Politics & Government

Wichita’s mayor steered multi-million-dollar water plant contract to friends

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell steered what could become the largest contract in the city’s history to his political supporters, golf partners and friends, a Wichita Eagle investigation has revealed.

The city plans to spend about $524 million to build a new plant to treat drinking water. Its 80-year-old plant could fail at any moment, officials have said, leaving 500,000 people without water. How the project is handled will affect how much residents pay for water — and the quality of that water — for generations to come.

A city selection committee unanimously recommended awarding the contract to Jacobs Engineering, one of the nation’s leading design firms that specializes in water treatment plants.

Instead, at Longwell’s urging, the City Council gave it to Wichita Water Partners, a group that has less experience designing large water plants. City staff warned that the group was seeking advice on how to run Wichita’s plant from a company blamed for the Flint, Mich., water crisis.

Longwell, who is up for election in November, said he is friends with the presidents of two companies on the Wichita Water Partners’ team.

An ethics expert who has spent decades providing guidance to local officials said the way the city awarded the project could damage public trust and raises “big red flags.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

The Wichita Eagle culled thousands of pages of public records obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act, including Mayor Jeff Longwell’s work calendar and communications between staff and contractors involved in the Northwest Water Treatment Facility project. The city charged $1,092 for those records. After finding questionable meetings and communications with some of the Wichita Water Partners team members, The Eagle went over our findings with dozens of people, including current and former city officials, other local government officials, industry experts and contractors.

How did we find this story?

In some ways, this story started as a basic fact-checking exercise. In response to The Wichita Eagle’s reporting on the state of the existing water treatment plant, Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city “did divert from our regular bid process for this facility because the project cannot be business as usual.” As we began tugging at that strand, more yarn followed. Watching hours of previous City Council meetings and reading through page after page of meeting minutes, it became clear that the story would take significant time and resources to weave together.

Why this story

The Northwest Water Treatment Facility is the biggest capital project in Wichita’s history. Wichita needs a new plant because its existing one is 80 years old and is a single point of failure, meaning a major break could shut down the entire system. That would leave 500,000 people without water. The new plant’s design and construction is the key to Wichita’s future water security. It’s important the project is done right.

What took so long?

Mayor Jeff Longwell’s relationships with contractors on the Wichita Water Partners team had not been disclosed when the Wichita Water Partners contract was awarded. The Wichita Eagle obtained Longwell’s calendar on Aug. 7 and more than 2,400 pages of emails on Aug. 27. Those things take time to sort through. Also important was making sure each party was given an opportunity to give their side of the story. Longwell was interviewed once and canceled a second interview the morning it was scheduled, requesting questions be submitted in writing. Wichita Water Partners representatives contacted for this story responded to emailed questions. Jacobs Engineering did not respond to The Eagle’s questions.

While staff questioned the Wichita Water Partners’ plan, according to staff reports, Longwell called for a rematch and a new way to keep score that favored his Wichita Water Partner friends. During the second round of bidding, the selection criteria changed from “best value” to low bid, meaning the contract would go to the team that designed the cheapest plant instead of the team that was most qualified.

The change was Longwell’s idea. He campaigned for it during three council meetings. He later cast the deciding vote to change the criteria.

By directing taxpayer money to his friends, Longwell appears to have violated a plainly-written city law meant to shield the awarding of contracts from political influence.

It says council members, such as Longwell, “shall refrain” from “making decisions involving friends” or “using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends.”

It appears Longwell did both, based on The Eagle’s findings.

The law was adopted in 2008 after a city manager was accused of steering a city contract to a mayor’s friend.

City Council members are left to police themselves on that city law, according to City Attorney Jennifer Magana. Some council members defended Longwell’s actions, saying they saw no ethical violations and that the ordinance is too ambiguous.

“What constitutes a friend? How good of a friend? An acquaintance? We’ve got to be careful not to split hairs,” City Council member James Clendenin said.

Between the time the water project went out for bid and an initial contract was signed, Longwell met with members of the Wichita Water Partners’ team at least eight times. They frequently communicated through email, and Longwell twice sent information he received about the project from the city manager to Wichita Water Partners.

They held a 5-hour “strategy meeting” at a private golf course the week before proposals were due, according to Longwell’s work calendar.

While the project was open for bidding, a Wichita Water Partners contractor went on a two-day golf trip to Oklahoma with Longwell and a city engineer who was helping oversee the project.

