At Wichita city council, citizens are frustrated

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a lesson in how frustrating it can be for citizens to interact with city government.

You might even have to endure a slight insult from our mayor.

The matter in question involved real estate developer Dave Burk and the city’s economic development office.

Regarding this matter, I wrote Mr. Burk by email early Monday morning with a question. He didn’t reply. I should have followed-up with a telephone call, but I didn’t have time.

Monday afternoon I called the city’s economic development office with a few questions. The person I talked to was confused by the questions I asked, and suggested that I make records requests to get what I was asking for. There wasn’t time for that.

So I wrote by email to Allen Bell the city’s economic development director. He didn’t reply. I don’t necessarily fault him for that, as it was around 3:00 Monday afternoon when I wrote. But he still hasn’t replied, and it’s Wednesday afternoon now.

In my questions before the council, which you can read by clicking on Wichita facade improvement loan program: questions to answer, I asked if Burk had been investigated through background checks by the city, as the city has pledged to conduct thorough background investigations of its partners. Bell replied that he had been through checks in the past with regard to other deals.

But we now know, based on events from last December, that the checks the city conducted were cursory, and failed to uncover important facts about a developer. At that meeting, the mayor sternly scolded city staff for their lack of diligence in performing these checks.

Bell said that Burk is “well known in the community.” It hardly bears mentioning that sitting in the Sedgwick County jail at this moment is another developer who was very well known and very highly regarded in his time. So having a familiar face is not sufficient.

Bell also revealed that now Burk has equity partners, and the city will be vetting them. That’s too late, however. The ordinance has been passed.

Bell said that the risk analysis has been performed. That was subject of the inquiry I made in my email to Bell. But there was no mention of that in the agenda materials, and Bell didn’t answer my email.

Mr. Burk then spoke. He said that the fee being paid to the developer ($39,277) is not being paid to him personally, but is instead “overhead and profit for the contractor doing the work.”

This is hair-splitting at its finest. If that money wasn’t supplied by this loan, Burk would have to pay it himself.

He also questioned a figure of 6.5% for an interest rate that I used. That figure is from the agenda material Bell’s office prepared. If citizens can’t rely on that — and remember I contacted Burk and Bell’s office too — what can they rely on?

Burk said that in today’s market it’s difficult to borrow adequate funds from commercial banks. There’s a reason for that, I would submit.

He mentioned also that he’d been vetted. Again, this would have been from the time when the vetting process wasn’t rigorous enough to be meaningful.

Additionally, any vetting process of Burk should take into account his involvement as part of the development team for Waterwalk. This highly-subsidized development in downtown Wichita is recognized as a failure by even the Wichita Eagle editorial board.

Mayor Carl Brewer thanked Burk for answering questions, because “sometimes information is put out there that’s inaccurate and that’s the way it’s left, as being inaccurate.”

To the extent that my questions were based on inaccurate information — and that something that’s far from true — some things could have been cleared up if my inquiries the day before had been successful. While it may seem that inquiring the day before a meeting is waiting until the last minute, the agenda and accompanying material for the Tuesday meetings of the council isn’t available until the Thursday or Friday before. So there’s not a lot of time for citizens to act.

In the end, anything I might have said or questions I might have raised probably would have made little difference in the council’s action. Burk and his wife have made generous campaign contributions to most members of the council, including a total of $2,000 to Janet Miller’s recent successful campaign (that’s the maximum amount it’s possible for two people to contribute). If I’d paid that much, I’d probably feel like I didn’t have to answer questions from pesky citizens.

A question to raise, and one that needs answering, is if this is a new strategy the city will use in the future: Don’t answer questions from citizens. Provide incomplete or erroneous information in the material you make available. Then, if citizens ask questions, you get to point out all the ways they’re wrong — and on television, too.


29 thoughts on “At Wichita city council, citizens are frustrated”

  1. Hi Bob.

    I truly do not understand why you continue to highlight the issue of campaign contributions in posts such as these. And I don’t think I understand what you’re implying when you make such statements.

    We all know that it takes money to run political campaigns. Accepting a campaign contribution does not make an elected official suspect. As we all know, candidates you have supported have accepted money from developers and individuals from various industries as well.

    I just can’t connect the dots here. Are you suggesting that accepting campaign contributions equals something suspicious or less than honest?

    Please help me understand what you are suggesting here. Thanks!

  2. You’re right, Beth. Campaigns cost money, and candidates I’ve supported have accepted contributions. I’ve even contributed money myself, not to mention a lot of volunteer time and effort.

