A correction has been noted in this article.
On Tuesday the Wichita city council will hold a public hearing regarding a request by Real Development for a $2.5 million increase in tax increment district financing. While this proposal should be opposed on its merits, there is reason to give extra scrutiny to this matter. That’s because Real Development employs the services of Wichita public relations executive Beth King. What matters to public policy is that last year she and Wichita City Manager Robert Layton began a dating relationship which continues to the present.
Documents released to me in response to a records request indicate that King is no mere publicist. Instead, it is apparent she plays an active role in negotiations between city staff and Real Development.
The mayor, city manager, and city staff have policies in place to control what is an obvious conflict of interest. The efficacy of these policies might be the subject of discussion and debate — except there is no discussion.
The Wichita Eagle has researched a story on this matter. Reporters interviewed the mayor, city council members, and government ethics experts. (The following sentence in this article is in error. Eagle newsroom management says research was never developed into a story. See here for more.) But Eagle newsroom management has squashed the story, citing the difficulty of drawing a line between public and private behavior. (The Eagle has mentioned the dating relationship and briefly described the city’s response as a small part of a story marking Layton’s first anniversary as Wichita city manager.)
The Eagle’s editorial board has not written on this issue, either.
The line between private and public life is difficult to draw, no doubt. But when a company actively represented by a person who is involved in a dating relationship with the city’s top executive is asking the city for millions in tax increment financing, the line has definitely been crossed.
There needs to be a public discussion of the city’s response to this matter. The people of Wichita need to know that the city believes the conflict of interest has been handled, and by what measures. We need to hear from experts — and regular citizens — as to whether these policies are an appropriate and effective response.
In a meeting with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Friday afternoon, I told him of my concern about the lack of public disclosure of the measures the city has taken. The mayor stressed several times that the manager’s private life is not a subject for public discussion, and I agree.
The mayor feels that by providing information to news media and having been interviewed, his obligation is fulfilled. That could be true if the management of the Wichita Eagle, our town’s only daily newspaper, printed the story that would let citizens know of the city’s policies regarding this matter.
But since that story is apparently not forthcoming from the Eagle, I feel that the city needs to come forward and tell citizens of the policies it instituted and why the city believes they are effective. It is not appropriate for the city manager to do this, since he is the subject of these policies. Instead, this is the job of the mayor, as he is the political head of the city.
Besides this issue there is another area of concern. King served as campaign manager for Mayor Brewer and Council Member Lavonta Williams. Should theses elected officials abstain from participating in a decision involving a client of their campaign manager? At the minimum, these relationships need to be disclosed.
In his first state of the city address, the mayor addressed government accountability, stating: “I’m talking about public trust in government.” Citizens become cynical, however, when they feel there is a group of insiders — commonly called the “good ol’ boy network” — who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. An obvious conflict of interest can’t simply be swept under the rug — as the city has done in this case — without fueling this cynicism. There’s a tension between widespread knowledge of this matter and the city’s refusal to deal with it in public. This is the case whether the city’s policies are an effective and appropriate response, or if they are not.