Before Longwell cast the deciding vote, the president of one of the Water Partners’ companies paid for Longwell to enter a $1,000-per-person charity golf tournament.

The relationships and meetings during open bidding were not disclosed to the city by Longwell or the contractors. The Wichita Eagle found them in thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act, including the mayor’s work calendar and 2,384 pages of correspondences from city officials’ email accounts and phones.

Nor did Longwell disclose the $1,000 entry fee on a state ethics form for local officials that he filed in February. On the section inquiring about gifts with an aggregate value of $500 or more received from individuals or businesses in the past 12 months, Longwell checked that he had nothing to report.

Longwell told The Eagle earlier this month that his friendships with two leaders of Wichita Water Partners started when he first ran for council 12 years ago. He said those relationships and meetings during the awarding of the contract didn’t affect his decisions as mayor.

Instead, he said, he based his decision on which company promised to provide the most local jobs at the lowest price, although city staff reports obtained by The Eagle calls that into question.

He called it “irresponsible reporting to paint this picture of favoritism.” In a written statement Longwell wrote that he is “personally closer” to a friend in the Jacobs group with whom he attends the same church and who has also paid for him to play golf. They met twice between the time the project opened for bidding and the contract was signed — once at city hall and once for golf.

That friend, Brent Wooten, is president of Baughman Company, a surveying subconsultant to Jacobs, and he is not listed on the Jacobs org chart as having a role in the project. Wooten could not be reached for comment on Saturday. Longwell also did not disclose that relationship during the council votes.

“Our whole goal is to be connected to the community and I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” Longwell said of his time in public office. “And after 25 years, you develop roots in this community. I’ve grown up here. When you spend this much time in one community, you’re going to have deep roots. You’re going to form friendships.”

Marla Flentje, a former director of education for the Kansas Association of Counties who helped draft the state’s first code of ethics for Kansas counties, isn’t buying it.

“This is not even a close call,” she said.

“Cozy relationships and sizable gifts from bidding firms, potentially sharing insider information, and suspension of competitive bidding are big red flags. The biggest loser in this compromised process is public trust in government and its decisions about our new water treatment plant.”

‘Mayor Miracle’

Records obtained by The Eagle show that some members of the Wichita Water Partners had nearly unlimited access to the mayor over the two-year period the city has been planning to build a treatment plant.

Professional Engineering Consultants and Wildcat Companies have major roles on the Wichita Water Partners team.

Rod Young, president of the engineering firm PEC, and Roger McClellan, president of the construction company Wildcat, both acknowledged to The Eagle their relationships with the mayor. They did not disclose those relationships to the city on a form asking about potential conflicts of interest in the water project.

Flentje, the ethics expert, said they should have.

“There’s nothing wrong with elected officials having friends who are competing for the city’s business,” she said. “It’s the failure to disclose those relationships that we need to be concerned about because that gives rise to the perception of undue influence from private interests.”

Longwell said that the city’s attorney “verified that there is no conflict of interest.” City Attorney Magana declined to verify that to The Eagle, citing attorney-client privilege.

In separate written statements, Young and McClellan said their companies have been involved in city projects for decades. Although they didn’t cite examples, they have been awarded work on some of the city’s largest projects, from the Kellogg expansion to the new minor league baseball stadium.

Young wrote that his relationship with Longwell began in 2010, after Longwell was elected to the City Council. Because of common interests, Young, Longwell and their spouses developed a social relationship, he said. “Conversations during these events are social and not related to specific City of Wichita projects,” Young wrote.

Their personal relationships often overlapped with their professional lives, according to Longwell’s work calendar.

When Longwell was named the president of the League of Kansas Municipalities in 2017, PEC threw a party honoring him.

PEC invited Longwell to its company parties for Shocker men’s basketball games and to throw out the first pitch at its sponsored events. When he needed to use a ping pong table, PEC volunteered theirs. He was invited to join the 2018 PEC company golf league, “open to friends and family of all PEC employees.” Young, Longwell and another council member met for “Christmas Cheer” at an Old Town bar in 2017.

PEC also agreed to support Longwell’s causes, including paying to sponsor a golf tournament for the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas. Longwell is a board member of that nonprofit.

After Young of PEC agreed to sponsor that tournament in March of 2018, Longwell told him “you were already my favorite so not much of a bump but my gratitude.”

