Meet Craig Gabel, persona non grata at Wichita City Hall.
This week, Gabel became the first person in recent memory to be nominated by a council member for a seat on a city advisory board and have his nomination rejected by the rest of the council.
Council members said they rejected him based on a newspaper story about state tax liens recently filed against his business, Mike’s Steak House.
Gabel said the tax issue is a dispute between him and the state over taxes owed by the previous owner of the restaurant and he doesn’t think it reflects on his ability to serve on the city committee.
Council Member Michael O’Donnell, a free-market conservative and frequently the odd man out on council votes, nominated the like-minded Gabel to serve on the Grants Review Committee.
The board advises the City Council on how to spend about $4.5 million in federal neighborhood and home improvement grant funds.
Gabel is the chief spokesman for the local tea party movement and regularly comes before the City Council to protest business-development subsidies and condemnations of substandard homes.
He was one of the driving forces behind the successful petition drive to challenge an estimated $2.25 million guest-tax abatement for a planned boutique hotel downtown.
Gabel gathered more than a fourth of the 2,719 petition signatures that forced the City Council to call a referendum election that will let voters decide the fate of the hotel subsidy.
His nomination came before the council immediately after the council majority reluctantly scheduled the election for Feb. 28.
Gabel was one of 14 nominees for the committee. Everybody else on the list was approved without discussion.
But council member Jeff Longwell objected to Gabel.
“My only concern is that there is one individual on there whose financial history that I’m not comfortable (with),” Longwell said. “I know that we give all of the council members some latitude, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Mr. Gabel being on this list to review these types of financial opportunities for the community.”
Council member Pete Meitzner joined Longwell in questioning Gabel’s inclusion.
“As recently as last week, we saw information (about Gabel’s tax issues) published in the Wichita Business Journal,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible for me personally to endorse a group that would include the challenges that this individual has making decisions on behalf of our citizenship.”
O’Donnell defended his selection of Gabel.
“I appointed Craig to that committee just because I know he knows a lot about redeveloping houses,” O’Donnell said. “I think that he’s found a lot of blighted homes and fixed them up. I thought he would be a good fixture on that committee just because of his involvement down in the south side of town and the fact that he does understand neighborhoods in blight.”
O’Donnell made a motion to approve the whole list. It died for lack of a second.
Mayor Carl Brewer then moved to accept the list with the exception of Gabel. That motion passed 6-1 with O’Donnell dissenting.
Gable, who has had tax problems in the past, said the new liens are the latest development in a 10-year dispute with state officials over taxes he says he doesn’t owe. He said he has beaten back the state’s case before, but they keep coming after the money every year.
He said he has made arrangements to pay the money and then he plans to go to court and try to recover it.
“We’ll see if a judge thinks I owe that money,” he said.
But he said his finances were used as cover by council members who didn’t want him on the board questioning the way the city spends the money.
He said he wants to see more money go to helping people fix up dilapidated homes, but the city has a record of using hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money to pay building inspectors after the recession slowed the market for new construction.
Since 2008, the city has used federal grant money to fund its code enforcement efforts and a program to stop blight.
“Obviously, for a moment, it kind of stings the pride,” Gabel said of the vote against him serving on the committee. “But I’m an optimist, it isn’t going to slow me down.”
He said not being on the committee leaves him free to continue criticizing the city and its policies, especially economic development incentives.
“I just don’t think my taxes should be used as incentives to get businesses to come to town and try to put me out of business,” he said.
Former Mayor Carlos Mayans said no nominees were rejected during his four years on the council.
In Gabel’s case, “I think it’s because Mr. Gabel opposes many things the city has done,” Mayans said. “I think it’s petty and childish.”
Brewer, the longest-serving member of the council at 10 years, said he could recall only one other nominee being rejected during his tenure and it had to do with a conflict of interest. He said he doesn’t remember who that nominee was or which city board it involved.
Council members are adamant it was Gabel’s finances, not his politics, that caused them to reject his nomination.
Longwell said he felt approving Gabel to serve on a board advising on the spending of public money would send the wrong message to the citizens.
“I think there are higher expectations on all of us,” he said.
Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams said she voted to reject Gabel based only on his financial record.
She said in the past year, she has worked with him on three or four homes in her district, northeast Wichita, where Gabel has helped homeowners upgrade substandard dwellings to meet city codes.
Williams said she didn’t remember any rejected nominations in her 4 ½ years as a council member.
Longwell, Williams and Brewer all said they were unaware that Gabel had collected as many signatures as he did to oppose their hotel plan.
O’Donnell said he was surprised at the opposition to Gabel, because he hadn’t read the newspaper article until after the nomination was rejected.
But he said he understands and respects his colleagues’ feelings. He said he hasn’t talked to Gabel since Tuesday’s meeting, but plans to contact him over the council’s long holiday break and listen to his side of the story before deciding what to do next.
“It’s like we’re judges deciding without a jury (trial),” he said. “If Craig does have a good answer and backs it up, I’m going to try and appoint him again.”