth district, the Eagle chose Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf. This had the potential to be a close race, with some polls — her own, mostly — showing Schodorf in the lead. But the race turned out to be not close, with Wichita businessman Mike Pompeo gathering 39 percent of the vote to Schodorf’s 24 percent and Wichita businessman Wink Hartman‘s 23 percent.

On the Democratic side, the Eagle endorsed Kansas Representative Raj Goyle, and he won handily over a little-known and inexperienced challenger with no experience in elective office.

For the Republican party nomination for Kansas Governor, the Eagle endorsed Sam Brownback, whose only competition was from a candidate with some very peculiar beliefs. Brownback won handily.

For Kansas Secretary of State Democratic Party nomination, the Eagle backed appointed incumbent Chris Biggs over opponent Kansas Senator Chris Steineger, who the Eagle faintly praised for his “out-of-the-box thinking and independence.” Biggs won.

On the Republican side, the Eagle endorsed career bureaucrat Elizabeth Ensley over Kris Kobach. The Eagle — Rhonda Holman, mostly — has criticized Kobach steadily on the editorial page for his contention that voter fraud is a problem in Kansas. Voters overwhelmingly chose Kobach. He got 51 percent of the vote to Ensley’s 27 percent.

For Republican Party nomination for Attorney General, the Eagle chose Kansas Senator Derek Schmidt, and he won handily over the capable but little-known Ralph De Zago.

For Republican Party nomination for insurance commissioner, the Eagle chose incumbent Sandy Praeger, and she easily won.

Sedgwick County Commission voters ignored Eagle recommendations

In primary contests for Sedgwick County Commission, voters didn’t give much weight to Wichita Eagle endorsements.

In the contest for the Democratic Party nomination for District 1, Eagle-endorsed Betty Arnold won. She’ll face unopposed incumbent Dave Unruh in the general election in this heavily Republican district.

In District 4, two Republicans ran to replace Kelly Parks, who chose not to seek re-election. The Eagle endorsed Lucy Burtnett, who served two years in this position when she was appointed by the precinct committee system to replace Carolyn McGinn, who won election to the Kansas Senate. When Burtnett ran for election to that position in 2006, she did not win. Instead of backing the Republican primary winner, she ran a write-in campaign that had the potential to contribute to a possible Republican loss.

Despite her loss in 2006, the Eagle endorsed her over Richard Ranzau, praising her “thoughtful” voting record, which I — after looking at her past votes — characterized as thoughtless. Ranzau won with 55 percent of the vote to Burtnett’s 44 percent. She told the Wichita Eagle that she will not support Ranzau in the general election, which naturally leads to speculation as to whether she’ll run another write-in campaign.

For the Democratic party nomination for the position, the Eagle endorsed former Wichita city council member Sharon Fearey. From the council bench, Fearey had blasted the Eagle for uncovering problems with a real estate developer’s past dealings, blocking passage of a project she supported. Besides the editorial board endorsement, the Eagle also ran a last-minute news story embarrassing to her opponent, Kansas Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau. As of now, Faust-Goudeau has won by a margin of 60 votes out of 3,450 cast.

In District 5, the Eagle endorsed Chuck Warren in a three-way race for the Republican Party nomination. Wichita city council member Jim Skelton won with 42 percent of the vote to Warren’s 36 percent.

Kansas House of Representatives endorsements

In an open seat in the Kansas House of Representatives, the Eagle endorsed Jim Howell for the 82nd district, which is primarily the city of Derby. He won.

In the Republican party primary for Kansas House of Representatives district 83, parts of east Wichita, veteran legislator Jo Ann Pottorff faced a challenge from the right in recent college graduate Kyle Amos. Pottorff had to run a last-minute ad in the Eagle attempting to burnish her conservative credentials. She won with 53 percent of the vote. This qualifies as a squeaker.

In Kansas House of Representatives district 94, parts of west Wichita, the Eagle chose to endorse a challenger to incumbent Joe McLeland in the Republican primary. The Eagle criticized him as a “yes-man for GOP leadership and anti-tax think tanks” and said he “parroted misleading information about school budgets during the past session.” McLeland won with 63 percent of the vote. His two challengers received 22 percent and 16 percent.

