Tag Archives: Michael O’Donnell

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell

Déjà vu scandals in Sedgwick County government

The Sedgwick County Commission scandals are an outrage for me. I must speak out against the appalling revelations that provide explicit evidence of illegal misconduct in our county government, writes Karl Peterjohn.

Déjà vu scandals in Sedgwick County government

By Karl Peterjohn

During the Watergate scandal the press repeatedly stated that the campaign break-in was not the primary crime, but the cover up involving the White House was. These scandals eventually led to criminal convictions, and ultimately, to the resignation of the president.

Sedgwick County government now appears to have multi-part scandals. It is not clear whether these scandals will result in convictions and resignations, but these scandals are growing.

The November 2, 2018 news conference held by the attorney for county counselor Eric Yost revealed that the FBI investigation that initially began with Commissioner O’Donnell has now grown to involve two other commissioners, David Unruh and David Dennis. Commissioner O’Donnell has been indicted on a number of felony charges, and is now awaiting a January 2019 trial in federal court. He has refused to resign from the commission.

Mr. Yost revealed at his news conference that in the wake of the initial O’Donnell scandal, an effort was being made by these three commissioners, O’Donnell, Unruh, and Dennis, to remove county manager Scholes from his position. Scholes’ mistake was cooperating with the FBI in the initial criminal investigation of Commissioner O’Donnell.

Mr. Yost’s problem with the three commissioners seems to have been pointing out the improper conduct by these three commissioners concerning Mr. Scholes, and in doing so, trying to protect Sedgwick County from this improper and illegal conduct. In doing so, Yost was trying to prevent the county from being exposed to legal liabilities for this outrageous misconduct occurring in the on-going effort to fire county manager Scholes. This misconduct is the latest scandalous revelation. This misconduct could lead to further criminal charges against these three members of the county commission.

The FBI refuses to respond to press inquiries of what or who they are investigating. However, we now know that the FBI is investigating commissioners at the Sedgwick County courthouse. Mr. Yost revealed Friday that he spent a total of 3.5 hours being interviewed by FBI agents on two occasions. The FBI has also interviewed other county employees.

It is also clear that the other two members of the county commission, Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell, were not participants in the commission majority’s egregious misconduct. Sadly, election mailers and campaign material from their political opponents, or their political allies, are claiming that is not the case. Both Ranzau and Howell have behaved in an exemplary way concerning this situation and deserve public praise, not the misinformation that occurs all too often in today’s political environment.

Ranzau has been especially outspoken in condemning his three colleagues who have created this ongoing scandal that will stretch well beyond election day. While information from Yost’s news conference was a front-page story in the November 3 Wichita Eagle, it is not clear that the local news media’s coverage will focus here for very long. Courthouse scandals usually have the potential to impact an election, but not in this case. Commissioner Unruh is retiring, and Dennis and O’Donnell aren’t on the 2018 election ballot.

Much of this information would not have become public if it hadn’t been for Commissioner Dennis’ public comments criticizing Mr. Yost. Commissioner Dennis’ criticism of Mr. Yost created a way to reveal a lot more information about this part of the commission majority’s scandal. However, a great deal more information remains to be revealed. I believe that more criminal charges are likely.

Where does this county scandal stand right now?

Commissioner Unruh will be leaving office in early January, but the ethical and legal cloud over his head will remain. His county commission record will be deeply tarnished regardless of how long it takes to resolve these scandals. Unruh has already been exposed as petty, vindictive, and guilty of scandalous misconduct.

Commissioner Dennis made a huge blunder in publicly criticizing the county commission’s chief lawyer. It is now clear that Mr. Yost, a former district court judge as well as elected official, has a law degree and Commissioner Dennis doesn’t. By criticizing Yost, Dennis unintentionally provided the legal means for revealing a portion of the FBI investigation of these three commissioners, details of the misconduct allegations, and revealing important county information that had not been on the public record. Commissioner Dennis has expanded these scandals with his bluster from the commission bench.

