Mayor Carl Brewer and a colleague fired back at Americans for Prosperity supporters Tuesday during a discussion about the financing of the Ambassador Hotel downtown.
Council members voted 6-1 to keep an earlier city commitment to the controversial boutique hotel project downtown – $17 million in industrial revenue bonds to finance its construction and renewed approval of a sales tax exemption for construction materials and furniture for the project, worth a little more than $700,000. New member Jeff Blubaugh voted no.
Before the council voted, Americans for Prosperity supporters renewed their longstanding call for “pay to play” legislation that would prevent council members from voting on any issue that benefits a campaign donor. The group, which grew out of efforts by Charles and David Koch to develop free market economic advocacy groups, has long questioned Brewer’s friendship with Dave Wells, a friendship that predates the mayor’s political involvement in Wichita.
Susan Estes, the field coordinator for Americans for Prosperity, asked Brewer and other council members to recuse themselves from the vote if their actions “would benefit a campaign donor.” The comments targeted Wells, president of Key Construction, the Ambassador project contractor, and Wichita developer Dave Burk, an investor in the project. Both made contributions to several sitting council members, along with some defeated council candidates.
Estes referenced Brewer’s public call for members of the League of Kansas Municipalities to “restore the public’s confidence in government.”
“We do exist in a time when there’s a lowering of confidence in public government across the board,” she said.
“When we look at the appearance of impropriety, when we vote to benefit our campaign donors, it takes away the public’s trust in what you’re doing.”
The statements clearly angered Brewer, who accused Estes and AFP – through supporter Bob Weeks’ website, Voice for Liberty in Wichita — with spreading misinformation about him and the Ambassador project.
“When you make comments, when you insinuate that I’d sell my integrity for someone I go fishing with, you are sadly mistaken,” the mayor said.
“I’ve been calm. I’ve been patient. I’ve been tolerant in allowing people to say things that are not true. At some time, you make a gut check. I am not going to allow this anymore.
“I know what my attorney recommends,” the mayor concluded. “I have the same rights as a citizen and I intend to start exercising those rights.”
The mayor also took a swipe at Estes’ husband, Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes, asking if she supports similar pay-to-play measures at the state government level.
Estes responded after the meeting. “None of the council members who have received donations from Douglas Place (Ambassador) developers acknowledged the appearance of a conflict of interest,” she said.
“They seem to be saying, ‘Trust me. I’m not influenced by campaign donations.’ ”
At one point during the debate, Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn joined the AFP group in the back of the council chambers as the meeting went on.
Council member Janet Miller backed the mayor’s response. Her voice rising at times, she fired back at the criticism, noting that she’s lost thousands of dollars to take her council seat.
“When I ran for this position and when I was re-elected, I took a salary that’s 30 percent of my previous salary,” she said.
“I have spent thousands of dollars serving in this role. I buy tickets to fundraisers, I travel at my own expense to cities, I look at best practices to see what I can bring back to Wichita. There hasn’t been a personal gain to me serving in this role. I haven’t accepted a lunch from a developer or anyone else who wants to take me out and talk about a project.”
Miller accused Americans for Prosperity supporters of exaggerating the Ambassador guest tax vote. Voters voted 60-40 last year against providing developers 75 percent of the guest tax revenues to build the project.
Miller ended by rebuking the AFP for insinuating that campaign contributions represent any type of a conflict of political interest.
“I was re-elected with 76 percent of the vote and I’ve been quite clear with the public about my support of downtown,” she said. “I have gotten contributions from like-minded people who support downtown.
“I am going to support this project today, and I am going to continue to conduct myself in an above-board manner,” Miller concluded. “I can say unequivocally that campaign donations do not affect my decisions.”