Two weeks ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)
The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned this week: There was unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.
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. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.
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. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.
It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas.
This is not the first time Jeff Longwell has placed the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of taxpayers. Last August the council, with Longwell’s vote, decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. 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.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council, including Longwell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer funds to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to Longwell and other council members. Only one council member voted against this no-bid contract.
Later that year when citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge a taxpayer-funded giveaway to the special interests that fund his campaigns, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.” (Wichita Eagle, September 14, 2011)
After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” (Review & Outlook, March 6, 2012)
It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.
It’s all part of Longwell’s disregard for citizens in favor of his campaign contributors. In 2008 the city council, with Longwell approving, made a $6 million no-interest and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren. The contracts were not made available until just hours before the meeting where the loan was voted on. When a reporter asked about journalist and citizen access to these documents in a timely fashion, the reporter wrote “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier, Longwell said.” (Little time to review Warren loan terms, July 1, 2008 Wichita Eagle)
Companies Bill Warren controls contributed at least $7,500 to Longwell’s current campaign.
In 2011, when discussing signage policy at merchants that charge an extra community improvement district sales tax, Longwell said that including the specific add-on tax rate would be confusing to shoppers, because different CIDs may charge different add-on rates. Again, disregard for citizens.
Jeff Longwell defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well. We won’t create prosperity and jobs by over-spending on no-bid city contracts that provide out-size profits for Longwell’s political sponsors.
Additionally, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections?
Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws to reign in the practices of Jeff Longwell, Carl Brewer, and other city council members. For the good of our city and state, we must end the “pay-to-play” system of votes for political campaign contributions.