Both Unruh and Dennis could eventually end up following Commissioner O’Donnell into federal court as defendants. Commissioner O’Donnell remains at the center of this scandal with his pending criminal charges. I hope that the wheels of justice move quickly. I believe that it is possible, with the new information revealed last week, that Commissioner O’Donnell may face additional charges that expand his already sizable federal indictments.

This situation is bad for Sedgwick County and our community. These scandals could eventually generate other investigations, possibly by the Kansas attorney general.

In 2016, candidate David Dennis was successful in defeating me in the hard-fought primary election battle for the third district GOP county commission nomination. Mr. Dennis won the general election. He became a county commissioner in January 2017. This year, Commissioner Dennis was elected by his commission colleagues to chair the commission.

I know all five commissioners in varying ways as well as the county staff who served with me during the eight years, from 2009 to 2017, that I was a county commissioner. It was an honor and privilege to serve on the county commission. Mr. Scholes and Mr. Yost are two of the best public servants I had the privilege to work with while I was on the commission. Their ethics and integrity are exemplary.

These scandals are an outrage for me. I must speak out against the appalling revelations that provide explicit evidence of illegal misconduct in our county government.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Richard Ranzau and Renee Duxler

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau explains the current problems with corruption in the county. Then, Renee Duxler tells us why she’s running for Sedgwick County Commission. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 215, broadcast October 28, 2018.

Shownotes

The overcriminalization in the charges against Michael O’Donnell

The indictment against Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell smells of overcriminalization.

Former Wichita City Council Member, former Kansas Senator, and present Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell has been charged with a series of serious crimes — serious, at least, in the potential penalties he faces.

First, I know Michael O’Donnell, and although I have been critical of some of his votes in the Kansas Senate and many while a member of the Sedgwick County Commission, I still consider him a friend, and I hope he considers me the same. I have worked on some of his campaigns, sometimes as a volunteer, and sometimes for pay.

In the indictment, counts one through five accuse O’Donnell of wire fraud, because five campaign finance reports filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission contained allegedly false and fraudulent information, that being that O’Donnell allegedly converted campaign funds to his personal use. And, the email service used to file the reports routed the data through other states on its way to Topeka. This is described as a scheme to “defraud the State of Kansas, the County of Sedgwick, Kansas, and the citizens thereof.” 1

Counts six through ten accuse O’Donnell of bank fraud, because the banks involved are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Counts eleven and twelve allege money laundering based on the above activity.

Overcriminalization

O’Donnell is being charged with multiple criminal offenses for the same acts. He allegedly converted campaign funds to personal use. That is against the law, and if done more than once, there can be multiple counts. But how this is done (the means of transmission of reports to KGEC) and what type of banks were used (FDIC insured banks) really don’t have anything to do with the underlying bad acts and should not result in additional crimes, at least in this case.

For example, if O’Donnell had used an internet service that sent email with the transmission remaining at all times within the borders of Kansas, then one of the elements of the first five counts would not apply, that he “transmitted by means of wire communications in interstate commerce.” Or, if he had delivered the reports personally, interstate commerce might not apply.

This is the issue of criminal intent. If the allegations in the indictment are true, O’Donnell committed a crime by improperly spending campaign funds and falsely reporting that. The indictment presents evidence of criminal intent in doing these things. But it is unlikely he intended to commit a crime involving interstate commerce. He probably did not know that Google would route his Gmail communications across state lines.

In a similar vein, because the banks involved are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, counts six through ten accuse O’Donnell of bank fraud. But it’s unlikely O’Donnell intended to defraud the banks. The checks he wrote didn’t bounce; there were sufficient funds in the accounts. So it’s very difficult to see how the transactions alleged in the indictment posed any threat to the banks, or by extension, to the federal government through FDIC insurance. Further, if O’Donnell had used state-chartered banks, the second five counts might not apply.

If we want to have campaign finance laws, that’s one thing. If people violate those laws, then charge them with that. But this piling on of charges is a characteristic of overcriminalization, where people are charged with multiple crimes for the same underlying criminal act.