In the Republican Party primary for Kansas House of Representatives district 96, parts of south Wichita, the Eagle endorsed first-term incumbent Phil Hermanson, and he won.

The Eagle recommended that voters chose incumbent Gail Finney in the Democratic Party primary for the 84th district, and she won by a large margin.

For election results from races in Sedgwick County, click on August 3rd, 2010 Primary Election Unofficial Results — Sedgwick County. For statewide races and other races, click on 2010 unofficial primary election results at Kansas Secretary of State.

Wichita Eagle endorsements deserve scrutiny

The Wichita Eagle editorial board has made its endorsements for offices in the August 3rd Kansas primary election. Before voters decide whether to rely on these recommendations, they deserve some examination.

For example, for the Kansas House of Representatives the Eagle endorsed incumbent Republican representative Jo Ann Pottorff for her “balanced voting record.” The Eagle said she was willing to stand apart from the area’s “hard-line conservatives.”

But an examination of Pottorff’s voting record indicates something other than balance. This year, on the Kansas Economic Freedom Index (a project of this site), her score was 13 percent. That placed her in the tenth percentile of members of the Kansas House on a scale that rewards fiscally conservative votes. It’s a liberal voting record, in other words. We might even say a “hard-line liberal” voting record.

(If the Eagle was to criticize a liberal, however, it would probably use the softer and preferred term “progressive.” Even liberals try to hide their lineage.)

Other examples of language that reveals the Wichita Eagle’s bias is in their endorsement of an opponent to current representative Joe McLeland. In its endorsement, the Eagle editorial board wrote: “Unfortunately, he also seemed at times to be a yes-man for GOP leadership and anti-tax think tanks. It was particularly disappointing how McLeland, the chairman of the House Education Budget Committee, parroted misleading information about school budgets during the past session.”

Why didn’t the Eagle write this about Pottorff: “Unfortunately, she seemed to be a yes-woman for the governor and the anti-economic freedom, big-spending teachers union leadership and school spending advocacy groups”?

Regarding McLeland, the Eagle is probably referring to the controversy about unspent school fund balances. The Eagle, along with the teachers union and other school spending lobbies, didn’t believe that these balances existed and wrote so in several opinion pieces. The Eagle probably still doesn’t believe these funds exist, notwithstanding the fact that the schools spent the very same fund balances they said didn’t exist and couldn’t be spent: “By using fund balances, schools in Kansas were able to increase spending by an estimated $320 million in the current school year. Revenue to Kansas school districts declined by about $50 million, but $370 in fund balances were used to boost total spending by $320 million.”

So when the Eagle makes an endorsement based on a factually unsound position, what should voters do?

In the Republican party primary for Sedgwick County Commission District 4, the Eagle chose Lucy Burtnett over Richard Ranzau, praising Burtnett’s “thoughtful voting record” during her two years as an appointed commissioner.

In 2006, while campaigning for this same position, Burtnett was reported by the Wichita Eagle to have this reaction to a proposed Sedgwick County property tax increase: “Lucy Burtnett, the current 4th District county commissioner, told 30 people attending a candidate forum at the Northeast Senior Center that none of the commissioners find the increase acceptable.” Part of the purpose of the proposed tax increase was to fund a jail expansion.

After losing the primary election, Burtnett voted in favor of a tax increase that was somewhat smaller than what the county manager originally proposed. Its purpose, partially, was to fund a jail expansion.

Two years later — realizing the jail expansion wasn’t necessary after all — the county rolled back part of the tax increase that Burtnett voted for.

“Thoughtful” voting record, as the Eagle endorsement said? Or thoughtless?

For Republican Party nomination for United States Congress from the fourth district of Kansas, the Eagle chose Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf.

Describing her as “not overly ideological or partisan,” the Eagle again overlooks facts.

Webster’s dictionary gives one definition of ideology as “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.” The Eagle uses this term with a dark connotation, implying that candidates with ideologies are inflexible and unwilling to consider anything other than their own views. Other liberal media outlets use this term in the same way.

