Politics & Government

Wichita council slams Brownback on blight bill veto; vice mayor chosen

Wichita City Council (2015)
Wichita City Council (2015) File photo

The Wichita City Council selected Lavonta Williams as the city’s next vice mayor, and members criticized Gov. Sam Brownback for vetoing a bill designed to alleviate urban blight.

Williams, who was next in the rotation to serve as vice mayor, was unanimously selected by the council. The term will run from her swearing-in next week until mid-January as the council adjusts terms to accommodate the state Legislature’s decision to move municipal elections from the spring to the fall.

In supporting Williams, who has led the city’s crusade against blight in inner-city neighborhoods, council member Pete Meitzner raised the issue of Brownback’s Monday veto of a state bill that would have made it easier for cities to seize abandoned and deteriorating houses and turn them over to nonprofit groups such as Mennonite Housing and Habitat for Humanity, which rehabilitate and build quality affordable housing.

The law today clearly has flaws in it and it allows misuse of blighted property … and all we were trying to do is help resolve deterioration not of a piece of property, but the impact of a whole neighborhood.

Pete Meitzner, Wichita City Council member

“I’m disappointed it’s been cast that we’re going to be very aggressive in taking people’s property and I just want to be on the record, as I know you are, that the city has no intent to do some accelerated taking of people’s property and property rights,” Meitzner said, addressing Williams. “The law today clearly has flaws in it and it allows misuse of blighted property … and all we were trying to do is help resolve deterioration not of a piece of property, but the impact of a whole neighborhood.”

In his veto message, Brownback cast it as an issue of “the right to private property,” which he called “a central pillar of the American constitutional tradition.”

“Kansans from across the political spectrum have contacted me to discuss their concerns that this bill will disparately impact low-income and minority neighborhoods,” Brownback wrote. “Government should protect property rights and ensure that the less advantaged are not denied the liberty to which every citizen is entitled.”

Williams, however, says the issue is about the neighbors’ rights not to have their property degraded by absentee landlords who abandon, but retain ownership of, vacant houses that become magnets for transients, gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes.

“It is something that is going on around the country and we need to have something in place that is going to work,” Williams said. “Now, it’s not working.”

She said the situation is so bad in some areas that nobody, not even recipients of public housing, wants to live there.

“I went out to look at one of our areas that is vacant right now and according to that neighborhood and according to that community, with the blight the way it is, they would not live there,” Williams said. “So that’s how it affects our Wichita community.”

In the audience at the council meeting was Jim Howell, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission, which opposed the bill.

Although the commission had its staff lobby against the bill in the Legislature, it didn’t lobby the governor to veto the bill after it passed, he said.

I still don’t think that bill was the right approach to this. Property rights are one of the most fundamental rights of being an American.

Jim Howell, Sedgwick County Commission chairman

“I still don’t think that bill was the right approach to this,” Howell said. “Property rights are one of the most fundamental rights of being an American.”

He said abandoned property eventually goes to a tax sale anyway.

“It gets down to how aggressive government’s going to be,” he said.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city often has to deal with blighted property year after year “that gets kicked around because of circumstance and change of hands and … people manipulating the system.”

The bill would have allowed the city to go to court to take property that has been vacant for six months and is two years in arrears on taxes. Under current law, property can’t go to a tax sale until it’s three years in arrears, and unscrupulous owners can extend the process by making partial payments, Longwell said.

“When we get into our third or fourth year of dealing with blighted property that’s impacting property owners’ rights on both sides of that blighted property, maybe that’s when we’ll ask some of those folks that spoke against our bill to step up and ask them what they would do for the property owners that are impacted,” Longwell said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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