Could the piling on of charges be a bargaining chip to use in future negotiations concerning things O’Donnell may know? In a recent op-ed, prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz quoted a federal judge regarding squeezing a potential witness: “This vernacular is to ‘sing,’ is what prosecutors use. What you got to be careful of is, they may not only sing, they may compose.” 2

Dershowitz continued:

I have been using this “compose” metaphor for decades and I am gratified that a judge borrowed it to express an important civil liberties concern. Every experienced criminal lawyer has seen this phenomenon at work. I have seen it used by prosecutors who threaten wives, parents, siblings and, in one case, the innocent son of a potential witness who was about to graduate law school. Most judges, many of whom were former prosecutors, have also seen it. But few have the courage to expose it publicly, as Ellis has done.

Defenders of Mueller’s tactic argue that the threatened witnesses and their relatives are generally guilty of some crime, or else they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the prosecutor’s threats. This may be true, but the crimes they are threatened to be charged with are often highly technical, elastic charges that are brought only as leverage. They are dropped as soon as the witness cooperates.

Is this what is happening to Michael O’Donnell? Will the piling on of multiple felony charges carrying multi-year prison terms be dropped if O’Donnell cooperates in criminal prosecutions against other people?

If anything, these alleged acts might constitute fraud committed against campaign donors. It’s difficult to see how the average person would care how candidates spend their campaign funds. Citizens may be concerned with who gives and how much they give, and if a candidate converts these campaign contributions to personal use, it opens the door to corruption. But the people really harmed are the donors who gave funds expecting to help O’Donnell win an election, not pay his personal expenses. (Unless the donors gave with such an understanding in place, and that is not legal.)

As an aside, O’Donnell’s political opponents ought not to be so concerned, although currently they are overjoyed at his situation. If a candidate converts funds to personal use — away from campaign activity like advertisements, mailings, and yard signs — that seems to make the candidate less likely to win. Candidates and their supporters should hope their opponents spend campaign funds unwisely.


Notes

  1. United States Attorney’s office for the District of Kansas. Federal Fraud Charges Filed Against County Commissioner O’Donnell. Available at https://www.justice.gov/usao-ks/pr/federal-fraud-charges-filed-against-county-commissioner-o-donnell. Also see the indictment, available here.
  2. Alan Dershowitz. Federal judge rightly rebukes Mueller for questionable tactics. The Hill, May 7, 2018. Available at http://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/386508-federal-judge-rightly-rebukes-mueller-for-questionable-tactics.

For Sedgwick County Commission, too much debate

By moving to end motions and debate, the Sedgwick County Commission isn’t effectively serving citizens and taxpayers.

Yesterday’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission offered an opportunity to learn how we can improve local government.

The issue the commission was considering, significant in its own right, is not important to the following discussion. It’s the process that needs improvement.

There was a proposed ordinance. Commissioner Jim Howell offered two amendments — really substitute motions — that altered the proposed ordinance. Each failed by votes of three to two.

Howell had two more motions to offer. But Commissioner David Dennis moved a motion to end the offering of additional motions. In this vote the majority prevailed, and Howell was silenced. Commissioners voting to end debate were Chair Dave Unruh, Michael O’Donnell, and Dennis. Richard Ranzau and Howell opposed the motion to end debate.

The county commission is not a deliberative body like a legislature. The county does not have committees like a legislature. I’m not advocating for the county to form committees, but here’s what is missing from the county process: There is no opportunity for interested parties — often lobbyists, but also regular people — to testify before a committee as legislation is being developed. 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.

Some of this happens in Sedgwick County, of course, but mostly behind the scenes. There is the county staff meeting Tuesday morning, when the commissioners meet with staff in an informal setting. While this meeting is open to the public, there is rarely news coverage. (Hint to county staff: These meetings could easily be broadcast and archived on the internet without much cost or effort.)

In a legislature, when a bill is considered by the entire body, there is usually an amendment process. They may be many amendments that require time to debate and consider. This process was mentioned by two commission members who have served in the Kansas legislature.

But it seems a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members don’t care for this process.

