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Wichita mayor hopes 2014 brings fewer missteps by city staff

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at 8:04 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, at 9 a.m.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hopes city staff has a better 2014.

Brewer – and most council members – say they are frustrated by a series of high-profile staff missteps that invited public backlash this year: the surprise unveiling of the city’s water crisis and a proposal for fines of up to $1,000 to force temporary conservation; the belated vetting of backers of a proposal to drill for oil under Century II; the belated process to seek proposals to develop riverfront land downtown; and the news that the city doesn’t track the amount of taxes it abates for businesses.

“When you’re getting the volume of information we get, you’re always going to have hiccups. I understand that,” Brewer said. “But the percentages of them lately have been too high. We should have very few.”

Brewer passed his concerns on to City Manager Robert Layton at a recent planning retreat.

“The ‘I forgot to do that’ and the ‘I don’t know’ just aren’t acceptable before the City Council,” Brewer said.

Council member James Clendenin took Brewer’s concerns a step farther.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s the number of staff missteps,” he said. “It’s the magnitude of some of the missteps that concerns some council members.

“And when I talk about magnitude, I’m talking about the perception that the public has that this City Council doesn’t have its act together: ‘What are they doing up there? They have their heads where the sun never shines.’ And the people who get the brunt of that criticism are the council members. So yes, we’re going to react this way when we get this kind of criticism from the community.”

Layton, the city manager since 2009, said the incidents illustrate the ongoing need for improving how City Hall handles high-profile issues, what he called a “normal part of any business.”

“I read a quote in The Eagle the other day from a business leader that I think makes a lot of sense,” he said. You can’t dwell on the past. You have to make sure you learn from it and move forward.’”

Leaders want to avoid surprises

Brewer wants city staff held to the same standards as workers in the aviation industry, where he spent two decades.

“It’s a climate I come out of, a climate of expectations,” he said. “I expect when something comes before the City Council, the appropriate people should be there and those people should know the answers to our questions.

“Do the homework.”

Council member Lavonta Williams stood behind Brewer’s admonition to Layton.

“I understand, and I think he does, that 99 percent of the time staff is on point,” she said. “Still, there’s that 1 percent.”

Council members were caught by surprise by the water shortage, which went public suddenly during a council workshop in February, Williams said.

“We were not at all prepared going into that,” she said. “So what we had to do from that point on is react, come up with a drought plan when we should have had something in place years ago.

“These are the things that make us look like there’s no accountability here.”

District 4 council member Jeff Blubaugh agreed with Williams.

“It bothered me we kind of got caught with our pants down on the water,” he said. “You’re telling me that in 18 months or two years we’re going to be out of water? That has to be more of a proactive process than what we saw, where we strategically think these things through.”

The staff’s decision to publicly threaten large fines – up to $1,000 – for big water users enraged the public and shocked Blubaugh. He favors more moderate long-term steps, such as council member Janet Miller’s drive for ongoing water conservation, to help extend the city’s water supply.

“Nobody … nobody … wants the fines,” Blubaugh said. “We need to be practicing conservation year-round. We need to have measures in place right now so we don’t get caught in a situation again where in 18 months or two years we’re out of water.”

Layton said the water fines were vetted by city staff in other cities before the February presentation.

“When we brought that forward, maybe the council still wanted time to consider it,” he said. “At the time, council members were pretty uncomfortable with the idea, but I brought it forward for the policy discussion. They came back and said the community couldn’t support the fines, so we went back and reworked it.

“There may have been the expectation that we should have had more discussion. At that point, we felt we had to do something from a timing perspective.”

Mixing it up over vetting and bidding

Another place where the city’s processes fell short, council members said, was vetting the partners who proposed drilling for oil beneath Century II last summer. David Leben, a Wichita businessman, reached out to the city first with the idea, city staff said.

City officials began negotiating a drilling lease with Leben’s partners before looking into their backgrounds. Leben has unpaid state taxes, loan defaults and debt recovery judgments in the past 10 years, The Eagle reported.

“There’s always been questions about our vetting process and how we do it, and there still are,” Brewer said. “With anything and everything, you always need to look toward improvements, but we need to be on the front end of those improvements so we’re not constantly stumbling across these things. I’m talking about a proactive approach, not reactive.”

Council member Jeff Longwell has criticized the vetting misstep.

“That certainly is something we’re never going to stomach,” he said. “But the reality is again it gets pretty convoluted, because you talk to one source who says Leben’s not the front of the company while others say he is. Do you vet all of the consultants? Do you vet the company?

“That’s a discussion we need to have – when we’re doing a vetting process, how far, deep and wide do we go. But certainly, these are the kinds of hiccups that don’t play well with the public.”

In a similar vein, city staff worked almost two years with one developer on a plan for the West Bank of the Arkansas River downtown before sending out a request for competing proposals in March and giving bidders three weeks to respond.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner saw the vetting and bidding debates as a good thing.

“There’s nothing wrong with looking at our processes, taking a look at the way we do things, throwing out the old stuff that doesn’t work and trying new things,” he said.

Changes will result from the city’s handling of the oil drilling and apartment proposals, Layton said.

“I’m not so sure I’d classify that as a mistake,” Layton said about the West Bank land bidding, “but we learned from that and we’re talking about how to improve that process. The mayor and I have talked, and we’re going to ask for some help from the private sector to simplify that process and make it more transparent while being fair to the proponents.”

Layton said he agreed on the vetting issue: “It’s a matter of timing, and the issue of timing for the vetting is a criticism I understand…,” he said. “It could have been managed a little better in that regard.”

Department directors are being trained in project management, he said.

“We will do a better job of thinking through the steps as we go through a process like this,” he said.

Stronger city processes should include a way to track the tax revenue the city abates to expanding businesses, Blubaugh said. He welcomes – as a former Cessna employee versed in the Six Sigma management method, a series of strategies, techniques and tools to improve business processes – a chance to fine-tune the city’s project reviews as part of a public-private committee Brewer plans to appoint.

“It would be good for us to work off metrics specifically on some of these deals, instead of going off of who this person is or who that person is,” Blubaugh said.

Layton agreed, saying city staff will provide those numbers to the council in the future. “More to proactively say what the result of our actions are on economic development projects,” he said.

Miller said she did not view city staff issues as a widespread problem.

“I don’t see it as an ongoing issue of concern,” she said. “If I had, I would have brought it up before now and I wouldn’t make an issue of it in the media.”

She and Brewer said Layton has been very responsive to any council concerns.

“If there are problems – any kind of problems – and if we have any concerns about the way anything has been handled, the manager has always been very welcoming of us bringing it to his attention,” Miller said.

City counts on accuracy, mayor says

Brewer and other council members say their comments shouldn’t be taken as a blanket indictment of City Hall staff. They say the overall quality of work done at City Hall is obvious, and they’re confident 2014 will be a better year.

“We’re a huge city,” Brewer said. “I can’t tell you that I know of any city that hasn’t experienced these types of issues. But I know what my expectations are. Can we hit 100 percent? I doubt it seriously, but that is the expectation in City Hall and that should be our goal.”

Staff accuracy is important to Wichita’s credibility, he said.

“We’re the largest city in the state, and when you have the credibility that the city of Wichita does, you have to be right and you have to recognize that the expectations here are a lot higher than in other cities,” Brewer said.

“It’s not city staff’s goal to get anything wrong. We all know that,” Clendenin said. “I have to come to their defense a little here.

“But in our line of business, there’s not much wiggle room and we are held to a higher standard. We all must understand that.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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