PR firm removed from county project after Howell says he doesn’t ‘personally like’ them

The intersection of 95th Street South and Meridian is one end of the corridor being studied by TranSystems in the ARC 95 Study.
The intersection of 95th Street South and Meridian is one end of the corridor being studied by TranSystems in the ARC 95 Study. The Wichita Eagle

A public relations firm was removed from a Sedgwick County road study days after a county commissioner said he personally didn’t like the company.

Sedgwick County Chairman Jim Howell told staff he would prefer to not work with Bothner and Bradley, a subcontractor on a county road study project.

“I personally don’t care for them,” Howell said. “All things being equal, I did express that I would prefer not to use Bothner and Bradley if I had a choice.”

Howell said he thinks the firm harbors negative opinions of the county under the current commission majority, which wants the county to lower debt, cut certain programs and focus spending on core government functions like public safety and roads.

“My opinion is they’re not the best, and I perceive they’re not really with us on some of the things we’re trying to accomplish here,” Howell said.

He said he’s not sure whether Bothner and Bradley was involved in Quit the Cuts, a group of organizations and residents that campaigned against proposed county cuts to arts, recreation, economic development and public health programs last summer.

“If they’re working with us as our partners, I want their support across the board,” Howell said about whom the county partners with. “If anybody’s been involved in a negative campaign against us, I would rather not do business with them.”

Bothner and Bradley, which has worked with dozens of companies, associations and nonprofits, says it was not involved with Quit the Cuts.

“It was my impression that this misunderstanding with commissioner Howell was resolved and it was clear our firm was not behind Quit the Cuts,” said Tami Bradley, one of the firm’s managing partners.

TranSystems Corp., a Kansas City-based engineering company with a Wichita office, was hired by the county earlier this year to study a corridor of 95th Street South near Haysville, Mulvane and Derby.

Before then, it teamed up last fall with the communications firm of Vera Bothner and Bradley.

Bradley was in charge of setting up public meetings, social media profiles and a website to involve the public in the project. She also was to organize recorded interviews of county officials, including Howell.

The firm was set to be paid $60,424 for the work, according to the proposal.

“We did not know that the Bothner Bradley firm was controversial,” Public Works Director David Spears said in an email. “None of us knew in advance that this would be a problem.”

Commissioner Tim Norton, whose district includes a majority of the corridor, did not find out about the firm’s removal until a reporter with The Eagle told him.

“I would suspect there were some kind of political underpinnings to that, but I don’t know that,” Norton said. “Nobody’s told me why.”

ARC 95

The idea behind the study is to create a “corridor plan” for a section of 95th Street South between Meridian and Greenwich – developing options for widening the road, paving gravel roads and installing medians. It’s called the ARC 95 Study for its work looking into a possible Arkansas River crossing.

The corridor lies in Norton’s south-central Sedgwick County district and in Howell’s southeastern county district.

In November, TranSystems was among seven companies that responded to the county’s project request.

Its proposal listed Bothner and Bradley on its application’s cover page as the part of the team handling public involvement and website development. The application included Bothner and Bradley’s past work and Bradley’s resume.

On Dec. 31, the bid board – made up of county staff – unanimously recommended TranSystems’ proposal as the best option.

“Normally, in a proposal, I don’t think we really manage the subcontractors,” said County Purchasing Director Joe Thomas. “We didn’t really look at who (TranSystems) were in a sense using because we just don’t necessarily control that process. We don’t tell them who to subcontract to.”

On Jan. 6, all five county commissioners voted to contract with TranSystems. The contract was signed Feb. 10.

‘Investigate … removing them’

It took a little more than three days for the firm to be removed once Howell found out Bothner and Bradley was on the ARC 95 project.

Spears and Deputy Public Works Director James Weber told Howell on March 22 that Bradley would be handling the public relations part of the project, according to an email.

“The chairman has expressed a strong concern about using the Bothner Bradley firm,” Weber told county communications staff later via email. “He has asked that we investigate the options for removing them from the project team.”

Spears said they brought up the name of the firm because Norton and Howell were going to be interviewed on camera about the ARC 95 Study.

