When The Eagle reported last April that Sedgwick County commissioner Jim Howell got a local public relations firm removed from a county project, Howell downplayed it as “a misunderstanding.”
It turns out that wasn’t the only time Howell sought to exclude the firm. Nor was he the only commissioner who attempted to do so.
Howell and former commissioner Karl Peterjohn pressured other county-funded groups not to do business with Bothner and Bradley.
Such actions are inappropriate and potentially unconstitutional.
Last March Howell told county staff he didn’t want to work with Bothner and Bradley on a road study project. He believed the firm was behind protests of county budget cuts – even though the firm said that wasn’t the case.
“If they’re working with us as our partners, I want their support across the board,” Howell said about groups with which the county works.
But after a public backlash, the county reversed course, and the firm was added back. Howell then blamed what happened on “a misunderstanding and people taking my opinion and doing things that did not need to be done.”
That made it sound like a one-time, isolated mistake. It wasn’t.
Wichita attorney Jack Focht filed a complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office last June contending that commissioners urged other groups not to work with Bothner and Bradley. Numerous interviews by The Eagle confirmed some of the details listed in the complaint.
Former Spirit AeroSystems executive Jeff Turner said that Peterjohn told him the Greater Wichita Partnership should not work with Bothner and Bradley. Howell reportedly talked to other officials with the partnership about not working with Bothner and Bradley, and he made his dislike of the firm known to board members of the Sedgwick County Zoo.
Kansas Assistant Attorney General John Wesley Smith wrote Focht in January that Bothner and Bradley’s removal from the road project may have been a First Amendment violation, though the firm’s reappointment to the contract negated the damage. He concluded that “while the facts presented by the investigation are concerning,” there was not enough evidence of misconduct to warrant ouster proceedings. He also noted that Peterjohn already lost his re-election bid last year.
Attempts to blackball Bothner and Bradley were part of a disturbing pattern by some commissioners of silencing dissent and criticizing opposition – including trying to dictate that the zoo director couldn’t say anything critical of the county and, just recently, labeling the progressive movement “the enemy of the people.”
Commissioners should focus on doing their jobs instead of trying to control others.