Last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a window into the attitude of Wichita elected officials, particularly Mayor Carl Brewer. Through their actions, and by their words, we see a government that cares little for the rule of law and good government, and one that is disrespectful to citizens who call attention to this.
At issue was the circumvention of a statutorily required public hearing. In order to grant subsidies to a development team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties, the city is required to hold a public hearing, which it scheduled for September 13th. That schedule wasn’t fast enough for Burk, so at its August 9th meeting the council approved a letter of intent which formalizes the city’s desire to do the things that were to be the subject of the public hearing.
I, along with others, contend that this action — issuing the letter of intent — reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. It’s true that several times city bureaucrats and elected officials assured citizens that the letter is non-binding and doesn’t mean the city will go through with the desires expressed in the letter. But I don’t think they believe that themselves, and the language of City Manager Bob Layton reveals so. In the end, the public hearing is reduced to — as the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman aptly noted — “a pointless afterthought.” See Wichita City Council bows to special interests.
This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, which holds that our laws and orderly procedures are more important than any single person.
Almost as troubling is the attitude of Mayor Brewer and others in city hall towards citizens who oppose their plans. Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — does not mention the names of those he criticizes. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people, and the public, for the things he says.
John Todd, an activist and ally of mine who speaks at council meetings frequently — which means, in his case, about once or maybe twice a month — told me of his concerns: “It appears disingenuous to me for the mayor to unilaterally dress down citizens who address the council, with no opportunity for citizen rebuttal. The veiled message that comes through this process is this: ‘If you don’t agree with the mayor and council’s position on any issue, please shut up.’”
Todd is referring to the common practice of the mayor and some council members, notably Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), to criticize opponents after they’ve completed their testimony and returned to the audience, when there is no opportunity for citizens to respond.
At the August 9th meeting, the mayor criticized his political opponents for making use of the opportunity to address the council, and by extension, the people who may be watching on television or the internet: “I hope that today, all of this grandstanding that I saw coming from some of the public and I saw from some of the council members, and questioning council members, elected officials’ integrity — unless you have proof, just because you have a camera here, that there is something you shouldn’t be doing. … This whole thing that I saw going on here today remind me so much of a previous administration where individuals were standing up and thank God we have the cameras here. The media’s here every single meeting.”
What’s particularly deplorable about the mayor’s remarks is that he’s criticizing people for speaking at a public hearing. Yes, city officials say the agenda item was only to consider a letter of intent that does not bind the city council. But that legalistic interpretation ignores the practical political reality that this meeting was, de facto, the public hearing for this project.
This is not the first time the mayor has complained about his critics. In the past, the mayor has said: “We need every person’s ideas, recommendations, and their opinion. … Being quiet and then complaining about it later isn’t going to be good for you or the community.”
But when citizens take the mayor’s advice — showing initiative, not being quiet, and stating opinions beforehand — now the mayor calls that grandstanding.
The mayor has also called his critics “naysayers” and complained that they have received too much media attention.
The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.
In his remarks to me, John Todd wrote: “Diversity of opinion and the open discussion of divergent opinions are important parts of good government.” But citizens who observe the actions of the Wichita City Council — the issuance of this letter of intent being only the most recent example — and who sense the attitude of the mayor and some council members towards those who express opinions outside the orthodoxy — are likely to conclude, as many do, that it’s just not worth the effort to get involved.