But ideologies cut both ways. And Schodorf hasn’t seen many school spending programs and accompanying taxes that she won’t vote for. This is in spite of evidence that schools had money they weren’t spending, and that all the spending hasn’t done much to improve student outcomes. (The Eagle and Schodorf would have to look beyond the fraudulent Kansas state assessment scores to see that.)

The view of Schodorf and the Wichita Eagle editorial board is that Kansas public schools are always underfunded, and schools can be fixed only with more money. That’s an ideology, and one that is demonstrably harmful to Kansas schoolchildren.

This is all the more striking when we consider that Schodorf is chair of the Senate Education Committee. She has been in one of the most powerful positions to do something for Kansas schoolchildren, but she has not done that. So when the Eagle praises her for being “a pragmatist who cares about finding real solutions, not scoring political points,” consider that Kansas has few of the reforms such as charter schools and school choice that are working in other states. These are “real solutions” that the Eagle doesn’t favor. Instead, Schodorf seeks favor and campaign contributions from the teachers union and school spending lobby, earning the “political points” the Eagle editorial board purportedly condemns.

As for not being partisan, Schodorf simply belongs to the wrong party, if we are to believe that the Republican Party is home to conservative thought and practice. Schodorf’s voting record this year is more liberal — considering the same bills — than that of the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for this position.

It’s pretty easy to appear non-partisan when your party label is wrong.

It’s hard to tell, but it appears that the Eagle editorial board gave extra consideration to its Schodorf endorsement because she didn’t run a negative campaign. Regarding Mike Pompeo, the Eagle wrote, after listing his credentials, “It’s too bad he ran such an ugly campaign.”

That “ugly campaign,” however, can be viewed as simply responding to the allegations and charges made by another candidate. He didn’t attack Schodorf — perhaps he should have — so she, as well as the other candidates, didn’t have to defend themselves.

Wichita Eagle voter guide available

For the voter guide for the November 2012 elections, click here.

The Wichita Eagle’s voter guide is now available online.

This guide may be used in two ways: you can enter your address, and the system will show you information about the candidates that will appear on your ballot. Or, you can browse all the races and candidates.

If you use the voter guide by entering your address, you’ll be presented with all the candidates for each office that will appear on your ballot. For each office, you can view information about the candidates, and you can optionally indicate who you intend to vote for. At the end of the process, you can print a ballot — with your selections marked — to take with you to the polls. Or, the system will email it to you.

The information in this guide is provided by the candidates (except for a brief description of each office), and there is no editorial comment. Some of this information will probably appear in a printed version of the newspaper, but not for contests like precinct committeeman and committeewoman.

Correction

In my article Wichita city hall silent on handling of ethics issue, I made a mistake in stating that a ready-to-print story was canceled by Wichita Eagle newsroom management. Eagle editor Sherry Chisenhall informs me that the newspaper did perform research as I reported, but the matter never advanced to a story that was ready for publication. Therefore, there was no story to “squash,” as I reported.

I regret this error and apologize to the newspaper.

The issue remains that the Eagle newsroom is fully aware of the situation and decided to mention it only as a small part of a larger story, as my article explains. The Eagle editorial page is still silent on this issue.

Tea party impact to be topic of panel

This Friday the Wichita Pachyderm Club features a panel discussion with panelists Susan Estes, Lynda Tyler, and Dion Lefler discussing the topic “What is the political impact, if any, of the Tea Party movement?” Estes is Field Director for Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, Tyler is head of Kansans for Liberty and organizer of the last two tea party events in Wichita, and Lefler is a Wichita Eagle reporter who covers politics at several levels.

All are welcome to attend Pachyderm club meetings. The program costs $10, which includes a delicious buffet lunch including salad, soup, two main dishes, and ice tea and coffee. The meeting starts at noon, although it’s recommended to arrive fifteen minutes early to get your lunch before the program starts.

The Wichita Petroleum Club is on the ninth floor of the Bank of America Building at 100 N. Broadway (north side of Douglas between Topeka and Broadway) in Wichita, Kansas (click for a map and directions). Park in the garage just across Broadway and use the sky walk to enter the Bank of America building. Bring your parking garage ticket to be stamped and your parking fee will be only $1.00. There is usually some metered and free street parking nearby.