I understand why some commissioners wanted to end debate. Sometimes amendments to legislation create a moment where legislators have to cast a vote on an issue, often a finely-grained issue. Sometimes that vote is used as a campaign issue in future elections. Those votes may appear in compilations of legislative activity that reveal how legislators vote.

But amendments and debate are part of the legislative process. Commissioner Howell had several amendments that he had prepared in advance. They were not off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment ideas. They were crafted to attempt to find a compromise that a majority of commissioners could accept.

But a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members didn’t want that.

Perhaps some commissioners where concerned about the meeting becoming lengthy. We see that from Wichita City Council members. They’re paid a part-time salary, so maybe there’s merit to their carping about long meetings.

But Howell’s amendments took just a few minutes each to consider. And — this is highly relevant — the members of the Sedgwick County Commission are paid a handsome full-time salary. They should not object to the meeting lasting all day, if that’s what it takes to serve the citizens. And citizens were not well-served by the commission’s decision to silence one of its members.

David Dennis, gleeful regulatory revisionist

David Dennis, candidate for Sedgwick County Commission, rewrites his history of service on the Kansas State Board of Education.

In 2012 the Lawrence Journal-World reported this regarding a meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education: “Board chairman David Dennis of Wichita said the state needs more information on home schools to ensure that children are being taught. … Dennis suggested perhaps the board should propose legislation to increase the state reporting requirements for home schoolers.”1 Other newspapers published similar reports.

Now, Dennis is a candidate for the Sedgwick County Commission. At a candidate forum held by the Wichita Pachyderm Club on June 10, I asked Dennis about regulation of homeschools. Was that representative of his stance towards homeschooling and regulation?

In his response, Dennis said the board never sent a recommendation to the Legislature. But that wasn’t the question that I asked. Here is a transcription of my question.

“This week the Wichita Eagle reported that as part of the effort to retain Cargill in Wichita that the City of Wichita will appoint an ombudsman to help shepherd Cargill through the labyrinth is the word they use of business processes and regulations in Wichita. Which seems to me to be tantamount that regulation in Wichita is burdensome. So for all candidates, I would ask, how do you feel about that? What can you do to streamline regulation? And for you, Mr. Dennis, I’m particularly concerned because as a member of the State Board of Education you proposed that the board recommend the Kansas Legislature pass regulations regarding the performance of home schools. So I’m wondering if that’s indicative of your philosophy toward a free market in education and regulation in general.”

In his response to this question, Dennis made a point of “correcting me,” contending that the Kansas State Board of Education never sent such a recommendation to the Legislature. He said it again for emphasis, thereby “correcting” me twice.

Initially, I was confused by his answer. I thought perhaps I had misstated the premise of my question. But after listening to the recording, I realized that I asked the question precisely as I had intended. I said that Dennis proposed that the board recommend regulation to the Legislature, not that the board actually made such a proposal to the Legislature.

Perhaps, I thought, David Dennis didn’t hear my question correctly. So I followed up by email, including a link to an audio recording of the exchange, the same recording that appears at the end of this article. He stood by his response.

I don’t like calling anyone a liar. I’m willing to allow that people misspoke, or didn’t understand the question, or had an episode of faulty recollection, or that they changed their position over time. So maybe this episode doesn’t represent David Dennis lying. Perhaps three newspaper reporters incorrectly reported what Dennis said during the board of education meeting.2 3

But David Dennis was gleeful in “correcting” me in public. Twice. And in a forum where debating the speakers is not part of the culture.

Maybe Dennis’s response wasn’t a lie. But it was deceptive. It was evasive. It was characteristic of someone who is supremely confident in himself, even when he is wrong.

Perhaps this confidence is useful when serving as a military officer, as Dennis did. But it isn’t evidence of humility, and that’s something we need in our public servants.

Following is an excerpt from the candidate forum containing my question and the response from the candidates. A recording of the entire meeting as available at From Pachyderm: Sedgwick County Commission candidates. The participating candidates were Dennis and his opponent Karl Peterjohn in district 3, and Michael O’Donnell, the Republican candidate in district 2. (Only Republican candidates were invited.)


