Politics & Government

Longwell proposes changes in city process after airport hotel blunder

Four days after the Wichita City Council had to delay a flawed contract that could have cost Eisenhower Airport millions of dollars in lost revenue, Mayor Jeff Longwell said he’ll propose steps to keep it from happening again.

The errantly drafted contract, a 50-year lease of airport land for a new hotel, had been placed on the consent agenda, which the council uses to pass routine business items in bulk with a single vote and no discussion.

On Friday, Longwell said he plans to ask the council to change its policies so “every negotiated agreement goes on a regular agenda, not consent.”

“My concern is process,” Longwell said. “Let’s get the process right.”

Longwell said he also plans to ask his colleagues to consider requiring that an elected council member participate on the negotiating team for major projects.

At present, those deals are generally negotiated by the city’s paid staff and can be presented to the council on the Friday before each week’s Tuesday meeting, he said.

Longwell said he and other council members sometimes get individual briefings on upcoming agreements. But it doesn’t always happen and didn’t in the case of the airport hotel that was on the consent agenda Tuesday.

He said elected officials participated in negotiations when he served on the Maize school board and that process worked well.

The lease contract for the airport hotel contained several errors that were the subject of a Wichita Eagle report posted Monday.

A discrepancy in dates in the lease could have cost the city-owned airport a year of rent, at least $130,944, according to city documents.

A second flaw could have been even more costly, giving the hotel developer, Mitesh Patel, control of a second parcel of land, worth $100,000 a year, for 50 years. But Patel would have had to pay rent for only two of those years.

The council chose to delay the agreement a week so the details could be corrected, which made the mayor unhappy.

“We really don’t like, in this case, last-second changes that are brought to us,” Longwell said at the time. “And it’s not fair to the community to have last-second changes presented to the council and then ask us to vote on it.”

Also Friday, the Eagle obtained a copy of an attorney’s letter threatening to sue the city if it didn’t fix the discrepancies in the lease.

Dean Richardson, an attorney representing the owners of DoubleTree by Hilton at Eisenhower Airport, contacted city leaders on Monday.

The letter claimed the city was poised to violate an agreement that gave the DoubleTree owners the right to match or better any development deals proposed to build upscale hotels at the airport.

While DoubleTree had passed on that right of first refusal, the lawyer claimed the final lease contract was a much more advantageous deal than what the city had disclosed to DoubleTree.

Specifically, Richardson objected to the inclusion of the second land parcel and a provision that would have given Patel free rent for the first year of the contract.

That provision was intentional and unrelated to the drafting error that could have given Patel free rent in year four of the 50-year deal.

The new version of the contract removed the second parcel from the lease and eliminated the free rent period. It also lowered the annual rent to be charged for the first three years of the deal.

City Manager Robert Layton told the council on Friday that the issues with the DoubleTree owners have been worked out.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.