Emails indicate Young or PEC paid $250 to sponsor a hole at the tournament and $360 for Longwell to play on a team with him, another PEC manager and a Catholic priest. PEC is listed as a hole sponsor on the event website. In that email exchange, Young called Longwell “Mayor Miracle.”

They frequently referred to each other in emails by nicknames — Your Eminence, His Highness, Homecoming Queen, Eye Candy, Jethro and Wine Delivery Guy, after Young, the president of PEC, offered to drop off to Longwell leftover wine from a previous dinner party.

They did each other favors.

In the summer of 2017, a year before the new library opened, Young sought Longwell’s help getting one of his employees’ wife a position at the Advanced Learning Library. He sent Longwell her resume and asked him to make sure it got “in the correct hands.”

Longwell said he doesn’t recall the exchange. The woman is not employed by the city.

This summer, from his city email account, Longwell sought Young’s help winning the Wichita Business Journal’s primary election poll. He forwarded Young instructions how to vote multiple times in the poll by switching browsers.

“Send to your people,” Longwell wrote. “Will do!!!!” Young wrote back.

“I’m sure at the time I wanted to make sure that we had a group that was supporting us, too,” Longwell said later about the email. “Those are some of the things that happen in unscientific polls, as you know. And that one was very unscientific.”

Between July 2018 and February 2019 — the open bidding period for the water treatment plant — Longwell met with PEC and Wildcat company presidents multiple times for dinner and golf. He also visited their offices.

On Aug. 16, Longwell’s calendar lists a meeting with Young, another PEC manager, and the city’s assistant director of public works and chief engineer Gary Janzen.

Young refers to the two city officials, according to emails, as “King and Lil Minion.”

Their meeting with the contractors is on Longwell’s calendar as “O-v-N Aerodynamics Session.” It was actually a two-day golf trip to Cimarron National Golf Club in Guthrie, Okla., that included a stay at the Holiday Inn Express.

Janzen, as chief engineer of the city, was in charge of collecting and distributing questions to and from all bidders on the water project. He was later on the selection and screening committee that unanimously chose Jacobs.

Janzen has not responded to The Eagle’s request for an interview.

One week before proposals were due — on Aug. 31 — Longwell held a “Strategy meeting” with McClellan and Young at Rolling Hills Country Club. Longwell said “strategy meeting” is just a name they used on calendar requests and had nothing to do with city projects.

On Oct. 22 — after Wichita Water Partners had been made aware of the selection committee’s preference for Jacobs but before the bid was awarded — Longwell played on a golf team with McClellan and Young at the Pro-Am golf tournament at Flint Hills National.

That charitable event cost $1,000 a player. Longwell said Wildcat’s McClellan paid for him to play.

Longwell had been invited to play in the same tournament in 2017.

“Thank you for the invitation to play in this,” Longwell wrote to McClellan and Young after the 2017 tournament from his city email account. “I’m going to be super nice to you for a long time.”

How Longwell influenced Wichita’s water plant contract

On Nov. 5, the evening before the council workshop where staff was to recommend Jacobs, Longwell had dinner with PEC’s Young and Wildcat’s McClellan.

They met at Greystone Steak & Seafood restaurant in east Wichita. His calendar says the dinner was scheduled to last 4 hours.

The next morning, he began steering the water treatment plant contract in their direction.

Instead of following staff recommendation and awarding the project to Jacobs, Longwell had an idea.

He suggested a “design contest” that would pay both Jacobs and Wichita Water Partners to begin designing the plant. The city would choose a winner at a later date. He said it would save money and create more competition.

It was the first public mention of such an idea. Longwell told The Eagle he doesn’t remember where the idea originated. He said it didn’t come from the contractors he met with the night before.

Young and McClellan did not answer The Eagle’s questions about that meeting and whether they ever mentioned a design contest to Longwell.

“I don’t remember anything more than a birthday-dinner-type event. I don’t know if it was Roger’s (McClellan) birthday or someone’s birthday. That was the only dinner I remember. . . . There was no discussion,” Longwell said of the November meeting.

Roger McClellan was born in April. The other two men were born in May and June. Only three people were listed on the calendar as attending the dinner.

The next day, during the Nov. 6 workshop, Alan King, director of public works and utilities, told the City Council that the city received “two strong proposals” for the Northwest Water Treatment Facility and that either team could do the work.