Fake stimulus exposed by Watchdog group

There’s a new dog in town, and doing a great job already.

In New Mexico, the New Mexico Watchdog reported the story More Than 4,800 New Jobs Created in New Mexico in Less than a Month from Stimulus, According to Obama Administration Data, which is apparently the first news story to notice the glaring errors — some say fraud — in stimulus data provided by the government website Recovery.gov.

The national Watchdog site then reported $6.4 Billion Stimulus Goes to Phantom Districts.

Watchdog.org is a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. There are state-level watchdogs in a growing number of states, including Kansas at Kansas Watchdog. The Kansas group has done some great work already, to the annoyance of some Kansas politicians and bureaucrats who prefer to operate under less scrutiny. It’s worthwhile to bookmark the Kansas Watchdog web site, and to subscribe to their various other contact methods such as their rss feed, Facebook presence, email updates, and Twitter stream.

KSN news director meets with critics

Can You Hear Us Now? Wichita October 17, 2009KSN News Director Jason Kravarik

On Saturday October 17, 2009, about 50 Wichitans met in front of Wichita’s KSN Television studio to express their concerns about the state of news media. The event was part of a national protest named “Can you hear us now?” Locally, the South Central Kansas 9.12 Group promoted the event.

Jason Kravarik, KSN News Director addressed the group. The crowd was contentious at first, but after emotions cooled a bit, a more constructive dialog emerged.

Kravarik stressed that KSN is a local news organization. It is affiliated with NBC News, but KSN employees are not employees of NBC. The focus of KSN is local news, not national. When national news stories appear on KSN, they’re furnished by NBC.

Someone in the crowd asked: “Why don’t you correct the national news?”

Kravarik replied that KSN covers national news as it affects Wichita. KSN can’t send reporters to Washington.

The crowd was critical of KSN’s news coverage of the Wichita tea parties. It’s possible that KSN may have broadcast a mistake when counting the number of attendees in its coverage of one of the tea parties. But by and large, KSN has covered the Wichita tea parties. As Kravarik mentioned, this website (WichitaLiberty.org) holds several references to KSN’s coverage. (See Wichita tax day tea party preview on KSN news and Wichita Tea Party News Coverage on KSN Television for examples.)

Can You Hear Us Now? Wichita October 17, 2009

He also told the group that KSN provides no opinion or commentary, just coverage of local new stories.

One complaint from the audience was that KSN doesn’t provide advance notice of events like tea parties. Kravarik recommended that groups contact the station to make sure that reporters know of the event, and make contact well in advance of the date of the event — not just the day before.

(If I had been in Kravarik’s position, I might have said that local television news stations shouldn’t serve as advertising services for anyone.)

There was also mention of cable television news networks. Kravarik told the audience that based on the ratings success of Fox News with shows like The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC decided to counter with their own opinion-based shows like Keith Olbermann’s.

One speaker requested time for local exploration of national issues and how they will affect us locally in Wichita and the surrounding area.

Kravarik also mentioned that when local people do things with national impact, that’s something his station is interested in. But reporters need to be notified of such things.

One audience member said “The print media is useless, because people might see it, but it doesn’t register. You guys put stuff on the actual news on the television. People look at that television and take it as gospel, as bad as it is.”

Kravarik also mentioned that as events such as tea parties are repeated, they become less newsworthy: “By the time there’s a hundred of these, will they get as much coverage as day two, three, and four?”

He urged the group to get specific with its issues. Are there local people who are being negatively affected by a policy? Then it moves from the abstract to the concrete. It then becomes a new story idea.

In response to a question about the economics of news, Kravarik mentioned that his station is struggling, as are all stations, due to loss of advertising revenue.

Analysis

While the protesters complained that the issues they’re concerned about are not being covered, somehow the members of the group are informed about them. So the news must be getting out somehow. I believe this points to the diversity of news sources available today, largely due to the Internet.

Some of the protesters were complaining to the wrong person. One person complained about the reporting of the count of protesters at the September 12 protest event in Washington. Regardless of the merits of the complaint, Kravarik’s news station didn’t cover that event.

