Politics & Government

Wichita council members can take unlimited gifts. It’s not like that everywhere

Tulsa’s elected officials aren’t allowed to take gifts that could be used to influence them.

Colorado Springs sets its dollar limit at $59. Oklahoma City requires disclosure of gifts over $300.

But Wichita’s mayor and city council members are free to take unlimited gifts.

A Wichita Eagle review of cities across the region found ethics codes that prohibit specific behavior by elected officials that would leave them open to improper influence. Some states even require local officials to receive ethics training.

In Wichita, city employees can be fired for accepting gifts, travel or meals from anyone doing business with the city, according to the city’s code of ethics.

Those rules don’t apply to the mayor and city council. Instead, city council members are supposed to follow an ethics ordinance that forbids them from doing business with friends and clients, with enforcement left up to the council itself.

It’s unclear how council members keep each other in check.

Wichita has no policy or ordinance relating to gift limits or disclosure requirements for City Council members, according to City Attorney Jennifer Magana. That means the public and the other elected officials may have no idea what goes on behind the scenes before votes are cast.

An Eagle investigation last week showed how Mayor Jeff Longwell steered a multi-million dollar water treatment contract to friends and golf partners. Since then, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett has announced he is looking into “concerns expressed” regarding the mayor.

Carol Williams, former executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, said the Wichita story exposes a hole in state law that makes Kansas’ local governments vulnerable to influence peddling.

Kansas law says legislators, the governor, state officials and candidates can not accept gifts worth more than $40 a year from a single source. They can accept meals, but can not take more than $100 a year in the form of other recreation, such as tickets to sporting events where both the gifter and the recipient are attending together.

Wichita imposes no similar rules on council members.

“We have all of these rules in place for legislators, who don’t award contracts, but no blanket state law for local government elected officials, who actively participate in awarding contracts,” Williams said.

“Some local commissions have only three members,” Williams said. “That means a contractor or lobbyist just has to influence two.”

At the state level, lobbyists must report spending on lawmakers. But locally, neither companies nor the city’s elected officials are required by Wichita to disclose money spent that could give better context to decisions being made with taxpayer money.

Longwell’s calendar shows dozens of meetings with contractors and developers who do business with the city that the companies would likely have to disclose if he were a state legislator.

The meetings included meals, drinks at bars, an out-of-state golf trip and “strategy meetings” at restaurants and golf courses. He said sometimes the contractors paid for meals and golf, including the entry fee to a $1,000 per person Pro Am golf tournament while the city was deciding who should get the water contract.

Longwell later cast the deciding vote to contract with his friends’ team, Wichita Water Partners, after a selection committee recommended a more experienced group. Longwell has defended his actions, saying he had friends on both teams that paid for his golf.

More rules in other cities

Wichita has rules for city employees regarding gifts, travel and favors. The limit anyone can accept is $100 from one person or organization in 12 months. But there’s no disclosure requirement that makes that information public.

The gift limit doesn’t apply to council members because they’re explicitly exempt from the ethics code.

Other cities in the region have tighter policies.

In Tulsa, the city’s ethics code applies to both employees and elected officials. There is no dollar limit in the code, though the city’s personnel policies set a cap of $35 for employees.

The code says officials and their immediate family shouldn’t receive gifts, entertainment or other favors “which may influence or be reasonably perceived as influencing a City official in the performance of their official duties.”

“Bottom line: Act in a manner that promotes public confidence in your integrity and fairness,” a slide shown to new Tulsa city employees says.

Oklahoma City council members have to disclose substantial gifts they receive from anyone who could seek official favors. The city’s mayor and city council passed new ethics rules in 2014, after it was reported that two council members accepted free tickets to the Cotton Bowl worth $900 from a business with city contracts.

Council members are now required to disclose who gave the gift, the nature of the gift — cash, jewelry, meals, tickets, etc. — and its approximate value. Total gifts from any one company or person worth $300 or more during any six months must be disclosed. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, plus costs and fees.

Colorado Springs’ ethics policy also covers elected officials and bans them from accepting gifts, although there are several exceptions, including education scholarships, campaign contributions and items valued at less than $59.

Topeka takes a position closer to Wichita, however. The city’s personnel policies generally prohibit city employees from accepting gifts valued at more than $100 from companies that have or are pursuing business with the city.

But the city has no ethics code for city council members, said former mayor Larry Wolgast. He said that whenever a potential conflict of interest arose, the city attorney would counsel the affected official in private.

“I think it would be very appropriate to have a code of ethics, at least so there’s a process,” Wolgast said.

Although not a city, Shawnee County, Kan., goes as far as having an ethics hotline where anyone can make anonymous complaints about county employees or officials. Calls to the hotline are referred to the county’s internal auditor.

“It’s been used by people and the public. It’s been used by inmates in the jail. It has been used extensively and we take every report on there very seriously,” said Bob Archer, who served on the county commission until last month.

