For Hugh Nicks, a return to the backroom deal?

Remarks from a candidate for Sedgwick County Commission call for presenting a unified front to the public.

Speaking to the Wichita Pachyderm Club, Sedgwick County Commission candidate Hugh Nicks called for leadership to end what he called “divisive behavior:” “We can’t have — we can’t have the kind of divisive behavior that we have going on right now — we just — it’s just not — it’s just not acceptable.”

His opponent in the August Republican Party primary election is Richard Ranzau, who currently holds the office.

The “divisive behavior” that Nicks objects to takes several forms, but it’s clear he thinks that the Sedgwick County Commission should present a united front: The commission should have a plan that’s agreed to, and if commissioners don’t follow the plan, there should be consequences. At least that’s the moral of a story he told members of guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club.

That attitude is problematic. Especially so because the Sedgwick County Commission is different from a legislature. At the commission, there is no opportunity for interested parties — lobbyists and regular people — to testify before a committee as legislation is being developed. At the commission, there is no committee mark-up process in which the text of a bill is crafted and finalized. There is no committee vote that decides whether to recommend the bill to the entire legislative body.

So there really isn’t much debate or disagreement in public at the Sedgwick County Commission meetings. And when there is, it may be squelched. Last year a commissioner attempted to offer two amendments to a proposal. He was trying to generate a consensus. But the majority of commissioners wouldn’t have it, and the vote happened without considering the amendments. (See For Sedgwick County Commission, too much debate.)

It’s important that there be discussion in public, even if “divisive.” The prelude to the Kansas Open Meetings Act gives a reason why: “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.” 1

When things are not done in view of the public, we call them backroom deals, with all the well-deserved negative connotations. Here’s an example, from 2012: Sedgwick County staff and several commissioners worked out a deal to sell an unused radio tower for $280,000. Commissioners Ranzau and Peterjohn thought there should be an auction. There was an auction, and the county received net proceeds of $553,872. 2

There is already too much suspicion that backroom deals are common at the county and City of Wichita. The more important and “divisive” a matter is, the more discussion it deserves in public.

But that isn’t the attitude of candidate Nicks when he said, “It’d be like a business: I mean, if in our business when we had closed door meetings when, when we argue about how we move forward, in our, in our business, we didn’t go out in front of our employees afterwards and act the same way that we did back behind closed doors. It just doesn’t work. And if we went and acted that way in front of our customers, if we did, we wouldn’t have any customers.”

Business and government are different things. A business is accountable only to its owners and shareholders, and also to the public by acting lawfully. Other than this, a business can do what it wants. It may make decisions using any means its owners tolerate. 3

Government, however, is different. It should be accountable to the people. Sometimes — frequently — that requires “divisive” discussion and debate. And the more important the matter, the more discussion and debate — transparency — is needed.

It’s a lot easier on commissioners if the attitude is “go along to get along.” That attitude has led to a faltering Wichita economy as majorities of members of the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission have avoided debate and gone along with the advice of staff and economic development regimes. I think this is the strategy of Hugh Nicks, should he be elected to the commission.

It might be tempting to dismiss these remarks as having been made by an uninformed candidate. But Nicks says he has been running since October 2017 so that he can learn about the issues. 4

Following are excerpts of remarks of Hugh Nicks and Richard Ranzau at the Wichita Pachyderm Club, June 8, 2018.

Hugh Nicks:

In the area — in the area of leadership, uh, it always starts at the top. Yeah, it doesn’t matter what organization it is, it always starts at the top. I’ll give you just a couple of examples. Uh, when I first started out as a young guy, and I was coaching, I worked for a guy Lafayette Norwood. Maybe some of you know that name. Uh, he was the first black basketball coach — the city league’s first black coach in the city of Wichita, actually. And I worked for the man for two years and learned some hard lessons from him because he wanted to fire me a couple times.

Yeah, he wanted to fire me because one day I decided I’d run some drills that he would not have agreed upon and when we got back in the locker room and got all the kids checked out, he came and said, “I believe I’m gonna fire you.” I said, “I need that job.” It pays 6,200 dollars a year. I already said that. He said, “Well I saw what you were doing down at the other end of the court. It’s not what we agreed on. And uh, so, when we have a plan, we leave this, this office, then you’re gonna do what you’re supposed to do, and you’re not gonna counter anything that I say out on that floor because we’re a team and we’re gonna move forward.”

Uh, so that — that was one of my first lessons that I learned with regard to leadership. But I, I think it starts at the top, so here’s what I see at the county: Um, you know, we can’t have — we can’t have the kind of divisive behavior that we have going on right now — we just — it’s just not — it’s just not acceptable.

Now, it’s alright to disagree in my view. I mean, I’m probably one of the — one of the guys that disagree with and vehemently if I have a strong opinion. But it’s not done in public. You just — you just — you just can’t do that. So, if you want to have an argument with me and go back behind closed doors and have it all day long, that’s alright with me. But when we come out and we’re in front of a staff, then were gonna act differently, and we’re certainly gonna act differently in front of our constituents — in front of, in front of the, the people that we represent. It’d be like a business: I mean, if in our business when we had closed door meetings when, when we argue about how we move forward, in our, in our business, we didn’t go out in front of our employees afterwards and act the same way that we did back behind closed doors. It just doesn’t work. And if we went and acted that way in front of our customers, if we did, we wouldn’t have any customers.

So I’m a proponent, and trying to answer that question from back there in, in terms of leadership style, that we need a different leadership style in the county. Now Richard’s probably gonna take exception with that because he fights for what he believes in and I understand that. But it’s a matter of the way we go about it in my view, uh, and everything starts at the top. I mean, it starts at the top and works its way down, uh, that’s — that’s how I view that.


Notes

  1. Kansas Statutes Annotated 75-4317. Available at https://www.ksrevisor.org/statutes/chapters/ch75/075_043_0017.html.
  2. As a result of system upgrades, the county no longer needs a radio tower located near 77th Street North and Interstate 135. Pixius Communications, LLC made an offer to purchase the tower and the five acre tower site for $280,000. The county proceeded making arrangements for the sale, preparing a sales agreement contract between Sedgwick County and Pixius with a sales price of $280,000, along with several other legal documents necessary to support the sale. … But commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn felt that the best way to sell the tower was through an auction. … The result of the auction? A Florida company offered $610,000. After a sales commission ($55,000) and half of closing costs ($1,128), the county will net $553,872. That’s almost twice the price the county manager and two commissioners were willing to sell the tower for. See Weeks, Bob. Sedgwick County tower sale was not in citizens’ best interest. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/sedgwick-county-government/sedgwick-county-tower-sale-was-not-in-citizens-best-interest/.
  3. It’s true that some government officials say we must run government like a business. They usually mean that until they are held to the standards of accountability the private sector faces. Then, things are different. Accountability is avoided. (The non-discussion of expenses of the Intrust Bank Arena is an example of evading business-type accountability by members of the Sedgwick County Commission. See Intrust Bank Arena loss for 2017 is $4,222,182.)
  4. “You may wonder why I’m announcing so early, since the Republican Primary for the County Commission seat isn’t until August 2018. The reason is simple. I like to do my homework. I want to learn about the way Sedgwick County governs, and the rationale behind the decisions that have been made. I want to learn about the issues that are most important to the people in the 4th District. I think serving as County Commissioner is too important to take an on-the-job-training approach, and I don’t want to be on a learning curve at the taxpayers’ expense.” Nicks4commissioner.com. News. October 19, 2017. Available at http://www.nicks4commissioner.com/news.html. .

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