The plea for attention is understandable. But if KSN gives more attention to issues and events that are important to the protesters, we would expect other interest groups to insist on increased coverage of their issues.

The criticism of print media by one person is mistaken, I believe. One of the important differences between print journalism and television journalism is breadth and depth of coverage. Print media — Internet too — has the space to cover issues in depth. The daily television news broadcast doesn’t.

Some people asked why doesn’t local news media explain issues like the “Fair Tax” or the Federal Reserve system. This is more like educational programming, which network television has rarely embraced, as it doesn’t produce ratings. Public television is more likely to provide this type of programming. An important advance in just the past year or two is the rise of Internet video services like YouTube, which contains many educational videos.

There’s also the issue of “What is the truth?” While I am largely sympathetic with the political views of the protesters at this event, there are other groups that are just as firmly convinced that their version of the world is the truth.

Perception, too, plays a large role in opinion of news coverage. The Wall Street Journal has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism. But a UCLA study in 2005 found that “the newspaper’s news pages are liberal, even more liberal than The New York Times.”

As an example of how truth and perception can vary from person to person, I would be happy to make any readers a DVD of the video I captured of this event, on the condition that they write their own news coverage or commentary. (Or maybe create video or audio coverage and commentary.) I’ll then post it here.

‘State of the State Kansas’ covers state with video

Just a few weeks ago Kansas gained a new news-oriented website. State of the State Kansas is different from most news sites, as it focuses on providing long-format video coverage of issues and candidates. Rebecca Zepick founded State of the State Kansas. I visited with her last week and learned about the site and its goals.

What inspired you to start the State of the State Kansas website?

Zepick said that while working on John McCain’s presidential campaign, she handled booking campaign spokespeople — and even McCain and his wife — with statewide media in Iowa and other states. She found that television stations didn’t have political reporters. They had just general assignment reporters. So while she prepared her spokespeople for the toughest questions, reporters would ask simple questions like “How do you think John McCain is doing in Iowa?”

These questions were easy for the campaign to deal with, but didn’t do a lot to provide the public with useful information. There wasn’t much analysis and skepticism.

Additionally, producers were more interested in booking celebrities rather than discussing issues, but I thought that people were interested in the issues. “There has to be an underlying base of education for the general public, so that when a campaign comes along, you can have an intelligent discussion about policy issues.”

Sometimes news seems to focus on the “horse race” aspect of campaigns — who’s up or down in the polls, etc.

That type of coverage is easy to provide, she said. What’s more difficult to provide is educational content, and that is one of the site’s goals.

Since State of the State Kansas contains primarily video content, what is different about video as compared to print or radio?

There’s nothing like seeing a candidate face-to-face and watching them, to see if candidates know what they’re talking about and if they’re being evasive. With the video on State of the State Kansas, viewers can see a longer interview, and people can get to better know the motivations behind the candidates.

What’s involved in processing the video you capture during an interview?

Zepick said the hardware (Apple Macintosh computers) and software (the simpler version of a video editing program) she uses is inexpensive. The amount of time it takes to edit varies, depending on whether one or two cameras are used, and if slides with questions are edited into the video. But if required, video can be put on the site very quickly.

From what I’ve seen of your site, it looks like you’ll select an issue, and then have speakers from both sides of the issue.

Zepick said that in order to remove as much personal bias as possible, she asks simple questions such as “Why do you feel so strongly about this?” Then, let them explain themselves with as little interference from the reporter as possible. For now, Zepick says she’s letting segments run long so that people can become educated and investigate issues for themselves.

I asked a question about how it seems that often people on different sides of an issue can’t even agree on a basic set of facts. Zepick said that can be a problem. Suppose an interview subject cites a statistic. If she is not an expert in the subject matter, her hope is that other media sources will be able to watch the videos and call out inaccuracies. This is also why it’s important to talk to both sides. Personal stories are different, however, as they are based on experiences, not objective facts.

What about the declining resources available to traditional news media?

