On big contracts, Wichita has had problems

As Wichita prepares to award a large construction contract, let’s hope the city acts in an ethical manner this time.

As the Wichita City Council prepares to make a decision regarding a contract for the new baseball stadium, the council’s past reputation in these matters can’t be overlooked.

The controversy over the stadium contract has been covered by the Wichita Eagle: “The Wichita City Council hasn’t officially approved a design-build team for the city’s new $75 million Minor League ballpark, but there’s already been a protest over the recommended group. … At issue in a protest by a competing team is whether the JE Dunn team meets a key requirement to be selected, which is that it has built at least three similar Major or Minor League ballparks.” 1

The biggest potential for unethical behavior comes from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. In 2012, as the Wichita city council was considering the award of the contract for the new airport terminal, Longwell (then a council member) received campaign contributions from executives of Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. 2

Two Walbridge contributions were made on July 16, 2012, the day before the council, Longwell included, voted to award the contract to the Key/Walbridge partnership. More contributions from Walbridge arrived on July 20, according to Longwell’s campaign finance reports.

When questioned about the Michigan contributions, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle, “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people.” But analysis of past campaign finance documents filed by Longwell showed just three out-of-state contributions totaling $1,500. 3

In deciding the airport contract issue, the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. It’s not surprising that Jeff Longwell made these decisions in favor of his campaign contributors. But he shouldn’t have been involved in the decision.

That was not the first time Jeff Longwell has placed the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of taxpayers. In 2011 the city council, with Longwell’s vote, decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

It’s not only Longwell with problematic behavior in the past. In 2012, before the vote on the airport contract, executives of Key Construction and spouses contributed heavily to the campaigns of both Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). These contributions were not known to the public until months after the vote was cast.

Williams is no longer on the council, but Clendenin remains.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer had his own issues, with a curious set of ethics principles. 4

The city needs an adult in the room. That person is, or should be, Wichita city manager Robert Layton. In the past he has implemented policies to end the practice of no-bid contracts. We don’t know what will happen this week.


Notes

  1. Rengers, Carrie. City selects ballpark design-build group; competing bidder questions qualifications. Wichita Eagle, November 29, 2018. Available at https://www.kansas.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/carrie-rengers/article222372330.html (subscription may be required).
  2. “A campaign finance report filed by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell contains contributions from executives associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. … These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.” Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/.
  3. “Analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found three contributions totaling $1,500 from California addresses.” Weeks, Bob. Jeff Longwell out-of-town campaign contributions. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/jeff-longwell-out-of-town-campaign-contributions/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. The odd ethics of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/odd-ethics-wichita-mayor-carl-brewer/.

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