Saying he’d rather lose an election than lose his soul, Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau has launched new ethics complaints against fellow Commissioner Michael O’Donnell.
On Wednesday, Ranzau accused O’Donnell of attempting to “influence peddle” and curry favor with Wichita City Hall in connection with increasing a grant to a charity medical program. That came the day after he alleged O’Donnell is playing an improper role in assisting the Kansas African-American Museum in finding new real estate so it can move out of a county-owned building next to the downtown jail.
“Why we do things and how things are initiated matters to me,” Ranzau said. “There are some people who say ‘Listen, this is not good for you politically, you should not do this.’ I think it’s the right thing to do. I’ll lose an election before I lose my soul.
“I mean that. I care about this community. I care about the taxpayers and I care about what’s right and wrong. That’s why I do what I do and I will continue to the very last breath I have and the very last moment I serve here on this commission.”
O’Donnell, as has become his habit, didn’t engage Ranzau during the commission meeting Wednesday and brushed off his criticism afterwards.
“I actually didn’t think he was that bad today,” O’Donnell said. “The good thing about this is I have majority support from my colleagues.”
The issue Wednesday was a proposal for the county to grant $200,000 to Project Access, which coordinates donated medical care for economically disadvantaged Wichita residents.
Ranzau said the commission had originally budgeted $175,000 for Project Access. But on Tuesday, when it came time to make the grant, it was increased to match the amount the city of Wichita is contributing.
“This was suggested by Commissioner O’Donnell … because he wanted to make the mayor happy and spread goodwill with the city of Wichita, so I asked him about it and he said ‘Yes, I want to have good relationships, and this is the way to do it.”
Ranzau said he supports Project Access, but “Getting there this way so a commissioner can basically influence peddle is wrong,” he said. “It’s not appropriate.”
As has happened before, other commissioners dismissed Ranzau’s criticism and voted 4-1 against him.
“My vote has nothing to do with anyone else’s conversation. I think that’s a superfluous comment,” Commissioner David Unruh said. “I am not doing this because someone else suggested it, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do for our citizens.”
Later, O’Donnell said the county is simply restoring money cut in 2015. He said he’s “more than happy to be the cheerleader” for Project Access and if Ranzau wants to criticize for that, he can go ahead.
Wednesday’s events followed a contentious exchange at Tuesday’ county commission/staff meeting.
Ranzau has repeatedly accused O’Donnell of abusing his position as a commissioner to try to help friends in the downtown development community and said he appears to be doing the same in trying to help arrange for the museum to move to the Sunflower Bank building downtown.
“The Sunflower State Bank was one of the buildings he tried to push us to buy for an administration building.” Ranzau said. “Now I’m hearing this is happening again. I’d like to have a public discussion of this. If Commissioner O’Donnell was involved in this and supportive of this, then this is another (example).”
Commission Chairman David Dennis sought to assure Ranzau that the county is not planning to buy the building, although he left the door open for the county to possibly provide some funding for the acquisition.
“A lot depends on their board of directors and they need a meeting so that we can find out what they want to do,” Dennis said.
“We need to have a public discussion on this,” Ranzau replied.
“We will as soon as we know which direction we’re going,” Dennis said.
“I want you and the staff to know that anytime Commissioner O’Donnell initiates anything like this, I want to know about it. I don’t want to be kept in the dark. This is another example of using ...” Ranzau continued.
“But Commissioner O’Donnell has not been involved. He’s sat in the meetings, but he has not been doing anything that I haven’t been doing, or any discussions with (museum executive director) Mark McCormick,” Dennis said.
“Why are we having any discussions? It’s not in the CIP (Capital Improvement Program),” Ranzau said.
“We’re not buying a building so it doesn’t need to be in the CIP,” Dennis said.
Later, Ranzau warned Dennis that he hadn’t heard the last of it.
“Don’t, Mr. Chairman, let yourself get drawn into something that’s inappropriate,” Ranzau said. “I’m just telling you ... we don’t need things like this going on and every time I hear about it I’m going to talk about it publicly because we need transparency, OK?”
O’Donnell said Ranzau’s criticism is misplaced.
He said he has been trying to help the county and the museum find a new place because it would be good for both organizations.
The museum building, the historic former Calvary Baptist Church, is 100 years old, costly to maintain and inadequate for a museum that hopes to expand, O’Donnell said.
More than that, “It’s in a location that’s bad visually,” surrounded on three sides by a jail, he said.
He said the county grants the museum $172,000 a year and has to spend an additional $30,000 a year on repairs, maintenance and utilities because of the building’s age.
He said he’s not worried about Ranzau’s criticism and plans to continue to work with the museum to try to save the county money.