In some states, public officials must receive ethics training. In Georgia, newly elected city officials are required to take training that includes instruction on their ethical responsibilities. The Alabama Ethics Commission also provides mandatory training to public officials, employees and lobbyists.

City Ethics, a non-profit organization, has produced a model ethics code for cities that features an “independent ethics commission with teeth” that’s tasked with interpreting and enforcing the code.

Wichita doesn’t have an ethics commission, and city council members have expressed confusion about what that would look like.

The model code prohibits city employees and elected officials from accepting any gifts from anyone who has received a financial benefit from the city within three years or intends to seek a financial benefit in the future.

State law mostly silent on local ethics

State law is largely silent on a code of ethics for local officials. It does require mayors and council members to report all forms of income for themselves and spouses on their statements of substantial interest forms filed annually. It also requires them to report gifts of $500 or more from one individual or business in a calendar year.

Longwell said he allowed the president of a company the city frequently does business with to pay his entry fee to a $1,000 per person golf tournament. He did not disclose that on his state form.

County and district attorneys are charged with enforcing those rules.

In 2015, a Topeka city council member entered into a diversion agreement after being charged with a misdemeanor for not properly disclosing a summer business that his wife ran while he was running for the county commission.

Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said lawmakers discussed whether to bring cities into the state’s ethics laws in the early 1990s as part of a larger overhaul of state’s ethics system. But ultimately, the idea wasn’t pursued because of fear it would add too much to the Kansas Ethics Commission’s workload, he said.

Sawyer said that after reading The Eagle’s story on Longwell he’s open to taking a fresh look at including cities in the state’s ethics laws, saying it was the “first thing” he thought about.

Williams, former head of the state’s ethics commission, said any meaningful ethics laws at the local level, whether mandated by the state or codified by cities themselves, should require three things: public disclosure, clearly defined limits and a body that can enforce violations.

“Most important is public disclosure,” Williams said. “If there’s a local rule to disclose, but the disclosures aren’t available to the public, they’re meaningless.”

Most Wichita city council members have said recently that they don’t think the city needs to revisit its ethics policy.

Last month, Council members Jeff Blubaugh, Cindy Claycomb and Becky Tuttle issued identically-worded statements saying, “We take our ethical code seriously and are diligent about upholding our high standards.”

Brandon Johnson said he is open to the idea of a local ethics commission and supports strengthening Wichita’s code of ethics for City Council members.

“What I do support, currently, is revisiting our Council Code of ethics to improve and strengthen it where needed to ensure that we are held accountable to ourselves and the citizens we represent.

“This would ensure that there is an effective process in place in the unfortunate event of any impropriety,” Johnson said.

Mayor Jeff Longwell did not return The Eagle’s phone calls from last week.

Plans for ‘refresher courses’

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has no say over the conduct of elected officials and declined to make any recommendations about the City Council ethics policy.

He told The Eagle he thinks there is room for improvement for city employees.

“This situation was in existence when I got here 10 years ago, so I can’t talk about why the codes of ethics exist the way they do,” Layton said.

One of Layton’s employees, the city’s chief engineer and assistant director of public works Gary Janzen, took a two-day golf trip to Oklahoma with Longwell and two leaders of Professional Engineering Consultants during open bidding for the water project.

Outside of a designated person at the city, contractors aren’t supposed to have contact with city employees involved in a project during open bidding. The city’s definition of contact includes face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations, email, text and social media messages, according to the project’s Request for Proposals. After taking the trip, Janzen was later on the selection committee for the water project.

PEC has a major role on the Wichita Water Partners team, the company that was later awarded the contract to begin designing the $524 million plant. Janzen ended up voting for the other team. He did not return phone calls from The Eagle.

Layton declined to discuss personnel issues but said any circumstances surrounding staff interaction with vendors regarding gifts and behavior would be investigated.

“There is confidentiality that I can’t talk about specific investigations that are being conducted,” Layton said. “I have to maintain that confidentiality, so I can’t get into details regarding the actions of employees. What I can tell you is we take it really seriously in terms of the provisions that are in the code of ethics regarding gifts and behavior.”

The city does not release the findings of its internal investigations.

The day after The Eagle shared its findings with Layton, Janzen sent out an email to consultants and contractors who have working relationships with the city.

“In order to maintain a proper professional relationship between vendors and staff, please remove myself and the City of Wichita engineers copied above from all future invites, notices and correspondence that are not directly work related,” the email said.

The list includes 17 city engineers.

One area where Layton said he thinks the city can improve is education, so that the city council can trust that his staff is acting impartially when it gives recommendations. When city employees hire on, they view an ethics presentation and have to sign a form acknowledging they’ve read the code of ethics. But that’s as far as the city’s ethics training goes.

“What I think we still need to do is work on refresher courses and then probably visit some issues like a declaration of business interests,” he said.