What King didn’t state publicly about the decision is outlined in two staff summaries dated Oct. 15 and Nov. 26 obtained by The Eagle through an open records request. The reports were provided to the mayor and the council.

The reports show that the selection committee had concerns about Wichita Water Partners’ proposal, including:

Disinfection: Wichita Water Partners’ proposal didn’t address a question about disinfection at the plant. Its members said during an interview with the selection committee that the team would “learn things along the way.” The staff report notes that without proper disinfection, there could be “dangerous byproducts” in Wichita’s drinking water. It could also cause problems with corrosion control, the staff report notes. Corrosion control problems have been cited as one of the reasons lead from pipes leached into the drinking water supply in Flint, Mich.

Experience: Wichita Water Partners is a team, a joint venture of Burn & McDonnell and Alberici. The team includes Wichita firms PEC; Wildcat; MKEC; Dondlinger; GLMV Architecture; Schaefer, Johnson, Cox & Frey; Dudley Williams and Associates; and the Greteman Group. Other non-local companies on the team include HDR, UCI and DuBois Consultants. With their combined experience, Wichita Water Partners has less experience than Jacobs, according to the report.

The city wanted a company that could operate the plant for the first two years and train city workers on how to run the plant. Wichita Water Partners, the report said, had never delivered a design-build project that included providing short-term operations and training. Jacobs was ranked as the country’s top design firm by Engineering News-Record, a trade publication, in 2018 and 2019.

Flint connection: Wichita Water Partners identified Veolia, an engineering firm tied to water crises in Flint, Mich., and Pittsburgh, Penn., as a potential operator for the plant and a firm that could train city staff. Veolia is being sued in Michigan after it assured the residents of Flint that its water was safe to drink, despite growing complaints from residents about sediment and discoloration. The state’s attorney general blames the company’s advice for causing lead to enter people’s drinking water. The company has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, placing the blame on government agencies that failed to act. The company faced similar claims in Pittsburgh but settled out of court.

Brian Meier, client advocate for Wichita Water Partners and associate engineer for Burns & McDonnell, wrote to the council that the staff reports included “a number of inaccuracies.” Wichita Water Partners sought Veolia’s advice on how to operate Wichita’s plant, but was willing to drop the company from its operations task force, he wrote.

Robert Layton, Wichita’s city manager, said Wichita Water Partners has dropped Veolia as an adviser “to address what could be anything negative regarding their involvement.”

The reports were not made available to the public but were given to City Council members so they would know why the selection committee chose Jacobs, Layton said.

Although Longwell had proposed rule changes to keep Wichita Water Partners in the game, city staff continued negotiating a contract with Jacobs for council approval on Nov. 20.

At the meeting, Longwell said he would rather award the contract to Wichita Water Partners.

“I’ll tell you, if I was making a choice today, if I had to make a choice today, I’m going to choose Wichita Water Partners,” he said.

Instead of putting that to a vote, he again asked for a design contest that would allow the city to pay both teams to start designing the plant and then dump one of the firms at a later date.

A representative of Jacobs told the council that the company was not interested in entering that contest due to concerns about fairness and the absence of rules explaining how the new winner would be chosen.

King said a design contest could be done, but it would require at least two teams.

“If there aren’t two teams competing, there’s no competition.”

City Council approved holding a design contest between Jacobs and Wichita Water Partners on Nov. 20. Because Jacobs declined to enter, King brought the Jacobs contract back to the Council for approval on Dec. 18.

At the December meeting, City Council members expressed concerns about having only one firm bidding on the city’s largest project. But Longwell reassured them a design contest was a good idea because other companies besides Jacobs were interested in joining a design contest.

“I will share with you that I have received several phone calls and emails from other companies that said they would be certainly interested in doing a design-build contest,” he told the council before making his substitute motion.

The new design contest was approved 4-3, with Longwell casting the deciding vote.

No other company entered the contest.

“I was a little surprised when none of that materialized,” Longwell told The Eagle earlier this month.

Longwell’s decision

The city has to move quickly on the new water treatment plant so it can qualify for a federal loan that would cover up to 49% of the project. The application is due at the end of October.

Longwell framed the decision between Wichita Water Partners and Jacobs as a choice between locals and outsiders. He recently said Wichita Water Partners would employ 935 local workers during construction.

But documents show little anticipated difference in local participation by Wichita Water Partners and Jacobs.