    To me, the difference is that the candidates I have supported, and most of the people who contributed to them, are truly interested in, and are working for smaller, limited, and less intrusive government.

    This is totally opposite from, say, Carl Brewer, who is working overtime to increase centralized planning of many aspects of our city’s economy.

    It’s also totally opposite from developers who have their hands out at city hall, whether they be developing downtown or elsewhere.

    So to answer your question, I don’t know why Dave Burk contributes generously to city council candidates. But if reporting a simple fact raises such consternation, I’d be looking inward for the answer.

  3. Prior to 2003, David Burk was given an interest free loan by the City for $2 million dollars to build the building that houses Wichita City Arts, Associated, Oeno Wine Bar and condos. Former Mayor Mayans made Burk paid the loan back when he was elected. Sedgwick County records also shows that Mr. Burk acquired the parcels through the use of several LLCs (all owned by him) and sold the property to the City. Every subsequent transaction increased the price of the sold property until it was sold to the City for the higher amount. Former City Council member Brewer, now our Mayor, voted and supported the above transactions as a member of the Council.
    Our City Council is not instituting a new policy on how they treat their friends and their detractors they are just going back to how business was conducted prior to 2003. Elections have consequences.

  4. Your suggestion of Burk’s contributions causes no consternation in me, Bob, though it certainly may in others —

    While you may not agree with some city policies (which I respect), I find your suggestions about these issues distracting from the policies with which you disagree. Just my opinion!

    I would also remind you of your suburban developer friends who also accept city assistance in their development projects and who contributed extensively (several of them to the maximum) to the last city council candidate you supported. Perhaps you could write more about that in the future.

    Thanks for your response, Bob. Hope you are well.

  5. Sounds like sour grapes to me. It’s never a problem backing a candidate if he/she wins. I don’t believe that Bob’s candidates are any more or less altruistic than Beth’s candidates. Serving in elected public office is for the most part a thankless position and difficult to imagine unless one walks in their shoes.

    Your characterization of Mayor Brewer is very unfair and fairly myopic. Over the past 20 years, the private sector has done a poor job in rehabilitating the structures in downtown. His vision for downtown is what the community needs and wants.

  6. I would say that if “others” have questions about campaign contributions that Bob points out, then maybe they should, as Bob suggested, look inward as to why they would have such questions.

    Why citizens would defend or even understand public officials lying and then blaming a regular citizen over it is beyond me.

  7. What are Mr. Brewer’s accomplishments in the last 8 years? What did he do as City Council member? As Mayor, unemployment has risen from less than 4% to almost 7%; he lost the Bowling Congress; nothing is happening at the WaterWalk project; City coffers are in the red; African Americans are complaining about not getting contracts; he has not done what he said he would do for Hispanics in 21st St. He is a one term Mayor

  8. It’s citizens lying and insinuating wrong doing that concerns me. The Mayor has accomplished a lot. He has unified a vision for downtown, he was very upset about losing the bowling convention and helped institute new policies and organization, he has reached out to the Hispanic community with interpreters and much more.
    It takes money for candidates to communicate to us during an election. The little we are allowed to contribute is not enough to tempt an office holder.

  9. Well said Lonny. “Citizens” for the most part have no accountability for their words.

    Rose, interesting that you want the Mayor and hence city government to be accountable for the growth in unemployment. I thought that this was a Libertarian blog. Last thing I want, is for more government intereference in our business lives.

    BTW, city coffers are not in the red and minorities are getting contracts. Remember the Mayor is just one vote of 7. He is not an benevolent dictator. Furthermore, the other 6 are part-time council members. The elected officials have to rely heavily on city staff for analysis and recommendations and that is often the rub with me and the source of frustration for many others. With the new CM Layton, we are already seeing vast improvements in city hall.

  10. “In the end, anything I might have said or questions I might have raised probably would have made little difference in the council’s action. Burk and his wife have made generous campaign contributions to most members of the council, including a total of $2,000 to Janet Miller’s recent successful campaign (that’s the maximum amount it’s possible for two people to contribute). If I’d paid that much, I’d probably feel like I didn’t have to answer questions from pesky citizens.”

    This is the kind of crap that Lonny is referring to. I’d agree with Beth King, just what exactly are you insinuating here Bob? It’s fine to raise questions about conflict of interest, but your comments do more than that. And, as was noted, you seem fixated on the downtown developers and don’t appear to question the contributions from other developers such as the Dugan family or those associated with the Wichita Builders Association.

