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Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts

  • Published Tuesday, July 17, 2012, at 12 a.m.

There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal – the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.

Dondlinger and Sons and its out-of-state partner submitted the lowest bid for the airport job, $99.4 million, but were disqualified because city officials ruled that they didn’t make a good-faith effort to land enough federally required disadvantaged-business subcontractors – a view the Federal Aviation Administration shares. The contract presumably will go to Key and its partner Walbridge for their $101.5 million bid. Reversing the decision would put at risk $53 million in federal funding the city cannot afford to lose.

But the Dondlinger appeal and its likely outcome demonstrate again that appearance matters, even when actions are legal and aboveboard.

That’s because over the past 11 years, Key Construction’s owners, brothers Dave and Kent Wells, and their spouses and company management have donated more than $10,000 to Brewer’s political campaigns. It’s not a surprise that the prospect of Key winning the airport contract with the second-lowest bid is raising questions now, just as Key’s initial no-bid contract for the Ambassador Hotel parking garage did last year.

Brewer told The Eagle that he writes more than 50 letters a year like the one he wrote supporting Key for the Cabela’s project, doing so upon request to support local companies’ bids, grant proposals and the like. And in the case of Cabela’s, the letter didn’t work; the company chose the Law Co. to build its Wichita store.

“I’m about helping the businesses we have grow,” Brewer told The Eagle.

But by writing a letter on “Office of the Mayor” stationery that touted Key and its “great working relationship” with the city, Brewer couldn’t help but appear to be signaling his preference for Key over other local bidders – whether or not he would have written similar letters for them if asked.

Unlike other cities and states, Wichita and Kansas lack “pay-to-play” rules barring campaign contributions from government contractors to those responsible for awarding government contracts. State law allows individuals and political action committees to donate up to $500 to a candidate before a primary and another $500 after. The occupation/industry of a contributor must be reported for any donation of more than $150.

If Brewer and the other council members dislike being scrutinized for the campaign donations they’ve accepted from people related to Key, or to other companies that benefit from city projects, they should take more care in the future to avoid even the appearance of a quid pro quo by declining such donations.

That it’s legal to take them doesn’t make it wise – or prevent citizens from raising eyebrows when City Council decisions appear to favor campaign donors.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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