Both firms are owned by out-of-state corporations. Wichita Water Partners is a joint-venture between Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City, Mo., and Alberici of St. Louis, Mo. Jacobs is headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

Jacobs planned to employ 70% to 80% local workers during construction, according to its proposal. Wichita Water Partners’ proposal said it would use up to 85% local labor during construction. Neither offered guarantees.

The contract the city signed with Wichita Water Partners does not require local participation, but sets a goal of 70%.

Longwell told The Eagle he had “heard from others, you know, stories of Jacobs coming in, winning a bid and using mostly out-of-state talent,” which made him doubt Jacobs would actually use local workers.

That doesn’t match the city’s check of the proposing teams’ references, which is outlined in a staff report that had been provided to Longwell. A check of previous projects by Jacobs found the company had a track record of using locals, including 70% or higher local participation in treatment plant projects in Davis, California, Spokane County, Washington, Camp Pendleton, California, and the Tomahawk Creek wastewater plant in Leawood.

Longwell said he couldn’t provide the names of the people who told him Jacobs would use out-of-state workers, but he did say it was not the Wichita Water Partners contractors.

“I couldn’t even name names at this point, it’s been so far removed. It wasn’t any of the contractors. I’m just saying I’ve heard it from other people around that are familiar with this,” he said.

Jacobs did not respond to The Eagle’s questions about this story.

Lowest price or best value?

Besides local workers, Longwell also said he felt more comfortable with Wichita Water Partners’ price, which is why he wanted to change the criteria.

The track the city took to award the project, progressive design-build, is different from the typical approach to public construction projects. Usually, the city would pay a firm to design the plant to the city’s specifications and then put it out for bid and award the construction work to separate companies.

This time, the city awarded the design and construction work all at once, allowing a team of companies to work together to design 30% of the plant and come up with a final cost estimate. The team that wins the first phase — designing 30% of the plant — will build the entire plant, unless the City Council votes to cancel the contract. To go forward, City Council has to approve the second phase as a change order.

King, the public works director, estimated that first phase would cost $16-$25 million on such a large project. The more thorough a team is at the start of a project, the more accurate the final cost estimate, he said.

The Wichita Water Partners team said it would do the first phase work for $6 million. Jacobs Engineering said it would cost $13.9 million. Even with that cost difference, King said, Jacobs would likely have a lower final cost estimate because its first phase work included risk assessments that would save money throughout the project.

The new rules limited what the teams could spend on the first phase to $6 million, less than half what Jacobs said it would cost. That’s slightly more than the $5.27 million the city was willing to spend on the first phase of its minor league baseball stadium project that’s less than one-seventh the cost of the new treatment plant.

In the design contest, the city would pick a winner based on who promised to deliver a cheaper project.

That substantially altered the original plan, which called for a “best value” approach, meaning the city would award the project based on qualifications instead of lowest estimated cost.

Lisa Washington, executive director of the Design-Build Institute of America in Washington, D.C., said low bid is not a good approach on public projects — especially on a water treatment plant that has to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She would not comment specifically on Wichita’s project. But she did offer comment on best practices for design-build projects.

“We cringe when we hear the term ‘low-bid design-build’ because that’s an oxymoron,” she said.

She likened it to buying a car: “You can get the cheapest car available, but will it run in five years? That’s why people do their research, figure out what they can spend and pick the best car for that price. That’s what ‘best value’ is.”

Council member Bryan Frye, who was on the selection committee that unanimously favored Jacobs, said in February that he thought the selection committee got it right. He’s also on the steering committee for the new plant. He told The Eagle recently that he still expects Wichita to get a high-quality water treatment plant.

But after the contract was awarded to Wichita Water Partners in February, he expressed frustration with the decision to go with the low bid on such an important project, noting the poor condition of the existing plant and the number of communities such as Derby, Valley Center, Kechi, Rose Hill and Andover that rely on Wichita for water.

“And we’re going to try to go cheap on this?” he said. “That, to me, is just not the responsible way to do it. You’ve got one chance to do it right.”

What’s next and why it matters

Wichita Water Partners is scheduled to design 30% of the new water plant and give the city of Wichita a final cost estimate for the project by Oct. 4. Longwell said a design contest could shave $75 million off the project.

The group is also drafting an application for a $270 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help Wichita pay for the water plant.

That loan application is due Oct. 30. The favorable terms are projected to save the city $70 million over the life of the loan and allow the project to start by the end of next year, city officials have said.

