One sunny Friday afternoon in 1987, the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission met in the middle of Central Avenue to literally smoke a peace pipe, sign a treaty of friendship and lay down hatchets to symbolize the spirit of cooperation between the two governments.
Today, neither the city nor the county can find the treaty and the spirit of collaboration it symbolized is threatened.
Friction has been growing between the city and county since January, when a new and more conservative majority took the reins of the County Commission and began dismantling years of joint ventures and fracturing the two governments’ more-or-less united front at the Statehouse.
“It looks pretty strained,” said Wichita State University political science professor Melvin Kahn, who presided over the “hatchet-burying” ceremony 28 years ago. “It’s a different ball game, I can tell you that.”
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Effects of the rift reach beyond either government building. It has the potential to dilute south-central Kansas’ influence at the Legislature, since the two governments often don’t agree on what needs to be done. It could cost taxpayers money through duplicated services. It could also send mixed messages to businesses considering moving here about what incentives, if any, they should expect.
“This is a region that will need to be tied together in order for it to grow, and we need to work together more,” said City Council member Bryan Frye.
At least a dozen times in the past 6½ months, the city and county have found themselves at odds over once-cooperative ventures including economic development, quality-of-life improvements, zoning appeals and the future of the merged metro planning and building-inspection departments.
In Topeka, the county worked to undercut the city at the Legislature on scheduling of city elections, blight relief, tax relief for the Commerce Street Art District and unilateral annexation. The county won all those battles with the exception of annexation reform, which died in the waning days of the legislative session.
It appears the divide is about to grow as the county cuts funding for economic development coalitions and cultural groups the city also funds. The county’s 2016 recommended budget will be released Monday.
Last week, the city asked to hold a joint council/commission meeting to talk over their differences on public spending.
The county turned down the invitation for a public meeting, although leaders from both panels did meet in a closed session Thursday.
“We’re going to continue to have these monthly meetings, I suppose, until we get frustrated,” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said. “If (the city) becomes the convener for regionalism, so be it.”
Longwell said county officials weren’t clear on what they would and would not fund, which complicates city efforts to fill gaps.
“There’s some things that we’re just going to have to step up and do depending on what they drop, so I don’t know,” Longwell said.
But Longwell said there’s no way the city will be able to fund all the joint ventures the county cuts.
County Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau said it’s a stretch to call the city and county’s disagreements anything more than that.
“There is no fight going on,” Ranzau said.
“We can disagree on issues but still get along and have good conversations,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Howell said he is hopeful the monthly meetings will make progress.
“With Jeff Longwell in place (as mayor), this is refreshing to have a regular meeting between the leadership of both bodies,” he said. “I think it’s important. And I praise them for doing it.”
Republicans dominate both the council and the commission. The party breakdown is 5-2 at City Hall, on the south side of Central. It’s 4-1 in the commission chamber at the courthouse on the north side of the street.
But the two governments practice different strains of Republicanism.
The County Commission is more influenced by tea party conservatism with its focus on distrust of big government, a hands-off approach to business regulation, support of property rights and strong opposition to gun control and subsidies for economic development.
“We want to work with the city, but we also know our responsibility with folks who are outside the city of Wichita,” said Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.
The watchword at the county is “core services”: law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical services, roads and bridges, and not much else.
The commission withdrew from the Regional Area Economic Partnership, a multi-agency planning body, with a strongly worded dissent against the Wichita-endorsed idea of “sustainable development,” a concept encouraging alternative transportation and discouraging suburban sprawl.
Ranzau has often railed against the concept as a power grab by the federal government, rooted in a 1987 United Nations guideline called “Agenda 21.”
The City Council’s style of governance falls more toward a traditional Main Street brand of conservatism.
City Hall’s rallying cry is “public/private partnership,” with government playing a strong and active role in financing businesses deemed to be beneficial to the community.
City officials often point with pride to downtown projects such as Old Town and the WaterWalk, areas redeveloped by the private sector, but with millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and parking and logistical support provided by city government.
While city officials value core services, they tend to see the role of government more broadly than their county counterparts, paying more attention to quality-of-life issues such as the arts, parks and recreation, bike paths and public transit.
“I think there’s a disagreement on what the role of local government is to a community,” said Wichita Vice Mayor James Clendenin.
A new majority
The city and county haven’t always gotten along since the peace pipe and hatchet ceremony.
