After reading an Eagle article last week in which mayoral candidate Sam Williams revealed he didn’t support last November’s sales tax, movie theater magnate Bill Warren cried foul.
“Because, I mean, I knew that wasn’t true,” Warren said.
But Williams is adamant that he did not support or vote for the sales tax. He says the assertion that he did comes from businessmen who have financially benefited from opponent Jeff Longwell’s tenure on the City Council.
“There are a group of people in this community who have profited to a great extent by decisions that are made by the city councilman I’m running against for mayor, and it’s well documented that campaign contributions were given and votes that would benefit those individuals have been made,” Williams said Wednesday.
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“That is not the way we can proceed to lead our city in the future.”
Longwell, a council member for eight years, said campaign contributions do not influence how he votes. He voted no while a council member on whether to put the sales tax question on the ballot.
“You can go back and look at all of our contribution lists in the past, but … our contribution list will look very much like Sam Williams’ contribution list today,” Longwell said. “Several of the business leaders in this community have given, and I’m not sure they’ve ever had expectations from me individually on any of them.”
The claims and counterclaims come a month before voters decide which man will be Wichita’s next mayor.
Before the primary election last week, Williams would not answer The Eagle’s questions about his stance on the tax, saying he wanted to focus on the future and not the past. Then Friday, he told the audience at the Pachyderm Club – a Republican group – he did not support the tax.
Warren said that at a meeting last November, Williams told developers involved in the downtown River Vista project – Warren, Dave Burk and others – that he voted for the sales tax.
“He was right next to me in a chair, and he said well, he did vote for it,” Warren said. “My reaction was ‘Well, at least he’s being honest about it up front.’
“He said, ‘I voted for the sales tax.’ And there wasn’t a jet plane flying over, so I clearly heard what he said.”
Burk isn’t so sure he remembers exactly what Williams told them, except that he supported the sales tax.
“My understanding was at that time that Sam did say he supported the sales tax, and I knew that he had supported it previously with (Wichita Downtown Development Corp.) and the chamber,” Burk said.
“It’s been so long, I couldn’t tell you whether he said he ‘voted for it’ or he ‘supported it.’ If he said he supported it, I took that to be a positive vote for it. But I couldn’t swear either way.”
George Laham, who is leading the River Vista development and who also attended the meeting in November, would not comment.
The sales tax
The tax was soundly rejected by 62 percent of voters last fall. It would have collected about $400 million over five years for streets, transit, long-term water supply and a jobs fund, which was largely promoted – and drafted – by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Williams was chairman of the chamber in 2010, and its political action committee has endorsed his campaign for mayor. He is also the immediate past chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, whose board of directors endorsed the sales tax.
“I did not vote for the sales tax,” Williams said. “I have been an opponent to the sales tax since the beginning of the whole process because I was on the inside, I knew how it was put together and it was not going to pass and I was never in support of it.”
He said he did support the four issues that the tax would have funded.
“I’ve probably confused some people because when you say that, it sounds like, ‘Well, you voted for it.’ That’s something I’ve learned on the campaign trail,” Williams said. “I just need to be as exact as I hope to be as a mayor.”
Williams said that as chair of the WDDC board, he did not have to vote on whether to endorse the tax unless there was a tie.
“Had I been required to vote in that – if I were the tying vote – I would have voted against,” he said.
WDDC President Jeff Fluhr confirmed that Williams abstained on the endorsement vote.
Warren, who ran for unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003, doesn’t think there was any confusion.
“He obviously voted for it (at the polls), and I didn’t misunderstand him and I don’t think anyone else in the room misunderstood him,” Warren said. “He ought to just say so and if he’s sorry he voted for it or changed his mind, then he ought to say that. But there is no question he voted for it.”
Williams said he decided to say how he voted for the tax on Friday because he needed to deal with stories that were being spread. He said the sales tax vote was divisive, so he didn’t want to bring up the past.
“The feelings got very hot, and we’ve got to come together because the issues still have got to be solved,” he said.
After Warren talked about Williams’ tax vote, Williams pointed to public records that show Longwell joined other council members in unanimously approving a 10-year, $6 million low-interest loan to the Old Town Warren Theatre in 2008. In exchange, the theater was to be kept open for at least another decade.
In 2012, Warren was Longwell’s top contributor in his losing bid for Sedgwick County commissioner. Warren donated $500 from each of his 15 separate companies, records show.
Williams, who was chairman of the chamber’s political action committee at the time, also donated $500 to the 2012 campaign of the man who is now his opponent.
In 2011, Longwell’s last campaign for City Council, he received $1,000 from Burk and his wife, DJ, in January and again in March. He also received $500 from Warren in March 2011.
“We haven’t taken any money from them during this (mayoral) campaign, but we would expect that from the Williams campaign to probably share different opinions, but that doesn’t bother me,” Longwell said.
Longwell agreed that he’s received some campaign contributions in the past from the businessmen, and referred to his public campaign contribution list available at the Sedgwick County Election Office website.
Warren said past campaign contributions to Longwell have “nothing to do with the truth of what happened” with Williams.
The election is April 7. Advance ballots will be mailed starting next week.