For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8 thoughts on “For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point”

  1. As Mayor, I wanted to create an ethics policy for the Council and staff in dealing with entities that contracted with the City. The City Manager and some of the staff were in direct opposition to conflict of interest ordinances. Many on the Council at that time supported the staff, consequently, I was not able to pass the ethics reform. As Mayor, I never wrote any letters in support of one business over another and refused any gifts, discounts, campaign contributions, or incentives that while legal would have been perceived as inappropriate. In my opinion, the City of Wichita should have ethics laws relating to contracting and limits on meals, gifts, and other incentives to staff and Council members.

  2. Brewer’s got to go. Just one more example of the old adage: Every man has a price. Apparently, the mayor isn’t afraid to share his with his constituents. Since when did our city officials shill, much less lobby, for their “favorites” in so public a forum–and presumably use tax money to do it? I’m with Carlos on ethics laws. Congress has had them for years. Only rub, no one follows them; everyone looks the other way, fearful he’ll get caught in a similar web. Teeth, ladies and gentlemen, we need teeth in our laws, and (if you’ll excuse the vernacular) “balls” in our city officials.

  3. Bob, you have listed a chart, showing that six of our seven City Council members have received money from Key Construction… and a lot of it! $16,000.00 in campaign contributions is certainly enough to ‘buy influence’. Michael O’Donnell is the only Council-person who would not have an ethical problem in dealing with Key Construction. However, for this story to be complete, it would be nice to compare Dondlinger’s donations in a similar chart. Dondlinger & Sons Construction has their own mountain of ethical problems, that should not be ignored.

  4. Dondlinger Construction should pursue legal action in our court system as they have honestly followed the process in place but it has fallen in deaf ears. In my four years as Mayor, I fought to implement ordinances pertaining to a more open procurement process because the system in place was very subjective and some in the staff actually lobbied the council for certain companies. In addition, some of the companies that would win the contracts had won with the lowest bid but with the understanding that the price will go up after the project was underway. I tried to limit those cost overrun to not more that 10%. Dondlinger can not afford to be pushed around on this issue.

  5. Nice to see Pete Meitzner on the right side of the issue this time.

    The corruption rotting our country is on every level. Wichita needs reform as much as the state of Kansas or the federal gov’t–it’s only a matter of scale. The election of ’08 and subsequent Tea Party wave woke me up to the importance of local and state politics. I can only hope it woke lots of others up too. The August primaries are going to be just as important as the general election in the state of Kansas.

  6. Dondlinger needs to have a conversation with some of the contractors that worked with Key Construction on WSU projects in which they did crappy work and had cost overruns of over 40% of the original budget.

  7. Carlos, in 4 years, you violated all sort of confidential discussions, so you shouldn’t be casting stones at everyone else. You’re not so high and mighty either.

  8. Anonymous, pray that Dondlinger doesn’t go to court and ask former Mayor Mayans to testify as to what went on at those executive sessions where I understand the open meeting laws were always trashed. I have a question? If illegal things went on at confidential sessions and members have the right of free speech why was Mayans wrong at disclosing the wrongdoing?

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