Notes

  1. Rothschild, Scott. State board discusses home-schooling requirements. Lawrence Journal-World, August 14, 2012. Available at www2.ljworld.com/news/2012/aug/14/state-board-discusses-home-schooling-requirements/.
  2. Associated press in Topeka Capital-Journal. Kansas education board looks into home schooling concerns. August 14, 2012. Available at cjonline.com/news/2012-08-15/kansas-education-board-looks-home-schooling-concerns.
  3. Tobias, Suzanne Perez. Kansas education official’s comment riles home-schooling parents. Wichita Eagle, August 18, 2012. Available at www.kansas.com/news/article1097490.html.

Wichita economic development items this week

Two economic development items on tap in Wichita this week illustrate failures or shortcomings of the regime.

Update: Both items passed by seven to zero votes at the March 1, 2016 council meeting.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider two economic development items.

The first item concerns a company named Epic Sports. In 2012 this company received property tax abatements from the City of Wichita in exchange for a 100 percent property tax exemption. The measure passed by a vote of six to one, with former council member Michael O’Donnell voting no.

Now Epic Sports has found greener pastures, it seems. Well, it didn’t just find them, it sought them, according to city documents: “The company approached economic development professionals in Butler County regarding incentives.” The same documents note “[Butler County] professionals did not target Epic Sports as a prospect for relocation.” With the new focus on regionalism, we can’t have one county poaching companies from another, it seems.

The city has negotiated that Epic Sports will repay 55 percent of the forgiven property taxes.

Here’s what is notable about this incident. Epic Sports has 110 employees and says it has outgrown its Wichita facility. City documents state the company has “searched for new facilities or land in the Wichita area but could not find a suitable property.” That is remarkable, if true. Wichita does not have any warehouse space suitable for a company of 110 employees? What, may I ask, have Wichita’s many economic development professionals been doing if we have no space for such a modestly-sized company? (On the other hand, with the focus on regionalism, and with Wichita and Butler County in the same region, why should we care?)

The second item the council will consider concerns a company that received a property tax exemption based on a commitment to invest a certain amount of capital and create a certain number of jobs. While the capital investment was made, the company has not met the jobs goal. In this case the city is invoking a portion of its economic development policy which allows modification of an incentive agreement based on poor economic conditions. If the Current Conditions Index, a product of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, drops by five or more points during the term of an incentive agreement, the city can make a modification. Based on this, the city is extending the deadline for the company to meet the jobs goal. Repayment of forgiven property taxes could be required if the company does not meet the deadline.

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

No-bid contracts still passed by Wichita city council

Despite a policy change, the Wichita city council still votes for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds.

In the current campaign for Wichita mayor, one candidates says he never has voted for no-bid contracts: “[Longwell] also takes issue with the claim he has ever voted for any no-bid contract, something he says his voting record will back up. ‘That’s the beauty of having a voting record,’ he says.” Mayoral candidate Williams decries ‘crony capitalism’ of critics, Wichita Business Journal, March 12, 2015

We don’t have to look very hard to find an example that contradicts Longwell’s claim of never voting for a no-bid contract. Minutes from the August 9, 2011 meeting of the city council show that there was discussion about the no-bid contract for the garage benefiting the Ambassador Hotel. Then-council member Michael O’Donnell questioned if the city was getting the best deal for taxpayers, since the garage was to be built with public funds. O’Donnell was told that the no-bid contract was at “the developer’s request.” These developers include principals and executives of Key Construction and Dave Burk, all who have been generous and consistent funders of Longwell’s campaigns.

But we don’t have to go back that far to find voting for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds. Longwell has voted several times in favor of the Exchange Place project, starting when it was a project of the Minnesota Guys. The latest such vote was on March 3, 2015, when Longwell voted in favor of a project that contained this benefit, according to city documents: “The City will also provide TIF funding in an amount not to exceed $12,500,000 for the acquisition of land and construction of the parking structure.”

This garage, to be paid for through public funds, was not competitively bid. Despite the garage being pitched as a public good, most parking spaces are for the exclusive benefit of Exchange Place.