In 2002, a merger of city-county fire maintenance departments fell apart when city officials staged an after-hours raid on the shared facility – including entering a locked office to seize city and county records and software. Although then-City Manager Chris Cherches said the city officials came in through the door, county officials pointed to footprints on the wall and debris on desks as evidence they’d climbed in through the drop ceiling.
And relations hit an even lower point later that year when the city launched a turf-war bid to take over ambulance and paramedic services from the county.
But over time, faces and philosophies changed. Past fights were forgotten and talk once again turned to cooperation.
That culminated in the 2012 consolidation of the city and county code enforcement departments and plans to bring them together with the already merged planning department, creating a one-stop shop for builders.
Days before the conservative majority took office, the commission bought a former Internal Revenue Service building downtown, primarily to get planning and code enforcement under one roof instead of being split between the city and county buildings.
But the new majority has put that plan on hold, concerned with millions in estimated renovation costs and irritated that a lame-duck commission bought the building. They will soon look around for privately held space they can rent instead of occupying the county-owned building.
The County Commission also voted in April to dissolve the joint city-county Board of Zoning Appeals. The commission majority did not want city-appointed board members making zoning decisions in the unincorporated county – which averages about two cases a year – fearful that the decisions could infringe on property owners’ rights.
Some City Council members worried about what the split signifies for city-county relations.
“We’ve had some great partnerships with the county in the past; I hope this is not foreshadowing of things to come as far as our partnership with the county and working together,” Clendenin said at a recent council meeting.
County Commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton, who form the commission’s minority, support more consolidation with the city.
When the county acts unilaterally on existing partnerships with the city, “I think that we need to be very careful about that,” Unruh said.
Norton said the commission has made decisions that have put the county at odds with the city, particularly regarding consolidation of the planning department.
“Now are we trying to separate all that?” Norton said. “We don’t want any consolidation, we don’t want any system created that’s better for the whole population. Do we have to be in our separate silos? Does that work? I don’t think it does.”
Norton said he worked hard for city-county cooperation the two terms he served as commission chairman. “Both times I made it a point to walk across the street once a week,” he said.
Kahn, the WSU professor, said the turning point for city-county relations actually came last August, when Ranzau held off a Republican primary challenge from state Sen. Carolyn McGinn.
McGinn, a Republican from the rural town of Sedgwick, is a former commissioner who tried to win back her old seat and preserve a more moderate majority on the panel.
At the same time, Jim Howell, a conservative state legislator, replaced the more moderate Jim Skelton on the commission. The new majority was born, with Ranzau as its leader.
“Historically, I don’t think the county has ever been more conservative than it is now,” Kahn said. “One vote on one government body can make such a difference.”
Contributing: Kelsey Ryan of The Eagle
County-city friction points
The following are policy changes by Sedgwick County government that have led to increased friction with the city of Wichita, since a more conservative majority took control of the County Commission in January. Since then, the county has:
▪ Pulled out of the Regional Area Economic Partnership, denouncing a Wichita-endorsed effort for sustainable development focused on housing, workforce improvement, water and air quality, economic development, transportation and health. Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau has denounced the effort and its federal funding as governmental over-reach based on a 1987 United Nations document called “Agenda 21.”
▪ Pulled back from occupying the former Internal Revenue Service building downtown, delaying efforts to bring the merged city/county planning and building inspection departments under one roof. The employees of the two departments are currently split between city and county office space.
▪ Rejected a request to join Wichita in helping finance the rebuilding and expansion of the Flight Safety International building destroyed in a deadly crash at the Wichita airport in October.
▪ Pulled out of the joint city/county funding agreement for Wichita Economic Development Corp.
▪ Scuttled a city plan for tax relief to help artists stay put amid rising property taxes in the Commerce Street Art District.
▪ Notified Exploration Place, the Wichita Arts Council and Project Access – programs jointly funded by the city and county – of cuts in the proposed 2016 county budget.
▪ Broke away from the city/county zoning appeals board over ideological differences, creating a new board to handle an average of two zoning appeals a year in the unincorporated areas.
▪ Lobbied for a state bill, opposed by Wichita, to move city elections from the spring to the fall. The Legislature moved the elections to fall of odd-numbered years.
▪ Lobbied for a bill, opposed by Wichita, to do away with unilateral annexation of developing property adjoining cities. The bill failed.
▪ Lobbied against an anti-blight bill proposed by Wichita to make it easier to seize abandoned homes and turn them over to housing charities such as Habitat for Humanity and Mennonite Housing. The bill is stalled in committee awaiting possible revision next year.