Television and newspapers have seen a decline in viewers and advertising, she said. This may have lead to a decline in some aspects of news coverage such a longer feature pieces. That, however, has lead to an increase in the ratings for shows like “60 Minutes,” which feature longer and more in-depth reporting.

Zepick mentioned the term “fractured media,” and that people may be confused as to which are reliable sources for news. But in a democracy, she said, the more voices, the better. It’s more confusing than in the days of the three major networks, but ultimately better for the people.

From Zepick’s experience working on major political campaigns, I learned that the typical campaign interview we see on television is not a freewheeling affair. Usually ground rules are established, such as the topics to be talked about — and topics not to be covered.

Wichita Eagle reporting, headlining discussed by commissioners

In today’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita Eagle reporting and editorializing was the subject of an off-agenda item.

Commissioner Gwen Welshimer used this opportunity to read into the record part of a press release she issued yesterday. The entire press release, as well as video, is at the end of this article.

Commissioner and Chairman Kelly Parks mentioned that he has been disturbed with some headlines in the Wichita Eagle recently, and that the media has “not checked out some of the headlines they’ve put out.”

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn shared his concerns with misleading Wichita Eagle headlines, referring to a headline that appeared after the county approved its budget, as covered in my post Wichita Child Advocacy Center still in business, despite headline.

I spoke to Wichita Eagle reporter Bill Wilson, and he had no comment other than his reporting speaks for itself.

It should be noted that reporters generally don’t write the headlines for their stories.

Regarding this matter, it may be that the parties are quarreling over relatively minor details of events and the meaning of words.

For example, Welshimer’s press release states “Reporter Bill Wilson’s latest article stated that the City of Wichita knew nothing about the County’s plans.” The article referred to (“County scouting locations for site to ease jail crowding” August 20, 2009 Wichita Eagle) states, in part: “The county’s search is unwelcome news to city officials …” (emphasis added)

Editorialist Rhonda Holman‘s August 21 piece repeats this idea: “It reportedly was news to city officials and downtown leaders that county commissioners were discussing the possibility of locating such a facility and hadn’t ruled out the core.” (emphasis added)

Does this all boil down to what the meaning of “news” is? Does “unwelcome news” mean that someone has never heard of an item before, or does it mean “Yes, I am aware of this item, and I don’t like it?”

Following is the full text of the press release issued by Gwen Welshimer on August 25, 2009.

Either the Wichita Eagle knew they were putting out false information on their jail annex stories or they didn’t know for sure and printed their stories recklessly. Their August 20, 21, and 23 articles and editorial, claiming the County Commission had been reviewing properties in Downtown Wichita for a jail annex, were not true. The Eagle’s actions caused considerable concern for Downtown business owners. No commissioner has looked at any Downtown buildings with any real estate agent for the purpose of housing detainees. A retraction and an apology are due to the county from the Eagle.

The Eagle reporter who wrote the stories quoted me erroneously and had not interviewed me. Eagle editorialist, Rhonda Holman committed an egregious act with her August 21 editorial in which she scolded the commission for having the intent to put jail detainees Downtown. Reporter Deb Gruver showed a lack of professionalism by her participation in this deed.

Reporter Bill Wilson’s latest article stated that the City of Wichita knew nothing about the County’s plans. That was also not true. On July 29, the Wichita Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Sedgwick County Commission Chairman and I met at City Hall. The topic of conversation was that the County’s prison farm on McLean and Harry would need to be replaced in the future. This facility is currently being used to house work release detainees who go to their jobs and return there for the duration of their sentence. The Mayor said he would see if the City had a building that could be used for this purpose.

The truth is that Chairman Parks and I took one short afternoon to see two buildings with a real estate agent. We were shown warehouse properties, one off south Southeast Boulevard and one off north I-135. These properties had no potential of filling our needs. The next day the Eagle reported that we were scouting for a site in Downtown Wichita and attempting to do harm to Downtown redevelopment plans. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I believe the Eagle is angry because of the county’s decision not to continue funding the needs of Downtown and give more consideration to the future of Sedgwick County. County commissioners did put their political careers on the line to raise the money and build a $210 million economic tool for Downtown. I have not witnessed appreciation for this effort. What I have witnessed is a constant demand for more. It appears that we will continue to be harassed by the Eagle, until we bring out the checkbook.

