A proposed change in city ordinance would allow corporations, labor unions and political action committees to have a greater influence on Wichita politics.
For years, city elections have remained insulated from the power of those groups, unlike national and state elections, because Wichita ordinance specifically forbids them from contributing to local campaigns.
But that could change if the council approves a proposal on Dec. 1.
City Attorney Jennifer Magana said the legal department proposed the change in order to be consistent with state law and with recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.
The Wichita City Council also will consider whether to increase pay for council members and to adopt a state-mandated date change for elections, moving them from spring to November.
Council member Janet Miller said she has grave concerns over changing the local ordinance, saying it could affect the city’s non-partisan elections.
“To my knowledge this local campaign finance ordinance has not been challenged by any candidate, corporation or political action committee formally. That leads me to believe that there’s no request or reason from any of those entities to make this change,” Miller said.
“Wichita has been held up as a standard for insuring that local elections remain very local in terms of their candidates being supported by individuals only – not corporations, not PACs, not political parties.”
City ordinance language capping contributions at $500 for the primary and general elections would remain in place. Mayor Jeff Longwell said he thinks that will limit the political impact of those groups.
We don’t have to wait to get sued locally before we make that adjustment.
Mayor Jeff Longwell
“When we have a (court) ruling that’s been handed down, it’s not unusual for us to adjust our policies,” Longwell said.
“We don’t have to wait to get sued locally before we make that adjustment.”
Magana, the city attorney, is specifically looking at a 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling said that government cannot restrict aggregate campaign donations to candidates, parties or PACs.
It is an extension of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the court.
PACs already can support or attack candidates, said council member Pete Meitzner.
He pointed out that in a previous election, Americans for Prosperity – a free market, Koch-supported group – sent mailers in support of his opponent.
In last spring’s mayoral race, mailers were also sent by AFP touting Longwell’s opponent.
“PACs do what they want to do. If they choose to support you with a check or contribution, that’s their choice. If they choose to... pay for 20,000 mailers and support or attack you, that’s out of a candidate’s control,” Meitzner said.
“I’m not losing a lot of sweat about it. I think some are. But I’m pretty comfortable (with the change).”
Council members James Clendenin and Bryan Frye said they are not fans of PACs, but they aren’t sure if under law they can have an ordinance that doesn’t allow the groups to contribute.
“I’m not thrilled about (PACs) contributing to non-partisan campaigns, but at the same time, every candidate has the option to accept or reject them. It happens more times than you think,” Clendenin said.
Council member Lavonta Williams said she is not a huge proponent of PACs and is studying the issue.
Women for Kansas, an organization that advocates for moderate candidates to be elected, has voiced concern about the proposal.
They’re going to end up being puppets to Big Money.
Lynn Stephan, a leader of Women for Kansas
“They’re going to end up being puppets to Big Money,” said Lynn Stephan, a leader of Women for Kansas.
“I think we have great examples of what money has done to politics nationally and in the state, and that pretty much makes citizens secondary.”
When individuals contribute to campaigns, candidates have to report it. But if an organization like a PAC makes a donation, it acts as a middleman and there’s less transparency about who is supporting the candidate, she said.
“We don’t know who’s is trying to influence them. That’s the problem – the secrecy,” Stephan said.
During the last session, legislators in Topeka voted to change all local elections to November of odd-numbered years.
The rationale was that it would help boost voter turnout for local elections, which has been abysmal in cities across the state for years.
But Longwell thinks the state overstepped its boundaries by making the change, and he’s not convinced it will help turnout much, if at all.
The change would effectively lengthen the four-year terms of the current council by about nine months if passed. It would become effective at the beginning of 2016.
Several council members said they understand the necessity of changing local ordinance to comply with state law but added that they supported local governments making local decisions, and that the state shouldn’t have the authority to tell local governments when they can hold their elections.
“I think it should be left up to local jurisdictions to make those decisions,” Clendenin said.
“Just as states expect the federal government to allow them to make decisions for their states, local government needs leeway.”
Proposed pay changes for council members would make salaries more uniform. Council members currently earn different salaries because of voluntary deferrals during the Great Recession.
$40,000proposed salary for council members
$90,000proposed salary for the mayor
Council members make between $36,167 and $36,998. Under the proposed changes, council members would all make $40,000, an increase of between 8.1 and 10.6 percent.
Council member Jeff Blubaugh said city council members make about half as much as county commissioners, despite doing “heavy legwork.”
“You can’t take care of a family on a city council salary,” he said.
Council member Bryan Frye, who was elected in the spring, said it was important for council members to have a consistent salary.
“You never get back the amount of time that you put into it,” Frye said. “Anyone who thinks that a city council person is a part-time job doesn’t understand the demands of the position. In the time that I’ve been in here, I’ve not done a part-time week. It is a full-time job to do it the right way to serve the voters. So getting us all on the same level is very important.”
The mayor is the only full-time elected official at city hall and makes $87,711. That would be increased to $90,000 under the proposal.
If you go
The Wichita City Council will vote on the proposals during its meeting at 9 a.m. Dec. 1 at City Hall, 455 N. Main. A public hearing will be held during the meeting for residents to give their opinions on the proposals.
Current and proposed salaries
Mayor Jeff Longwell
Lavonta Williams, District 1
Pete Meitzner, District 2
James Clendenin, District 3
Jeff Blubaugh, District 4
Bryan Frye, District 5
Janet Miller, District 6
Information: City of Wichita
How to contact your council member
Reach City Council members at the main city line at 316-268-4331 or at the e-mail listed below:
Mayor Jeff Longwell
Lavonta Williams, District I
Pete Meitzner, District II
James Clendenin, District III
Jeff Blubaugh, District IV
Bryan Frye, District V
Janet Miller, District VI