Wichita City Council challengers are calling for an ethics overhaul at City Hall, and incumbents say they’re willing to make changes if re-elected.
Ethics have become a central issue in the Wichita election after The Eagle published an article last month saying Mayor Jeff Longwell steered a multi-million-dollar contract for the new water treatment plant away from a group with more experience to his friends and golf partners.
Longwell provided the swing vote, despite a rule in the city’s code of ethics that prohibits voting on contracts for friends. Council members are left to police themselves on ethical conduct and have defended Longwell.
Wichita has one of the loosest ethical codes governing elected officials’ conduct of similar-sized cities, The Eagle found.
Although the city has a lengthy ethical code for city employees that limits gifts, City Council members are explicitly excluded from following those rules.
There’s no limit to the gifts Wichita’s elected officials can accept. There’s also few ways for the public to know who is trying to influence the local political process. State laws require candidates to list campaign contributions and to file statements of substantial interest forms listing individuals or businesses that give an elected official or candidate more than $500 in gifts or services. Those reports don’t require elected officials to disclose how much more than $500 or the nature of the gift.
An investigation by the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office found that Longwell failed to report more than $500 in gifts in 2016 from Professional Engineering Consultants, one of the companies on the Wichita Water Partners team that got the contract for the water plant. It also found hundreds of dollars of gifts from companies on that team that wouldn’t have been required to be disclosed by state law. District Attorney Marc Bennett asked Longwell to report the gifts and said he would not file misdemeanor charges.
Two of the three council members up for election — Becky Tuttle and Jeff Blubaugh — said late last month that they didn’t think the city needed to change its ethics ordinance. They now say they’re willing to give it another look.
Bryan Frye, who is also up for re-election, has consistently said he is in favor of reviewing the city’s ethics code for elected officials.
Some candidates are saying that all gifts should be disclosed — or outright banned. Some challengers also are campaigning to stop what they see as backdoor dealing.
Barring a change in state law, any new ethics policies would have to come from the City Council itself.
Four of the seven seats on the City Council, including the mayor’s seat, are up for grabs in November.
The election is Nov. 5 and early voting starts Monday.
Citywide race for mayor
Kansas Rep. Brandon Whipple, who is challenging Longwell in the mayoral race, said it shouldn’t take a criminal investigation to learn who is wining and dining a city council member. He has proposed aligning the city’s disclosure and gift limits with rules for state officials and starting a local ethics commission to enforce it.
“Disclosure of any and all gifts should be required of electeds,” Whipple said, “and that information should be easily accessible to the public, so citizens know who is attempting to influence policy.”
State law limits gifts to $40 and entertainment expenses to $100 and requires regular disclosure. Companies, too, have to disclose at the state level when they spend money on state officials. The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission enforces violations.
Longwell told The Eagle he’s willing to have a citizen group oversee the process and enforce violations. He said he also hopes to put a discussion of ethics on the agenda for the next City Council retreat, which hasn’t been scheduled and likely won’t happen until after the election.
“I don’t think any of us have a problem with drafting a policy that clarifies some vague wording that the current state policy has,” Longwell said. “Our new policy should provide better clarity on gifts and we should research what other cities and counties use for limits on gifts.”
And, he said, he thinks the city’s code of ethics should better define the word “friend.”
“I consider a good portion of people we regularly do business with a friend,” Longwell said. “We must build relationships in the community to be effective.”
Lyndy Wells, a write-in candidate who finished in third place in the August primary, said he’s in favor of gift limits and disclosure. He said thinks the issue needs more public input before setting limits. He also said he is worried that Wichita doesn’t have a level playing field when it comes to awarding contracts.
“All vendors need the opportunity to participate and not just those that have made extra contributions or whatever that might be,” Wells said.
In District 2, which includes east Wichita, Council member Becky Tuttle told The Eagle in late September she didn’t think the city council should revisit its code of ethics. Now, she says she would volunteer to lead the discussion about ethics reform.
“My first priority is serving the residents of District 2,” Tuttle said, “and their trust in their local government is the foundation on which we accomplish the other priorities.”
She said she has never taken any gifts as an elected official.
Tuttle who was appointed to replace Pete Meitzner after he was elected to the county commission, is running against Joseph Scapa, a former state representative, and Rodney Wren, a speechwriter and debate coach at Wichita Collegiate.
Scapa says clean water is his number one issue and that ethics falls under his broader calls for increased transparency. Wren’s entire campaign has centered on ending “the cronyism running rampant at City Hall.”
Scapa said he’s not sure why the council has gone so long without limits on gifts or ethics reform. If the council members, including Tuttle, are serious about changing it, they haven’t acted like it, he said.
“I think it’s part of the perception that’s been hanging over this city council for years, as far as it being a good ol’ boys club,” Scapa said.
Scapa said he wants limits similar to those at the state level.
Wren, who compares council members policing themselves to “a fox guarding a hen house,” said he doesn’t think the City Council members are being honest when they say they want to change the rules.
“For me, there’s a cronyism problem in Wichita,” Wren said. “If you look at the campaign finance reports, you see a lot of the same people who are wealthy, who are politically well-connected, who are able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for candidates to get them elected. Those same people then come to the city for some sort of incentive, contract or development deal after the election.”
Wren said anything over $10 should be disclosed.
In District 4, which includes southwest Wichita, Council member Jeff Blubaugh also changed his stance, saying the code of ethics is “something we should look at” but added that “it doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue.”
“I have never received anything more than nuts at Christmas or T-shirts for an event,” he said. He said he thinks an annual report of gifts would be sufficient.
“Reporting to the public and letting the public decide,” Blubaugh said.
Blubaugh’s challengers are Beckie Jenek, a small business consultant, and Christopher Parisho, a photographer.
Jenek said changing the ethics ordinance for city council members is “a top priority and fits well with the reason I chose to run in the first place: a lack of transparency in our city government.”
“City government is one of the few areas of government where members are left to police themselves,” Jenek said, “and our existing code of ethics leaves much to be questioned. As the largest city in the state of Kansas, we should strive for setting the highest standards of ethics for our council.”
Jenek said she thinks the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission should enforce local elected officials’ gifts disclosures.
Parisho proposes City Council members disclose gifts as low as $1 to help restore the public trust.
“The way it is now, it is too easy for a special interest or a party with an agenda to ‘wine and dine’ those in key positions to support a certain project or action that the special interest or party want to see go a certain way (in their favor).
“Even if no quid pro quo is intended by a friendly dinner or outing, a perception of one can occur and that can cast a shadow on the way our city government operates,” he said.
In District 5, which includes northwest Wichita, Council member Bryan Frye has been consistent, saying he’s willing to look at the city’s ethics ordinance and that he supports any efforts to be more transparent.
“I fully support reviewing our existing city ordinance for accountability and transparency opportunities,” he said.
However, he said he thinks the city should better define what constitutes a gift before making a decision on limits.
“Wichita is a ‘one-degree of separation’ community and it’s very hard to be successful, either as a private business or as a city councilman, without having relationships and/or friends,” he said.
Challenger Mike Magness, a teacher at Wichita South High School, said he supports ethics reform and imposing gift limits on city council members. He said the limit should be $50 for a one-time gift and $250 from one person or business in a calendar year.
“It would be a step toward earning back the public’s trust,” he said. “The public’s trust in local government has taken a hit the past month.”