  11. You’re right, Beth, in that some of my suburban developer friends contributed to James Barfield, a candidate I supported.

    I supported Barfield partly because of his opposition to things like TIF districts. I think that was the motivation of some of his contributors.

    For suburban developers: how do they get city assistance? I’ve done some research. You’d be shocked at how much the city charges developments to install traffic control lights or a deceleration lane.

    These are the types of “infrastructure” things that TIF developers get to use their own property taxes to pay for.

  12. Pat, I don’t moderate comments on this blog, except that I’ll remove comments that are vulgar or contains personal attacks on people.

    So while I am a libertarian — note the small “l” there, not a big “L” — the people who leave comments here may be of all political stripes. They may write whatever they want.

  13. I believe that campaign contributions make a difference in the way office holders behave in office. Absolutely.

    Why else would people contribute?

    When, for example, Kevass Harding and his wife make the maximum contribution to Lavonta Williams just a few weeks before his TIF district goes before the council, it raises a question.

    The Hardings have made very few political contributions. So why did they make these?

    Before I wrote the article highlighting these contributions, I asked both Williams and Harding about it. Williams responded in a generic way that didn’t address the issue. Still, I reported on her response.

    Harding would not return my several telephone messages or emails. He had his chance to explain. He didn’t take it.

    The difference is that the candidates I have supported and contributed to want to reduce the ability of government to grant special favors to people.

    What was Harding’s reason for contributing to Williams?

  14. Bob,

    I must say that you’re being very hypocritical. Why is it ok for Barfield to receive financial support from people who oppose TIF districts while it’s somehow a “scandal” that Brewer or Miller get donations from downtown developers.

    I don’t question yours or other sincerity in supporting a candidate like Barfield, be it financially or otherwise. However, did it ever occur to you that there are genuine people in this community who actually believe that a developed downtown will enrich the quality of life for us all? Just because someone is a developer doesn’t mean they have malicious intents…in fact Burke has done a lot to enrich the downtown scene.

    The real issue here is what kind of vision do you have for Wichita. Do you want a positive community that’s moving forward or a city that’s stuck in the past and going nowhere. You really ought to spend some time downtown, Bob. Don’t just go with your camera and your usual smug look on your face. Go with an open mind. Go out on a Friday night and you’ll see people of all ages enjoying life. They’re happy to be part of everything happening here. Maybe if you weren’t so negative all the time, you’d find something to be happy about, too.

  15. Bob do not waste your time helping Beth King connect the dots. She wants to play the naive woman but who can believe that. Lonnie, you did not mention ONE thing that the Mayor has done, but talk, talk and talk. Where are the results?

  16. Thanks Bob. My comment about this being a Libertarian board was more rhetorical in nature and directed at Rose for her comment attributing unemployment somehow being connected to the Mayor.

    I guess it boils down to this. I don’t believe that James Barfield is any more altruistic than Lavonta Williams. I think that they both have a vision for Wichita. It’s just a matter of whose vision is best. Whose vision works. There is nothing wrong with people of like mind supporting each other in their endeavors since they share a common vision. It doesn’t have to be dirty, unethical, and/or illegal as has been continually implied.

    Prior to Dave Burk, Richard Vilet, Real Development and others, downtown and Old Town were quickly becoming a ghost town. Honestly, can you really say that downtown would have been better off without their efforts?

  17. To your question, Bob: “For suburban developers: how do they get city assistance?”

    Special assessment financing from the city — which actually constitutes nearly half of the city’s general obligation bond debt. (Use of the same tool about which you criticize Dave Burk.)

    Hence, the use of taxpayer money which you criticize downtown but not in the suburbs. I am not opposed to incentives for development, either downtown or suburban, but it seems that if you’re going to be suspect or critical of one, you should also be suspect or critical of the other.

  18. After reading the posts, I gather one important idea throughout. The childhood phrase “but everyone does it!!!” comes to mind when questions are raised. When silence is the prefered method of defense in answer to these questions, why would this not be a RED FLAG indicator of deeper issues.

    I am not a supporter of expansion of downtown entertainment during times when money for electricity, house payments, and health care are all upward spiraling burdens to the taxpayer base.
    Pardon my French, but the spending I see now is plain stupid.

    I do not see eye-to-eye with Bob Weeks, but questions asked about government spending are always important and such information should be transparently available to anyone in the public. Those that attempt to ridicule or minimize the importance of those questions should look at their own motives. “But everyone does it!!!” is not an honest answer.