“These people are going to interview both commissioners,” Spears said. “It’s important that both commissioners be comfortable with that subcontractor.

“If either one was not comfortable, we’ve got to find somebody they’re both comfortable with. That’s our task.”

Public works staff then approached TranSystems, which would not comment for this story.

“We told TranSystems that commissioner Howell was uncomfortable with Bothner and Bradley,” Spears said, “that we need to look at finding someone to replace them that both commissioners are comfortable with.”

A TranSystems manager told Weber that he would “start working it,” according to a March 24 email.

Bradley said the firm was no longer a subcontractor after a March 25 meeting with TranSystems.

Spears says no one ordered TranSystems to kick Bothner and Bradley off the project.

“We told them what commissioner Howell said and let TranSystems make their own business decision,” Spears said.

“I mean, if you think about it, they probably made the only decision they could make.”

‘I don’t personally like’ the firm

Howell said there were other public relations firms the county could work with and that the county has a right to approve subcontractors that are employed on county projects.

“I don’t personally like Bothner and Bradley,” he said. “I’ve had a negative experience with them. … I don’t think they’re the best.

“I did not tell them (county staff) what they had to do,” Howell said. “I don’t know what became of it. I shared my opinion, and I walked away.”

Bradley said she was surprised and taken aback by Howell’s comments about her firm’s work.

“I was aware that there were perhaps some misunderstandings,” Bradley said. “I didn’t know it was as strongly as what you just stated.

“We do a lot of community work. I think our work speaks for itself. There are a fair number of clients who are fairly pleased with our work.”

Spirit AeroSystems, Textron, Cessna, Go Wichita, the Wichita Downtown Development Organization, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Health Foundation are among the firm’s dozens of past and present clients. At times, senior management at The Eagle has been a client for marketing and administrative consulting.

Bothner and Bradley also has done work for the Sedgwick County Health Department, the Developmental Disability Organization and the Department on Aging.

“We’ve always had positive feedback on the work we have done with the county,” Bradley said.

The firm also has worked with the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place, two attractions that receive Sedgwick County support. Part of the budget fight last summer revolved around proposed reductions in expected county contributions to the two organizations.

‘They’ll be targeted, too’

Arlen Hamilton, the Wichita Arts Council president, said Bothner and Bradley was not part of organizing the Quit the Cuts campaign.

“The Arts Council took the lead on Quit the Cuts because we saw what reducing our (county-funded) budget to zero would do to us,” he said.

Bothner, the firm’s other managing partner, said she met with Howell last September after the budget was approved in August.

“He wanted to talk about budget cuts,” Bothner said. “When I left the meeting, I thought I had set the record straight.”

Howell said he left that meeting “not satisfied” that he had Bothner’s support for “the county and the things we are trying to accomplish.”

“I wanted to find out her perspective and how they were involved in any of the efforts to get us to change our budget,” Howell said. “She was very elusive. She didn’t answer my questions for the most part.”

Bothner said she personally opposed the cuts for the sake of her clients and the community.

“We’re not the only ones who understand how important quality of life is,” Bothner said.

Bothner said she did not work with Quit the Cuts but talked with unnamed individual clients affected by the cuts to “carefully tell their story why funding was critical.”

“We don’t feel comfortable talking about these clients because we’re afraid they’ll be targeted, too,” she said.

A ‘positive image’

Norton said he didn’t know why the firm was removed from the project. Asked whether that bothered him, he responded, “Of course it does.”

“When you put things out for bid, you assume that people are going to find reputable firms to subcontract with. We generally don’t micromanage that unless we’ve got a company on a no-bid list or whatever.”

He said he has never asked staff for ways to take a company off a project because of personal differences.

“We have a process here,” Norton said. “Just because I didn’t like somebody would not be a reason.”

County Manager Michael Scholes said it would be “out of place” to comment on what happened because public works staff works directly for commissioners.

Howell said he wants the county’s partners to help make “a positive image for this community.”

“I would love to have people recognize the good things we do and to appreciate that and to build this community up as I’m trying to do,” Howell said. “I would love for someone to work with us to help us with that goal.

“And I think that when someone is doing exactly the opposite, I would rather wash my hands of them.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar