Wichita city council: substance and process

Today the Wichita City Council will conduct a public hearing for the second time. The reason the council must hold the hearing again is that a mistake was made in the official notice of the hearing.

While I commend the city for realizing the mistake and following the letter of the law in conducting the hearing again, we must contrast this behavior, which is following the process according to the law, with the council’s past behavior, which has shown no regard for the spirit and substance of the law regarding public hearings.

The most recent example is when the city council approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing. That act made the public hearing a meaningless exercise. The council approved everything that was contained in the letter of intent, except that one item was modified, and that was not a result of the public hearing.

Another example is from 2008, when the council conducted a public hearing essentially in secret, making last-minute changes to the substance to be heard. At the time, Randy Brown, former editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle and Executive Director of Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, agreed with my contention that the hearing was a “bait and switch” operation. Writing in a letter to the Eagle, Brown said:

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public ‘s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

It turns out that the council’s actions regarding this hearing were permissible under the letter of the law, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

We are left with the realization, however, that we have a city with elected officials and bureaucratic leaders that are careful to follow the letter of the law, but are unable — or unwilling — to see the larger picture regarding public policy. Substance is of little concern.

Following is my op-ed from the December 5, 2008 Wichita Eagle:

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.


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