Gwen Welshimer
Chairman Pro-Tem
Sedgwick County Commission

Wichita Child Advocacy Center still in business, despite headline

A headline in the Thursday August 6, 2009 Wichita Eagle is a little bit misleading: “Sedgwick County budget saves pavilions, denies site for abused kids.”

Recognizing that the reporter who wrote the story probably didn’t write the headline, the fact is that the Sedgwick County Commission didn’t deny a site for the Child Advocacy Center. This Center is still operating. What happened at the meeting is that the county commission declined to grant a last-minute request for funding that would improve the Center’s office quarters.

The request for funding was sprung on the commission at the last moment, with Wednesday’s meeting being the first time the commission received a formal request. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn told me that representatives from the Center didn’t attend public workshops or hearings, or participate in the budget process. They did have private discussions with some commissioners, including Peterjohn, but these discussions, in Peterjohn’s case, were general in nature and did not contain a specific request.

Peterjohn pointed out that in light of the recent problems with Rainbows United and their bankruptcy filing, it is only prudent for the county to expect a business plan with specific details. That was not presented to the county commissioners.

It’s important to note, Peterjohn said, that the Center’s current location is provided at no cost from state of Kansas, in the state office building downtown. The state even pays utilities.

Testimony by Diana Schunn, Child Advocacy Center executive director, revealed that sometimes victims of crimes and perpetrators of crimes might have to use the same waiting room, which I can understand might be uncomfortable. But the center schedules cases so that victims and offenders in the same case aren’t there together.

Schunn also mentioned that parking is a problem at the state office building. Questioning by Peterjohn revealed that people don’t want to pay a fee to park in a garage adjacent to the state office building. (That garage charges a flat rate of $3.00 to park all day.) While there is a visitors’ parking lot a block away, people don’t like to use it.

The action the county commission took — or rather didn’t take — is far removed from denying a site for abused kids, as might be concluded if all one did was to read the Wichita Eagle headline. The Center is functioning, although in conditions that might be less than ideal.

Related to this issue is the consideration that the county funded a pavilion used for, among other things, horse and dog shows. Some have asked: aren’t children more important?

Yes, they are. That’s why I would have voted to let the horse and dog show people fully pay for their pavilions.

Wichita July 4 tea party coverage

There’s some coverage of the Wichita, Kansas tea party on television. Click on Wichita tea party coverage on KSN TV to view coverage from KSN Television.

Susan Estes, Western Kansas Field Director for AFP-Kansas does a great job explaining the spirit behind the tea parties.

Jason Kravarik, the reporter for KSN Television, as part of the story consulted a Wichita State University professor who expressed doubt about the ability of the tea party movement to generate broad appeal. That’s a problem that those who advocate for freedom face. Many people have a stake in the government continuing to dish out goodies. Those who simply want to be left alone to pursue their lives and happiness in freedom are a distinct minority.

By the way, KSN reporter Kravarik is benefiting from government in a way that you and I probably can’t. He lives in a downtown condominium building that is seeking to extend Wichita’s facade improvement program in ways it hasn’t been applied. In order for Kravarik’s building to benefit — and he did sign the petition that pleads for this special treatment — the city will have to waive two standards that buildings have previously had to meet in order to qualify for special assessment financing. See In Wichita, special assessment financing gone wild for details.

Wichita Eagle reporter to speak to Pachyderms

This Friday, Wichita Eagle investigative and special reporter Dion Lefler will speak to the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Here’s information about Lefler supplied by the Pachyderm Club:

Dion Lefler is an investigative reporter for the Wichita Eagle, specializing in government and politics.

Dion has been at the Eagle for 11 years. Before that, he was a reporter and editor with several papers in the Los Angeles area, including the Los Angeles Daily News and the Pasadena Star-News. Dion has a journalism degree from California State University, Northridge, and has been covering politics across the spectrum since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

Recently, he received two Heart of America awards, for online coverage of the Democratic National Convention and a package of stories that halted a city of Wichita plan to provide $11 million in incentives to a developer with a history of lawsuits, bad debts and bounced checks.

