Wording of hotel ballot issue draws questions from voters

08/27/2013 9:38 AM

08/08/2014 10:08 AM

Layton Bulcao, 83, received his mail-in ballot Thursday for the Feb. 28 special election on whether developers of the planned Ambassador Hotel should get to tap into the city’s bed tax to help build the $22.5 million project in downtown Wichita.

But the question was written with so much legalese that Bulcao said he didn’t know what he was voting on or what a “yes” or “no” vote would mean.

“It takes a Philadelphia lawyer to understand this,” he said.

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman agreed.

“It’s a doozy,” she said.

About 15 or 20 people called her office Thursday – the day after about 4,700 mail-in ballots were sent to voters – asking about the ballot wording.

“That’s not a horrible number,” Lehman said. “But the people who are calling are good and confused.”

So were the people who called City Hall and the neighborhood city halls. “A number” of people made those calls, said Chief Deputy City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe.

What the ballot question is asking is whether you want the city to rebate to the developers 75 percent of the bed tax paid by the hotel’s guests for 15 years. The total amount is estimated at $2.25 million. A “yes” vote means you do, a “no” vote means you don’t.

But the law prevents Lehman or anyone in her office from explaining that to callers.

“We can read the question and say, `Do you want this ordinance to be in effect?’” she said. “We can’t say any more. Anything we say can be construed as this or that, and we’re not going to have any of that.”

Article 12 of the Kansas Constitution requires that questions on city charter ordinances be worded the way this one is, Dickgrafe said.

That article requires that the exact title of the ordinance be included on the ballot. No further explanation is allowed, City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said.

The title of the charter ordinance, known as No. 216, includes three references to amendments and repeals. That’s because the section of the ordinance being voted upon has been amended three times and Article 12 requires that those changes be listed in the charter ordinance’s new title, Rebenstorf said.

Add it all up and it makes for a very wordy ballot question that says little about the actual topic. It is probably easier to understand if a person excludes the legalese in the middle and just reads the question as, “Shall charter ordinance 216 ... pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax take effect?”

To help the public understand the ballot, the city put an explanation on its web site – wichita.gov – Friday.

The 117-room hotel is to be built at 104 S. Broadway. The project is largely funded by tax incentives, credits and subsidies.

In September, the City Council voted to change an ordinance so the city could give the Ambassador developers 75 percent of the guest tax for 15 years. That subsidy was forced to a city election by a fall petition drive led by Americans for Prosperity.

AFP, a free-enterprise group, gathered 2,719 signatures of verified Wichita voters, slightly more than the 2,527 signatures needed. The election will cost $50,000, paid by the hotel’s developers.

Lehman said the advance ballots sent out Wednesday were the first to be mailed, to people on a permanent list to receive advance ballots, or mail-in ballots. Others will be sent out as requests are made by voters.

Applications for advance ballots, or mail-in ballots, may be obtained online at the election office’s website, sedgwickcounty.org/elections/. Click on “Applications & Forms” on the right side of the page. The last day for the office to mail out advance ballots is Feb. 24. They must be returned by 7 p.m. Feb. 28.

Advance voting in person begins next Wednesday at the election office, Suite 101 at the historic courthouse, 510 N. Main in Wichita.

Voters can stop by the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays from Feb. 15 to 24 or 8 a.m. to noon on Feb. 27. The office will be closed Feb. 20 for Presidents Day.

Beginning Feb. 23, advance voting will expand to several other locations. For those sites, times and dates, go to the election office’s website or call the office at 316-660-7101.

As for Bulcao, he now understands what the ballot means.

“About time,” he said. “A lot of other older people who read that won’t know what they’re voting on.”

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