Wichita mayor candidate and Kansas Rep. Brandon Whipple was critical of his opponent and the City Council in his first public statement about an Eagle investigation that revealed Mayor Jeff Longwell steered a multi-million-dollar water treatment plant contract to his friends and golf partners.
He said The Eagle story exposed a “City Hall culture” that accepts and supports that sort of behavior from elected officials.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Thursday that his office is investigating concerns raised about Longwell’s conduct. It’s unclear exactly what is being investigated or who sent the complaints.
A city ordinance says City Council members “shall refrain” from approving or using their influence to award city contracts to friends. But City Council members are left to police themselves. They have defended the city’s process for awarding the water plant contract and downplayed the Longwell’s role, saying the mayor is just “one vote.”
“It’s not about votes,” Whipple said Friday. “It’s about influence. We saw the mayor take and move the goal post. And he had the influence to do that, and then people were voting on that.”
Longwell was not available for comment Friday afternoon. Nor were some City Council members.
“The idea that they can be self policed — if there’s something wrong then the council will self-correct it — it seems that’s not working,” Whipple said.
“So when the reporters talk to the other council members, I don’t think the red flags for some of those members went up.”
City Council member James Clendenin said he is “shocked and let down” by Whipple’s comments.
“This race for mayor has been hard on the City of Wichita,” he said. “Through all of this we continue working with integrity and honesty for the citizens of Wichita, and all I ask is everyone do the same.”
Council Member Bryan Frye said that Whipple has never shared his concerns with him before and said the state representative has had “ample time” as a lawmaker to make changes.
“How politically convenient for him to make these allegations now,” Frye said.
Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh and Council Member Cindy Claycomb said they disagree with Whipple’s assessment of City Hall. Although council members are left to police themselves on ethics issues, they both pointed out that the council still has to follow state laws for reporting. State law requires local officials to report gifts of $500 or more from any single individual or company received in a 12-month period.
“I have seen my colleagues recuse themselves from votes when a perceived conflict of interest might come into play,” Blubaugh wrote in an email Friday.
The Eagle story published Sunday revealed undisclosed relationships between Longwell and contractors on the Wichita Water Partners team that was awarded the contract for the city’s new water treatment facility, which is estimated to cost $524 million.
An 11-member 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 Wichita City Council gave it to Wichita Water Partners, a group that has less experience designing large water plants.
Whipple said the city should be awarding contracts based on quality, not friendships.
“At the end of the day it should be about the quality of the work,” Whipple said. “It should be about the ideas. It shouldn’t be about being wined and dined. It shouldn’t be about being taken out and being made to feel special.”
Pointing to the rules for gifts and disclosures at the state level, Whipple said he wants to establish a local ethics commission that functions similarly to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission in Topeka.
“If people say the system works as far as giving out gifts and what might be leading to contracts, that’s not the way the system is in Topeka,” he said.
Blubaugh indicated that Topeka might not be the best model for cities to follow.
“I hear a lot more issues with these problems in Topeka then we see on the Wichita City Council,” he wrote.
Longwell told The Eagle that he accepted an entry fee to a $1,000 per person Pro Am golf tournament while the city was deciding who should get the water contract. The fee was paid by the president of one of the companies that ultimately won the bid. Longwell did not disclose that gift to the state.
“I’m not sure what ‘an ethics commission’ means,” Claycomb wrote. “When I worked in industry and higher education we had limits on gifts. I never found that to be a problem.”
“I don’t understand the mechanics of Whipple’s proposed ethics commission since we already have a state ethics commission,” Blubaugh wrote.
Whipple said it would be similar to that, but at the local level.
“Because we don’t have a local ethics commission . . . the only remedy is for a district attorney to investigate,” Whipple said. “And really that’s a higher bar. The district attorney looks for criminal laws. And the reality is some of this might be on the civic level.
“The DA, let’s say if he doesn’t find anything, he’s looking for criminal. With an ethics commission at the local level, just like at the state level, we can do these investigations, save taxpayers money and make sure that we have a level playing field for people who are involved in government.”