Politics & Government

Bothner and Bradley PR firm rejoining county project it was removed from

The intersection of 95th Street South and Meridian is one end of the corridor being studied by TranSystems in the ARC 95 Study.
The intersection of 95th Street South and Meridian is one end of the corridor being studied by TranSystems in the ARC 95 Study. The Wichita Eagle

Bothner and Bradley is rejoining a county road study it was removed from about a month ago.

The communications firm was removed from the ARC 95 Study, which is evaluating a part of 95th Street South in Sedgwick County. The removal occurred shortly after County Commission Chairman Jim Howell expressed to staff that he wouldn’t be personally comfortable working with the firm.

“I expressed that I wasn’t thrilled that they would be basically the one I’d be working with, because I have had some negative dealings with them recently,” Howell said Monday.

He now says the firm should not have been removed from the project.

It was never my intent to see someone who is under contract get fired.

Jim Howell, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission

“My opinion doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t have mattered in the first place. It’s just an opinion of one commissioner,” Howell said. “It was never my intent to see someone who is under contract get fired.

“I wish that this hadn’t happened based on my opinion,” he added.

Tami Bradley, one of the firm’s managing partners, said the county’s public works department and the project contractor invited the firm “to be back on the team” about a week ago. She said she wants to focus on moving forward.

“We respect the team immensely and are pleased to re-join them,” Bradley said in a statement. “Our goal remains to communicate and engage the community where the study will be conducted.”

The impasse between Howell and the firms’ managers had possible roots in the fight over last year’s county budget, in which the firm worked with clients affected by the proposed cuts to public health, recreation, arts, culture and economic development.

‘I did not dictate’

The Eagle first reported on April 16 that Howell’s personal feelings toward the firm’s managers had a role in their removal from the project.

Howell met March 22 with public works staff members and expressed he wasn’t comfortable working with the firm, which would have helped do a recorded interview with Howell because part of the project is in his district. The firm was removed from the ARC 95 Study on March 25.

Howell said he didn’t know at the time that Bothner and Bradley was “coupled up” and under contract with TranSystems, the main contractor for the ARC 95 Study. He said he also didn’t know the firm was promised work and was the contractor’s preferred choice.

“Had I known any of that, my opinion is I probably wouldn’t have shared my opinion at all. I did not understand the process or the status,” Howell said. “I shared my opinion not knowing what was going to happen. I did not dictate. I did not mandate. I did not determine what TranSystems was going to do.”

Howell also said he didn’t know Bothner and Bradley had already started work on the project, though he had been forwarded an e-mail from County Manager Michael Scholes that mentioned some of the work Bradley had done on the project at the bottom of an e-mail thread.

“I didn’t really pay attention to that e-mail until you got involved in this,” Howell told The Eagle.

‘B&B team was probably ideal’

Kansas City-based engineering firm TranSystems is the company actually doing the study.

The ARC 95 Study focuses on 95th Street South between Meridian and Greenwich. It will study traffic lanes, intersections, medians, a potential bridge over the Arkansas River and possible highway interchanges.

Its $410,000 proposal, which included Bothner and Bradley, passed the county’s bid board and commission by unanimous votes in December and January, respectively. Bothner and Bradley’s part of the study was worth $60,424, according to the proposal.

TranSystems could not be reached on Monday.

E-mails obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request show that TranSystems began looking for a replacement soon after Bothner and Bradley was removed from the project

A March 25 e-mail includes a list of public relations firms that could take over the public involvement part of the ARC 95 Study. That’s the same day Bothner and Bradley was taken off the project.

It lists five firms, two from Wichita and three from Kansas City. A TranSystems manager said the company could look at two other firms as a possibility, “but I think they’re going to be fairly expensive and not exactly what we’re looking for.”

Unfortunately the B&B (Bothner and Bradley) team was probably ideal.

A public works e-mail sent after the firm was removed from the project

“Unfortunately the B&B (Bothner and Bradley) team was probably ideal,” a county public works director wrote to a county engineering manager in a March 26 e-mail.

Howell said he was shown a list of other firms and was asked whether he had any problems with them. Commissioner Tim Norton, whose district also includes the road being studied, said he was not shown those alternatives.

Bothner and Bradley was added back to the study on April 26.

“Commissioner Howell talked with staff, and he said basically it’s a decision that TranSystems should make,” Public Works Director David Spears said.

Spears said TranSystems returned to the county saying it wanted to bring back Bothner and Bradley. He said the public works department was ready to “put all this behind us and move on.”

“What it is we’re, you know, a month behind now,” Spears said. “So what we want to do is get on with the study, and we’re excited about it.”

‘A misunderstanding’

Howell said the lesson to be learned is that “one commissioner doesn’t determine these things.”

“If it had been my intent to take a contracted company and to see them be fired, certainly I would have had to bring that up in an open meeting and have a consensus of the majority of the County Commission. That never happened,” Howell said.

If it had been my intent to take a contracted company and to see them be fired, certainly I would have had to bring that up in an open meeting and have a consensus of the majority of the County Commission. That never happened.

Jim Howell, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission

“I don’t represent the majority of this board. And I don’t, by myself, make anything happen,” he said.

Howell called the Bothner and Bradley issue “a misunderstanding and people taking my opinion and doing things that did not need to be done.”

“My opinion was shared to TranSystems, and they’re the ones that made the decision, which is fine. They can do whatever they want to do. They’re a sovereign, private company.”

Gary Plummer, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said the issue was an internal matter between the county and its vendors.

“The Chamber is supportive of a fair and open bidding process for all businesses at every level of government,” he said in a statement.

A Washburn University law professor said the firm’s removal raised First Amendment questions because it was potentially related to the managing partners’ views opposing last year’s county budget.

“You would balance the interests of the speaker against the interest of the government in its ability to smoothly operate,” said Joseph Mastrosimone, who studies employment law. “How this balance comes out is hard to predict.”

Mastrosimone pointed to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled against Wabaunsee County for voiding a contract with a trash hauler who was a critic of that Kansas county commission’s policies.

“There is no principled reason why you would not apply the same concept to a subcontractor,” he said.

Norton said he was happy Bothner and Bradley was back on the project.

This was an anomaly and … this is certainly not how I feel about dealing with the bid process and partners.

Commissioner Tim Norton

“This was an anomaly and … this is certainly not how I feel about dealing with the bid process and partners,” Norton said.

Like Howell, he said he hopes the county can move on from what happened.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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