At a recent Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was critical of topics broached by two speakers, admonishing them to “take a different approach.”
The speakers had mentioned votes made and actions taken by the council and the appearance of influence or linkage to campaign contributions.
Longwell’s concern is understandable. As perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of cronyism on the council, he’s dished out millions in taxpayer subsidy to his significant campaign contributors. His acceptance of campaign contributions last summer from a Michigan construction company that had business before the council lifted cronyism to new heights.
After that, I thought that we wouldn’t ever see a more blatant instance of the appearance of impropriety. That is, until Mayor Carl Brewer started selling his barbeque sauce at a movie theater he’s voted to grant taxpayer subsidy to, several times.
These incidents are embarrassing for Wichita. So I can understand that Longwell doesn’t want them mentioned in public. I’m sure that’s what he would prefer.
That’s why it’s surprising that he would speak out at a council meeting. Why call additional attention to your bad behavior?
I think I know the answer: It is not possible to shame Longwell, Brewer, and most other council members. They believe their conduct is honest, forthright, and above reproach. They believe it is their critics who are harming the city’s reputation.
But in many cities, the routine practice of most Wichita City Council members would be a violation of the city’s ethics code, or even of city law. An example is from Westminster, Colorado. Its charter reads:
The acceptance or receipt by any Councillor or member of that Councillor’s immediate family, or an organization formed to support the candidacy of that Councillor, of any thing of value in excess of one-hundred dollars ($100) from any person, organization, or agent of such person or organization, shall create a conflict of interest with regard to that Councillor’s vote on any issue or matter coming before the Council involving a benefit to the contributing person, organization, or agent, unless such interests are merely incidental to an issue or question involving the common public good.
In commenting on this ordinance, CityEthics.org noted:
Westminster goes right to the heart of the matter — not the contribution itself, which is central to citizens’ expressions of their political preferences — but the effect of the other sort of contribution, the large contribution intended, possibly, not only to express a political preference (or not even, since often large contributions are given to both or all candidates by the same individual or entity), but also to influence the candidate.
If the contribution was not intended to influence the candidate, then the contributor won’t mind that the candidate cannot participate or vote on any matter dealing with the contributor’s interests. In addition, the candidate will not be placed in the position of appearing to favor someone who gave him or her a sizeable contribution or — and this is certainly possible if the candidate is truly independent — having to vote against a strong supporter. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, so long as there was no intent to influence.
In Wichita, we don’t have any laws or codes of ethics that prohibit or discourage what Westminster, Colorado does. We don’t even have many council members who think these are desirable.
Instead, the solution preferred by Wichita’s political class is to follow Jeff Longwell’s advice: Just don’t talk about it.
Troubling incidents involving Council Member Jeff Longwell
In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.
The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.
Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.
Then, last summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Why should we in Wichita care if they do?
These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.
On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.
Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.
When asked about the Michigan contributions, Longwell stated “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people,” according to the Wichita Eagle.
But analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found only three contributions totaling $1,500 from addresses outside Kansas.