Without the loan, the project would have to be put on hold for another seven years until the city could afford it.

It’s unclear when the City Council will decide whether to approve the rest of the contract authorizing Wichita Water Partners to build the plant.

“We haven’t decided yet,” said Layton, the city manager.

If the City Council is unhappy with the work up to that point, it can exercise an “off-ramp” that would allow it to put the project back out for bid.

It’s unclear how the project is progressing. The city’s steering committee meetings have not been open to the public. Frye and Layton have requested that future meetings be open.

Layton said the city is working diligently to make sure the new plant serves the needs of Wichita’s water customers.

“I don’t want to lose sight of how important this is to the community,” he said. “From a staff standpoint, we are working pretty hard to make sure that this plant is built in a state-of-the-art way so it doesn’t just serve our needs today, but it serves our future needs.”

He said residents can expect yearly rate increases to stay in the single digits.

Frye, who is on the water treatment plant steering committee, said he’s been pushing to open the meetings to the public, so people can see the progress the city is making.

“This is probably the biggest single project this city has ever taken on,” Frye said. “You can talk about Kellogg, and over 30 years we spent a billion dollars. But this one will impact more people for a much longer period of time. And we absolutely need to get it right and the public needs to know that we are doing it right.”

Elected officials: ‘It’s just the way it is’

Contractors and developers regularly try to bend the ears of local elected officials, often seeking special favors, according to the officials. But there’s no uniform rule guiding how to respond.

Flentje said all elected officials should have a strong interest in avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest to maintain the public trust, which she calls “the currency of democracy.”

“Governing body members who are committed to leading with integrity give careful attention to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Directing city funding into the local community is of legitimate public value, but that worthy end does not justify the repeated violation of well-established ethical norms for elected officials,” she said.

Once that trust is broken, it’s hard to repair, she said.

“Because the process was so botched, it’s hard to see a clear path forward,” she said.

The Wichita Eagle sought one-on-one interviews with each of Wichita’s six City Council members in the weeks leading up to publication of this story.

Council member Bryan Frye agreed. Council members Brandon Johnson and James Clendenin agreed to a joint interview with a city public relations specialist in the room.

The others — Jeff Blubaugh, Becky Tuttle and Cindy Claycomb — did not have time to meet, according to the city’s scheduling assistant, and requested questions be submitted in writing.

Blubaugh, Tuttle and Claycomb sent identical answers defending the council’s action on the water plant, saying they are expected to build relationships in the community and that they take the ethical code seriously.

Clendenin and Johnson declined to say whether they would look into Longwell’s relationships.

“I guess we would have to determine there was an actual violation,” Johnson said.

“If you start hammering down and trying to define that . . . then why are we building relationships? Because then everything can be questioned,” he said.

“We would just have to look at the ordinance and decide if we felt like there was any impropriety,” Clendenin said.

As for Longwell’s trip, golf outings and dinners with contractors during open bidding, Clendenin and Johnson said they didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“I don’t see it,” Johnson said.

“Without knowing what was talked about, I really don’t question any of my colleagues on meetings,” he said.

“I can’t speculate whether he should or shouldn’t have had these meetings,” Clendenin said. “I would just maintain it’s our job to be relationship builders.”

Johnson and Clendenin both downplayed Longwell’s role in awarding the contract, saying the mayor is just one vote.

“You give the mayor too much credit,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, this idea that the mayor of the city of Wichita has enough power to make any decision he would like is something that I think is a misconception,” Clendenin said.

Frye said he is not privy to the mayor’s calendar or schedule, but added that the mayor meeting and communicating with contractors is not unusual.

“It’s just the way it is in the town,” Frye said.

“I mean, this is a small town. There is one degree of a separation, basically, I feel like, with everybody at any given time,” he said.

Mayor John Speer of Kechi, population 2,007, knows a thing or two about small towns. He said when friends are involved in city projects, elected officials should stay out of it.

“As a lifelong area resident, there are a lot of vendors and contractors that I am personal friends with,” Speer said. “But at the end of the day . . . I would look at something and say, ‘Does that look like that could seem kind of smelly?’”

If a decision gave the appearance of a conflict of interest, Speer said he would recuse himself from voting.

“You’re my friend, but I want to be a step above that,” he said. “If it’s a good project or they’re the best vendor, they’ll still get the work. They don’t need my vote.”

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.
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