Three City Council members say that the involvement of Wichita City Manager Robert Layton’s fiancee in a STAR bond project creates a conflict of interest for the manager.
But the mayor and other council members disagree, and the debate has split the council over whether public relations work has an impact on city policy.
Beth King, a longtime Wichita public relations executive, political consultant and lobbyist, became engaged to Layton late last year. On Tuesday, she was at the council meeting with officials from GoodSports, a Kansas City-based group proposing a $50 million STAR bond sports and entertainment center near K-96 and Greenwich. The city has to approve the project for the process to move forward.
King’s appearance was a surprise to several council members, and to Mayor Carl Brewer, who was not at Tuesday’s council meeting. He was at a news conference announcing state incentives for Bombardier Learjet’s expansion in Wichita.
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“I believe everyone was just blindsided by it,” council member Michael O’Donnell said. “I respect Robert and Beth, and I like them both, but it doesn’t look good.”
The biggest issue for the council is whether Layton will adhere to a policy he voiced to The Eagle in January 2010: recusing himself from discussions of any city issue in which King is involved.
The council members agreed that Layton needs to be involved in discussions on the GoodSports proposal, and Layton said Thursday he has no intention of stepping away from the project.
But three council members – O’Donnell, Jeff Longwell and Pete Meitzner – said that King’s involvement creates a conflict for Layton, which could be addressed by King reducing or eliminating her role with the project.
Layton said he has worked with council members and the developer on the GoodSports project before and during King’s association with the company, which began Dec. 15. Several council members, though, said they couldn’t remember working with Layton on the project.
The city manager and King defended her work with GoodSports, calling it media relations – not lobbying – for the out-of-town group. Both Layton and King said she did not have contact with council members or city staff.
Media relations activity wouldn’t constitute a conflict of interest, according to officials from a national group that monitors ethics by city and county managers.
“When this arose a month ago, I perceived her involvement as not being material from the city’s perspective because she hasn’t been involved in any of the project development,” Layton said. “She isn’t advising them on city policies and more importantly, trying to come in here and influence any city actions. All she’s doing is media relations, and I don’t see that having anything to do with the city.”
“I mean, I would know the difference between lobbying and public relations, given the time I spent on Capitol Hill working for Thad Cochran (a Republican senator from Mississippi),” she said.
Korb Maxwell, the Kansas City-based attorney for GoodSports, said he’s filling the lobbyist role in Wichita that council members are worried about falling to King.
“All of that will be done by the client or me as the advocate, not Beth,” he said.
The ethical question
Other council members, including Brewer and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams, are adamant in their defense of Layton and King, saying there’s a “fundamental difference” between King’s public relations work and her former role at City Hall as a contract city employee and lobbyist.
“Their relationship should not be a matter of concern for city business,” Williams said. “She’s helping them with production and marketing. That’s her field.”
King didn’t address the council Tuesday. She passed out media packets on the proposal to members of the media covering the meeting. King also appeared with the GoodSports group last week when the proposal was released to The Eagle’s editorial board and reporters.
Martha Perego, the ethics director for the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C., declined to discuss the Layton-King relationship specifically because Layton is a member of the organization. She said that generally, no conflict would exist if a city manager’s family member was merely an employee providing services to the company appearing before the city.
“Ultimately, the bottom line is that so much about what we do is appearances,” Perego said. “You don’t want to create a situation where it appears a client got favorable treatment because they’re represented by the manager’s family member.”
Council members made it clear: Layton is being paid $185,000 a year for his public policy expertise, knowledge they want to access during the GoodSports debate.
“I will be very unhappy, very disappointed, if the city manager isn’t involved in the discussions we need to have about this development,” Meitzner said.
“Certainly, Bob’s counsel and expertise has been invaluable to us as we’ve worked through a variety of issues since he’s been here ,” Longwell said. “Bob’s told me he’s worked hard to ensure that there aren’t any issues with his fiancee. But you can’t represent any client as a lobbyist.”
O’Donnell said he was surprised to see King in the chambers on Tuesday.
“I had no clue” that the city manager’s fiancee was representing GoodSports, he said. “I just looked out and there she was sitting with those folks.”
“It had the appearance of being awkward,” Meitzner said. “It certainly felt awkward, I’ll tell you that.”
Council members James Clendenin and Janet Miller said they have faith in Layton’s integrity.
“I mean, the guy doesn’t even take a free ticket to anything,” Clendenin said. “I don’t feel at this time he needs to recuse himself. He has been very transparent in all his dealings with me. He’ll handle this situation with integrity.”
King’s work downtown as an advocate for developers, and her work as a political campaign manager, has been an issue since she began dating Layton.
King represented Real Development principals Dave Lundberg and Michael Elzufon, better known locally as the Minnesota Guys, as the group worked to obtain a package of city incentives to revitalize their broad portfolio of downtown office buildings. That relationship ended last year as the Minnesota Guys struggled to meet their bills.
“When I arrived, before I knew Beth, she was actively engaged in projects in front of the city in many different ways,” Layton said. “She was a contractor with the city, she submitted on RFPs so she was working either directly for us or as a subcontractor. She was representing various interests in this building with staff and council, and advocating on their behalf. From my perspective, she had a material interest in those projects.
“So when we started dating, it became problematic. That definitely was a conflict for me because her being in material position and me in a position representing the city’s interests going forward, I didn’t want to taint that.”
Layton immediately recused himself from Real Development issues, turning them over to Assistant City Manager Cathy Holdeman.
And King retooled her business model, dropping the government relations work and then dropping Real Development in 2011.
That doesn’t lessen the frustration of some council members over the situation.
Brewer said Thursday he was disappointed that council members raised the issue to the media. Meitzner said he hopes the controversy doesn’t diminish GoodSports’ chances for local and state approval.
“The frustration is that this is a great project that can stand on its own merits,” Meitzner said. “It doesn’t need any public relations help.”