Impetus for change

The votes by Longwell and others for no-bid contracts sparked the city manager to ask for a change in policy. The Wichita Eagle reported in 2012:

The days of awarding construction projects without taking competitive bids might be numbered at City Hall if City Manager Robert Layton has his way, especially with public projects such as parking garages that are part of private commercial development.

Layton said last week that he intends to ask the City Council for a policy change against those no-bid contracts.

Three years later, Longwell and others are still voting to spend taxpayer funds on no-bid contracts.


Minutes from August 8, 2011 meeting

Council Member O’Donnell stated and we will not being going out to bid to find the best
deal on that and are just awarding.

Allen Bell Urban Development Director stated that is the developer’s request. Council Member O’Donnell asked if that is City precedent and that with a government project in the tune of $6 million dollars, does not have to be sent out for bid?

Gary Rebenstorf Director of Law stated we have Charter Ordinance No. 203 that has been adopted by the City Council, which provides a procedure to exempt these types of projects from the bidding requirements from the City and has to meet certain requirements in order for it to be used by the Council. Stated the most significant is that there has to be a public hearing and has to be a 2/3 vote by the Council to approve this development agreement that sets up this type of project.

Council Member O’Donnell stated he is glad the media is here to pick up on that because he thinks that $6 million dollars is a lot of money and to just award that to a contractor that has special ties to campaign finance reports of everyone on the City Council except himself, seems questionable.

How TIF routes taxpayer-funded benefits to Wichita’s political players

From January 2012, how tax increment financing routes benefits to politically-connected firms.

It is now confirmed: In Wichita, tax increment financing (TIF) leads to taxpayer-funded waste that benefits those with political connections at city hall.

The latest evidence we have is the construction of a downtown parking garage that benefits Douglas Place, especially the Ambassador Hotel, a renovation of a historic building now underway.

The flow of tax dollars Wichita city leaders had planned for Douglas Place called for taxpayer funds to be routed to a politically-connected construction firm. And unlike the real world, where developers have an incentive to build economically, the city created incentives for Douglas Place developers to spend lavishly in a parking garage, at no cost to themselves. In fact, the wasteful spending would result in profit for them.

The original plan for Douglas Place as specified in a letter of intent that the city council voted to support, called for a parking garage and urban park to cost $6,800,000. Details provided at the August 9th meeting of the Wichita City Council gave the cost for the garage alone as $6,000,000. The garage would be paid for by capital improvement program (CIP) funds and tax increment financing (TIF). The CIP is Wichita’s long-term plan for building public infrastructure. TIF is different, as we’ll see in a moment.

At the August 9th meeting it was also revealed that Key Construction of Wichita would be the contractor for the garage. The city’s plan was that Key Construction would not have to bid for the contract, even though the garage is being paid for with taxpayer funds. Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern about the no-bid contract. As a result, the contract was put out for competitive bid.

Now a winning bid has been determined, according to sources in city hall, and the amount is nearly $1.3 million less than the council was willing to spend on the garage. This is money that otherwise would have gone into the pockets of Key Construction. Because of the way the garage is being paid for, that money would not have been a cost to Douglas Place’s developers. Instead, it would have been a giant ripoff of Wichita taxpayers. This scheme was approved by Mayor Carl Brewer and all city council members except O’Donnell.

Even worse, the Douglas Place developers have no incentive to economize on the cost of the garage. In fact, they have incentives to make it cost even more.

Two paths for developer taxes

Recall that the garage is being paid for through two means. One is CIP, which is a cost to Wichita taxpayers. It doesn’t cost the Douglas Place developers anything except for their small quotal share of Wichita’s overall tax burden. In exchange for that, they get part of a parking garage paid for.

Flows of funds in regular and TIF development.
Flows of funds in regular and TIF development.
But the tax increment financing, or TIF, is different. Under TIF, the increased property taxes that Douglas Place will pay as the project is completed won’t go to fund the general operations of government. Instead, these taxes will go to pay back bonds that the city will issue to pay for part of the garage — a garage that benefits Douglas Place, and one that would not be built but for the Douglas Place plans.

