Rival candidates piled on Mayor Jeff Longwell over the issue of city contracting Friday, saying City Hall gives too much business to a few contractors and not enough to emerging minority- and women-owned firms.
“We have some favored vendors that seem to win all of the contracts,” said Lyndy Wells, a retired banker. “As we know, this is a diverse community and there are contractors from every walk of life that deserve the opportunity to compete on a level playing field to make sure that they can have the opportunities that some of the other developers that are maybe better connected might have.
“Everyone needs to be given the opportunity to participate and I don’t believe that we are experiencing that in our municipal government as we are experiencing it today.”
Longwell fired back that the purchasing department regularly assists small and disadvantaged businesses in landing city contracts.
“If you’re a minority-owned business, or a woman-owned business, or a small business, we’ll hold your hand and teach you how you can get contracts from City Hall,” Longwell said.
For example, he cited the elimination of the city’s in-house department that mowed parks and other open green spaces. “We have now farmed that out to a lot of small businesses,” he said.
He added that the city tracks minority and women-owned business contracts and reports those figures quarterly.
“You can pull up (on the city’s web site) the information of how we’re helping disadvantaged businesses navigate and how they can take advantage of some contracts.”
It was the most pointed exchange at a campaign forum sponsored by Women for Kansas and the League of Women Voters.
The forum featured seven of the nine candidates running in the Aug. 6 primary and except for Longwell, all were critical to some degree of City Hall contracting policies.
“The first thing I’m going to do is stop illegal aliens from getting any tax dollars working on our streets,” said candidate Marty Mork, a self-described “freedom fighter” and outspoken supporter of President Trump, who has made cracking down on unauthorized immigration a signature issue of his presidency.
Mark Gietzen, who heads the Kansas Republican Assembly is a former Sedgwick County Republican chairman, said special treatment for minority- and women-owned businesses is unnecessary.
“Rather than awarding a contract — as the mayor just alluded you would give a contract to someone because it’s owned by a lady or by someone who claims to have some minority heritage or something — I think we should give the contracts to those who can do it the best and those who can do it the cheapest,” Gietzen said. “And oftentimes that’s going to be a woman-owned business or it might be a minority-owned business.
“I have every confidence that the minority community, black or whatever color, they can compete 100 percent with anybody.”
Brock Booker, the only African-American to participate in Friday’s forum, acknowledged that there are city programs to help minority businesses, but said they need to be reinforced to be more successful.
“I have people who come to me in the African-American and minority community that are concerned why has it been 40 or 50 years that we haven’t seen a minority company in Wichita that has excelled or has even had the opportunity,” he said. “So this again is about opening the door and letting people through the door of opportunity.”
Candidate Amy Lyon, the only woman in the race, said she’s heard a lot of talk “about how people are going to do this and that,” but carrying it through will require more action.
“You’re going to have to provide some guidance and opportunity,” she said. “But you just can’t say we’re going to do all this without spending some time in the communities that need to be given opportunities.”
Brandon Whipple, the only candidate who spoke before Wells’ criticism of the city, touted his record as a state legislator in helping small business.
He told the story of a Wichita woman whose business — an art studio where people could bring their own wine to drink and paint pictures with friends — was threatened when City Hall decided she needed a liquor license.
“We had to change the law to save (that) business here in Wichita because no one at the local level would,” Whipple said.