There will be no public censure of departing Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell at his final city meeting next week.
But angry council members say they intend to take O’Donnell up on his public offer of an apology after he misrepresented the city’s position on flood control improvements for the $96 million Bowllagio entertainment and retail district at Maize and Kellogg before the Sedgwick County Commission on Wednesday.
The County Commission voted 5-0 against the project, effectively killing it since the county’s approval is required to proceed with tax increment financing for the plan.
O’Donnell, who is leaving the City Council because he was elected to the state Senate, said Friday that he plans to apologize Tuesday at the council meeting. He criticized the Bowllagio development, which was to be built on floodplain land in west Wichita.
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“It was an honest misstatement on my part, and I will apologize for it,” he said. “The taxpayers of Sedgwick County and Wichita should be thrilled the County Commission didn’t go along with this. They are the real winners, and I’ll stand with the taxpayers every day of the week before I stand with a bad project.”
Wednesday, O’Donnell told county commissioners they didn’t need to support the Bowllagio plan to make sure that flooding improvements are made there, since the flooding project is included in the city’s 10-year capital improvements plan.
In fact, the project is not and has not been in the city CIP, and O’Donnell was told that by city staff during the city’s Nov. 20 public hearing on Bowllagio, according to the council’s official meeting minutes.
During that same session, other council members said that tax increment financing for the Bowllagio project would allow the area’s flooding issue to be addressed at least a decade before the city’s capital improvements plan would have the $6 million necessary to address it.
O’Donnell told The Eagle on Wednesday he thought the project was in the CIP when he appeared before the County Commission, and that he was willing to apologize for the mistake. He also defended the appearance as “free speech by a private citizen” and said it was in no way connected to his position on the council.
In the wake of those statements, O’Donnell’s peers on the City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Vice Mayor Janet Miller, Pete Meitzner, James Clendenin, Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams — each expressed varying degrees of anger to The Eagle, from seeking a public censure of O’Donnell to demanding the apology that O’Donnell had promised.
“I think he certainly owes the public that much,” Longwell said. “Why he totally forgot what city staff had set him straight on two weeks ago, or why he gave misleading information with passion to the County Commission.”
Several council members said Friday that city legal staff has said O’Donnell’s actions would have to have come from the City Council bench to be fodder for formal council action.
“If council member O’Donnell’s biggest concern is the censure, then he is missing the point,” Miller said. “He sought clarification of this issue during a public meeting and received it, then two weeks later went across the street to another governmental entity and told them a different story.
“That is a problem, and that is a pattern.”
That pattern, council members say, includes O’Donnell’s claim that he didn’t understand the rules for use of his city computer, which landed him a $500 fine by the Kansas Ethics Commission in March for sending out political fundraising e-mails from the bench for a friend. Several council members, including Miller and Longwell, say the council received one hour of training from District Attorney Nola Foulston’s office, including admonitions against political fundraising on city computers.
Another example cited by Miller is the confusion surrounding O’Donnell’s rental agreement for a parsonage at his father’s south Wichita church.
“He certainly has a track record of these kinds of missteps,” Longwell said. “So he owes some kind of explanation to the public, and I think we should get it.”
O’Donnell blasted Longwell, in whose district the Bowllagio project would have fallen.
“Longwell has the biggest issue with this, and it’s because he has the most political capital involved in a taxpayer-subsidized enterprise,” O’Donnell said.
“It’s unfortunate, especially since I’m leaving, but I don’t believe his frustration is just with my misstatement. I think it has more to do with the humiliating defeat of this project before the County Commission, and obviously he still has issues with (County Commissioner Karl) Peterjohn and that campaign, which I believe escalated the frustration.”
Longwell challenged Peterjohn for a County Commission seat and lost in the Republican primary in August.