Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a lesson in how frustrating it can be for citizens to interact with city government.
You might even have to endure a slight insult from our mayor.
Regarding this matter, I wrote Mr. Burk by email early Monday morning with a question. He didn’t reply. I should have followed-up with a telephone call, but I didn’t have time.
Monday afternoon I called the city’s economic development office with a few questions. The person I talked to was confused by the questions I asked, and suggested that I make records requests to get what I was asking for. There wasn’t time for that.
So I wrote by email to Allen Bell the city’s economic development director. He didn’t reply. I don’t necessarily fault him for that, as it was around 3:00 Monday afternoon when I wrote. But he still hasn’t replied, and it’s Wednesday afternoon now.
In my questions before the council, which you can read by clicking on Wichita facade improvement loan program: questions to answer, I asked if Burk had been investigated through background checks by the city, as the city has pledged to conduct thorough background investigations of its partners. Bell replied that he had been through checks in the past with regard to other deals.
But we now know, based on events from last December, that the checks the city conducted were cursory, and failed to uncover important facts about a developer. At that meeting, the mayor sternly scolded city staff for their lack of diligence in performing these checks.
Bell said that Burk is “well known in the community.” It hardly bears mentioning that sitting in the Sedgwick County jail at this moment is another developer who was very well known and very highly regarded in his time. So having a familiar face is not sufficient.
Bell also revealed that now Burk has equity partners, and the city will be vetting them. That’s too late, however. The ordinance has been passed.
Bell said that the risk analysis has been performed. That was subject of the inquiry I made in my email to Bell. But there was no mention of that in the agenda materials, and Bell didn’t answer my email.
Mr. Burk then spoke. He said that the fee being paid to the developer ($39,277) is not being paid to him personally, but is instead “overhead and profit for the contractor doing the work.”
This is hair-splitting at its finest. If that money wasn’t supplied by this loan, Burk would have to pay it himself.
He also questioned a figure of 6.5% for an interest rate that I used. That figure is from the agenda material Bell’s office prepared. If citizens can’t rely on that — and remember I contacted Burk and Bell’s office too — what can they rely on?
Burk said that in today’s market it’s difficult to borrow adequate funds from commercial banks. There’s a reason for that, I would submit.
He mentioned also that he’d been vetted. Again, this would have been from the time when the vetting process wasn’t rigorous enough to be meaningful.
Additionally, any vetting process of Burk should take into account his involvement as part of the development team for Waterwalk. This highly-subsidized development in downtown Wichita is recognized as a failure by even the Wichita Eagle editorial board.
Mayor Carl Brewer thanked Burk for answering questions, because “sometimes information is put out there that’s inaccurate and that’s the way it’s left, as being inaccurate.”
To the extent that my questions were based on inaccurate information — and that something that’s far from true — some things could have been cleared up if my inquiries the day before had been successful. While it may seem that inquiring the day before a meeting is waiting until the last minute, the agenda and accompanying material for the Tuesday meetings of the council isn’t available until the Thursday or Friday before. So there’s not a lot of time for citizens to act.
In the end, anything I might have said or questions I might have raised probably would have made little difference in the council’s action. Burk and his wife have made generous campaign contributions to most members of the council, including a total of $2,000 to Janet Miller’s recent successful campaign (that’s the maximum amount it’s possible for two people to contribute). If I’d paid that much, I’d probably feel like I didn’t have to answer questions from pesky citizens.
A question to raise, and one that needs answering, is if this is a new strategy the city will use in the future: Don’t answer questions from citizens. Provide incomplete or erroneous information in the material you make available. Then, if citizens ask questions, you get to point out all the ways they’re wrong — and on television, too.