  19. Transparency in government is good. I think everyone here would agree with that.

    Beth’s point is valid as well and not from “an everyone does it” standpoint. As I understand it, she is simply illustrating the fact that some want to question downtown development practices when those same practices are utilitzed throughout the city. Why imply that something smells in downtown without providing the same level of scrutiny everywhere?

    Bottom line, yes government should be transparent and, yes, proper scrutiny should be given to all such requests .

  20. I am not suggesting, Oldphart, “but everyone does it” on this issue or any other.

    I am suggesting that (1) (in my opinion) Bob would be best served by discussing the issues with which he disagrees instead of making passive aggressive suggestions that detract from his arguments and that (2) he should apply his concerns about who accepts what campaign contributions from whom in a fair and factual across-the-board manner.

    He also needs to fact check. His most recent candidate of choice, James Barfield, a Democrat activist, accepted thousands of dollars from developers who receive special assessment financing for their developments — yet Bob criticizes that in others. Not fair.

    Pat is correct. Transparent, open government is undoubtedly something upon which we can all agree as our standard of choice. I encourage and mentor others toward engagement and applaud Bob for his work. But let’s focus on facts, not provocative or passive aggressive rhetoric.

  21. Pat, you are right Mayor Brewer is not responsible for unemployment but he ran his campaign on creating more jobs…where are they? He ran on creating a City wide wireless system….where is it? and he ran on having an open government and he has been cited twice in his first two years as Mayor with violations of the open meeting laws. where is the transparency? I, too agree, he is a one term Mayor.

  22. As an example, the GWEDC of which the city is a major participant takes credit for both helping to retain and create new jobs in the market. The wireless system cratered for a variety of reason. Technology hasn’t quite caught up yet and the financial model became problematic and a number of cities have dropped the free WiFi. It wasn’t for the lack of effort by the Mayor. I don’t recall the first violation on the OML but the second one was clearly rests with Rebensdorf.

  23. The real point is that government shouldn’t be taking money at the point of a gun from anyone and giving to someone else. This is true at any level. I’m sure we’d all agree that stealing is wrong. If there is a real oppurtunity to make money downtown, or anywhere for that matter, a wholly private enterprise will see fit to make it happen. The government should have no say in the matter. That would be the work of the free market.

  24. Pat, at the core of the Democrat philosophy is the believe that the individual is not responsible for anything, but it is the environment that creates the problems. I see that you are an apologist for Mayor Brewer but when his re-election rolls around, I am sure that he will be taking credit for everything that others have done. He is vulnerable and will be held accountable.

  25. “I am sure that he will be taking credit for everything that others have done.” – Mayor, President, Democrat, Republican. They are all alike, IMO. Rose, you obviously expect the Mayor to be held accountable for things beyond his control, yet you imply that you want less government. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways. Personally, I’d prefer less government intrusion in our lives.

  26. Truth doesn’t need an apology. Brewer is being an exceptionally strong mayor with action taking place on his downtown vision and his reaching out to Hispanics and other cultures. Our economy is great compared to the rest of the country and we are a nationally favored place to live. It’s unlikely there will be a strong candidate to run against him.

  27. The silver lining in this whole thread is that it provides a forum for discussion of city hall politics and that’s a good thing. Transparency requires dialogue.

  28. It is as simply as this. From the common persons point of view, when the city purchases a building from a developer for 3 or 4 times what they paid for it originally then gives it back to them it’s wrong. Maybe not illegal. And it is dead wrong when they do it the same week we freeze city employee wages and hiring.
    I feel it is morally reprehensible to use the property taxes from senior citizens and working poor to line the pockets of wealthy developers, especially with the economy the way it is.

  29. Recently, Mayor Brewer talked about what a great success downtown Wichita has enjoyed.

    I am having a problem finding this success while viewing the vacant lots and open space in the east bank area as well as other parts of downtown. I do see a number of major bills that have to be paid by local taxpayers. I will grant that placing the Keeper of the Plains on a pedestal will increase its visibility, it probably will have only a very modest return. This return is likely to be offset by the continued and continuing deterioration of the boathouse, one of the few projects that actually tries to take advantage of being by the river. Oh well, with the hundreds of millions spent to “revitalize” downtown, build a city owned hotel, and turn all of downtown into various TIF districts, the rest of Wichita will have to continue to subsidize downtown.

    It is interesting to note that TIFs were created to correct “blighted” areas. Most of the Wichita TIFs are located downtown. The first one in our community was the Gilbert Moseley groundwater pollution TIF. A pollution remediation tool has transformed into an economic development tool.

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