Under TIF, the more the parking garage costs, the more Douglas Place property taxes are funneled back to it — taxes, remember, it has to pay anyway. (Since Douglas Place won’t own the garage, it doesn’t have to pay taxes on the value of the garage, so it’s not concerned about the taxable value of the garage increasing its tax bill.)

Most people and businesses have their property taxes go towards paying for public services like police protection, firemen, and schools. But TIF allows these property taxes to be used for a developer’s exclusive benefit. That leads to distortions.

Why would Douglas Place be interested in an expensive parking garage? Here are two reasons:

First, the more the garage costs, the more the hotel benefits from a fancier and nicer garage for its guests to park in. Remember, since the garage is paid for by property taxes on the hotel — taxes Douglas Place must pay in any case — there’s an incentive for the hotel to see these taxes used for its own benefit rather than used to pay for firemen, police officers, and schools.

Second, consider Key Construction, the planned builder of the garage under a no-bid contract. The more expensive the garage, the higher the profit for Key.

Now add in the fact that one of the partners in the Douglas Place project is a business entity known as Summit Holdings LLC, which is composed of David Wells, Kenneth Wells, Richard McCafferty, John Walker Jr., and Larry Gourley. All of these people are either owners of Key Construction or its executives. The more the garage costs, the higher the profit for these people. Remember, they’re not paying for the garage. City taxpayers are.

The sum of all this is a mechanism to funnel taxpayer funds, via tax increment financing, to Key Construction. The more the garage costs, the better for Douglas Place and Key Construction — and the worse for Wichita taxpayers.

Fueled by campaign contributions?

It’s no wonder Key Construction principals contributed $16,500 to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and five city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

This scheme — of which few people must be aware as it has not been reported anywhere but here — is a reason why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws. These laws impose restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts.

An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

This project also shows why complicated financing schemes like tax increment financing need to be eliminated. Government intervention schemes like this turn the usual economic incentives upside down, and at taxpayer expense.

In Wichita, running government like a business

In Wichita and Sedgwick County, can we run government like a business? Should we even try? Do our leaders think there is a difference?

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Gary Schmitt, who is an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

In Wichita, the public deserves and should demand answers

Following, from Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell, a discussion of issues surrounding the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax. O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council for nearly two years before resigning to serve in the senate.

Kansas Senator Michael O'Donnell
Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell
We are less than one week from an incredibly important election cycle where those of us in Wichita will vote for our future in a 4, 5 or 6 year timeframe; Governor for 4, Sales tax for 5 and Senator for 6. Before we go to the polls, the Wichita City Council needs to level with the public and answer critical questions, if not, they continue the “politics-as-usual” game that has been exhaustingly prevalent during the all-too-disappointing Brewer administration. Is City Hall hoping to “run out the clock,” praying the public will become so disengaged with the election that somehow Wichitans will think the city has been straight-forward? Maybe I am being too critical, but it’s hard not to be critical when I experienced the “you can’t fight City Hall” realities directly. I saw first-hand how City Hall can be a barrier to quality of life instead of helping to enable it. Here are a list of 5 questions — one for each year of the tax — we need to have answered (and should have had answered long ago):

Continue reading In Wichita, the public deserves and should demand answers

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

Before asking for more taxes, Wichita city hall needs to earn trust

Before Wichita city hall asks its subjects for more tax revenue, it needs to regain the trust of Wichitans. Following, from February, an illustration of the problems city hall has created for itself. And, how it would be helpful if the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper acted as though it cared about ethics, cronyism, government transparency, and corruption.

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
— P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
— Frederic Bastiat

Mayor's Downtown VisionTomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Hockaday sign explanationThen the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

Doesn't Wichita have a newspaperSo there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

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? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Wait a minute: Doesn’t Wichita have a newspaper that keeps a watchful eye on cronyism and corruption? With an editorial board that crusades against these ills?

The answer is no. No such newspaper exists in Wichita.