All are welcome to attend Pachyderm meetings. Lunch is $10, or you may attend the meeting only for $3.

At Pachyderm meetings, there’s usually plenty of time for the speaker to take questions from the audience. The meeting starts at noon, although those wishing to order lunch are encouraged to arrive by 11:45. The location is Whiskey Creek Steakhouse at 233 N. Mosley in Old Town. You can view a map of this location by clicking on Google map of 233 N. Mosley.

Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy

On Friday, former Wichita Eagle editor W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr. spoke to members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club.

He retired as editor of the Eagle in 1999. He is the author of the book Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk.

Merritt said there are two things to think about today. One is that journalism must somehow survive if democracy is to survive. The two are interdependent. One can’t exist without the other.

The second is that democracy can’t survive on opinions alone. “The plasma of democracy is shared information,” he said. People need a way to discuss the implications of that shared information, forming the mechanism of democracy.

Merritt sees a notion, becoming more reinforced, that opinions are more important that information. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has good information. With everyone having a megaphone, there’s no check on irresponsibility.

We’re entitled to free speech, but we’re not entitled to our own facts, he said. Journalism has been the provider of this shared information that makes democracy possible.

Changes in the information environment have been wonderful, he said. “The problem is the rutabaga man can vote.” He may be interested only in rutabagas, and that’s all he searches for on his computer, but there’s information and facts he needs to know in order to participate in democracy.

It’s clear that newspapers are in trouble, Merritt says. We don’t necessarily need newspapers, but we need the type of journalism that newspapers have traditionally provided. A concern is that the infrastructure that supports journalism will go away before the transfer is made to online delivery of journalism.

How did newspapers get in such trouble? The key event is the shift from family ownership to institutional ownership of newspapers. The search for ever-increasing profits by the new owners lead to cost-cutting measures that have snowballed. (If you read “Knightfall” you’ll learn that one of the things the Wichita Eagle did to cut costs was to stop delivery to western Kansas.)

If journalism like that which newspapers provide goes away, democracy is in terrible trouble. “No shared information, no place to discuss the implications of that information, no place for politics, government, and public life to work.” Replacing this with under-informed opinion is a cause for concern for our democracy.

A questioner asked why doesn’t the press aggressively report about ACORN? Merritt replied “How do you know about ACORN?” The point is that newspapers have reported on ACORN.

Another question asked how much ideology has contributed to the problems of newspapers, the premise being that newspapers are out of touch with their readers. Merritt replied that newspapers do have an ideology — on their editorial pages. That’s where a newspaper expresses its opinion. There may be surveys that show that journalists identify more with liberal than conservative thought, but Merritt doesn’t believe that to be that case, in his experience. People who want to see things change are often attracted to journalism as a career.

In a response to a question, Merritt recommended contacting the newspaper with specific examples of bias, if readers sense it in the news reporting.

A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. “The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.” When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the “boots aren’t on the street anymore,” he said.

In response to another question, Merritt said that the “contradictions are too enormous” for government to use public money to support journalism. There may be conflicts of interest, too, in foundation ownership of newspapers. These may have to be tolerated in order to preserve journalism.

Tillman story may leave wrong impression of Wichita tea party

The Wichita Eagle news story Democrat Tillman enters race for 4th District seat may give its readers an incorrect impression of the Wichita tea party protest held on tax day.

In the story, the reporter quotes Robert Tillman as saying “Confederate flags (were) flown at the Republican tea party.”

The first half of this statement is true, but hardly indicative of the sentiment of tea party protesters.

I have about 360 photographs that I took at the tea party. Looking at them, I saw one confederate flag.

I called Robert Tillman, the subject of the story and whose quote appears above, and asked him how many of these flags he saw. He said “at least two.”

At least 2,000 people attended the Wichita tea party. So a rate of one confederate flag per 1,000 people, I’d venture to say, hardly supports the impression that readers may get from this story.

By the way, an informal survey by a television reporter of 100 people at the tea party found 46 who identified themselves as Republicans. So the claim that it was a “Republican tea party” is not substantiated either.