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Council members shall refrain 01Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; Wichita logic Brewer fishingshall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

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. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. wichita-wins-transparency-award-2013For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.

But the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies to act as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater government transparency?

In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government

Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chairman Gary Schmitt, who is also an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of GWEDC.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior

city-council-chambers-sign-b

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
— P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
— Frederic Bastiat

Update: The council deferred this item to a later date.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Then the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

So there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

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? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, though, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Curious Wichita ethics enigmas

Wichita City HallAs he has done previously, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer decided not to vote on a matter involving Spirit Aerosystems at the November 5, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

The mayor didn’t give a reason for recusing himself, but it’s probably because he was formerly an employee at Spirit. So it’s good that he did this. But if we’re going to observe ethics protocols like this — and we should — let’s do them correctly. The mayor should have announced at the start of this item that he had to recuse himself, and then he should have left the bench and probably also the council chambers. Instead, Brewer presided over the presentation and discussion of the item, and then stated he wouldn’t be voting. It’s a small matter, but we might as well do things right.

What is much more important — and curious — is this: Brewer feels he can’t vote on an item involving a company where he was an employee. But, he has no such compunction about voting on matters that send taxpayer money to his fishing buddy, even via no-bid contracts.

Even more curious: Brewer thought it was ethical to vote to send taxpayer money to the movie theater owner who also sells his barbeque sauce.

Add to this confusing mix of ethical judgment calls: The mayor feels he can’t shop for his personal automobile in Wichita because he doesn’t want to be accused of getting a “special deal,” in his words.

If someone can explain this line of reasoning by the mayor and/or the city, I’d appreciate being enlightened.

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car or voting on matters concerning his former employer. But I’m surprised, as this concern for virtue doesn’t match the behavior of the mayor and many members of the Wichita City Council. Shall we run down the list?

Exhibit 1: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. 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.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Exhibit 2: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Exhibit 3: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

Exhibit 4: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership, too. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters.

Really. It happened.

What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when voting on economic development incentives for his former employer, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office?

That he feels he needs to shop for a car outside the city, but at the same time has no problem voting for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

That he feels he can’t vote to give a tax break to his former employer, but votes to give millions to a campaign contributor, and then sells his barbeque sauce in that person’s business?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these decisions.

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. 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.

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, in July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

Is graft a problem in Wichita?

Dump truck carrying coins

In his paper History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat.

Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita?

Yes. Absolutely. As explained in In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform, we have a problem.

An example: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. 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.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

As elections approach, Wichita voters ought to remember that the three incumbents running for reelection all accepted campaign contributions from the parties that they voted to reward with an overpriced no-bid construction contract.

Following, Greg Schmid explains the problem in this excerpt from History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America:

The Problem
Graft is nothing new in the world, especially soft “white collar” corruption involved in the award of government contracts based on “special relationships” between public officials and government contractors. Particular acts of corruption are often hard to detect, one at a time, but the aggregate effects of “Pay to Play” are reflected by the heavy financial toll that corrupted actors within our government system take on the taxpayer. Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefitof corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices. Graft increases the cost of government by motivating officials “on the take” to mismanage government project spending. An inside deal, that is good for the corrupt official personally, usually leads to a bad economic decision for the public because the extra cost of corruption must be passed on to the taxpayer; a bought politician tends to make distorted choices. This “mismanagement effect” is costly to the public trust. One dollar of corruption is estimated to impose a burden of $1.67 on the taxpayers. …

Efforts to make government transactions transparent are met with disdain and with incredulous personalized claims that people who don’t trust their public officials are just paranoid, and should not be allowed to interrupt the people’s business by prying into the inner workings of government procurements. Fear of being targeted for ridicule or worse by society’s powerful elite makes it easy to look the other way, live in denial, or just accept government corruption as the way of the world. This is the most dangerous attitude of all; the perception that our government system is just unethical and corrupt and that there is nothing anyone can do about it. By this attitude, the perception of pervasive corruption at all levels of government, citizens lose hope and lose faith in their governing institutions. When this fundamental disconnect occurs people disengage from government, and self-governance is at risk.