County challenger David Dennis has far outraised and outspent Commissioner Karl Peterjohn since the beginning of the year, in part because of donations from a dozen trustees on the Sedgwick County Zoo board.
Dennis raised $53,710 in contributions, including those from former sheriff Mike Hill, former commissioner Tom Winters, Medical Society director Jon Rosell and Wichita City Council member Bryan Frye.
He received at least $4,814 in direct donations from board members of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society, which is gridlocked in negotiations with the county manager’s office over a new operating agreement. Zoo funding and negotiations have become an issue in the commission race for District 3, which includes west Wichita and western Sedgwick County.
Peterjohn, seeking a third term, raised $8,391 from Jan. 1 to July 21. He received numerous donations from people in the real estate industry, such as developers Steven Martens, Nestor Weigand Jr. and Steve Barrett.
Peterjohn entered the year with $84,706 on hand, but $75,000 of that was a personal loan he gave his campaign on Dec. 31. He repaid $60,000 of the loan on March 22.
Peterjohn has spent $13,142 this year, mostly on mailers, yard signs and other campaign supplies.
Dennis has spent $34,827, mainly on postage, signs, mailers and newspaper ads.
The candidates had similar amounts remaining by July 21. Peterjohn had $19,955 – including $15,000 left from his personal loan – while Dennis had $18,883. The two face each other in the Aug. 2 Republican primary.
The winner will face Goddard Mayor Marcey Gregory, who submitted signatures this week to get on the November ballot as an independent. She has raised $12,360 since Jan. 1; that includes a $5,000 loan to her campaign. She received contributions from Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, and Greg Orman, who ran as an independent against U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014.
Almost $5,000 in contributions
The Sedgwick County Zoo board is made up of 35 trustees and a president, Mark DeVries. Three trustees are part of Sedgwick County government. The rest are volunteers from the community.
The zoo board doesn’t like a county proposal to boost the county’s share of voting power on the board and create guidelines related to the zoo director’s speech. Peterjohn is part of the three-member majority pushing for changes to the zoo’s operating agreement. Dennis opposes those changes.
DeVries and 12 zoo board trustees made personal contributions to Dennis’ campaign, according to a campaign finance report from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
Jeff Bloomer, Martha Buford, Bill Moore, Mary Lynn Oliver, Martin Park, Barry Schwan, Jay Smith and Sue Watson donated $500 each. Stanley Andeel donated $400 and Cindy Burgess donated $100. Sheryl Wohlford donated about $65 for beverages for Dennis’ kick-off event.
Wohlford says she also donated $500 to the Dennis campaign through her company.
“Typically, citizens that volunteer on any board or multiple boards are civic-minded and care about the quality of life in the community they live in,” she said.
Wohlford added that she believes contract “negotiations could be easier” if Dennis were elected.
The board’s treasurer, Steve Houlik, gave $150. And DeVries donated $100 on July 7. That’s also the date of a letter to the zoo board in which County Manager Michael Scholes rejected their concerns about the county’s proposal.
DeVries said he did not want to comment on a donation he made as a private citizen. He said he wasn’t worried about board members’ donations creating an impression among county officials about the zoo board.
“I would hope that would not have any impact whatsoever on anything related to discussions between the county and me,” DeVries said.
‘It speaks volumes’
Peterjohn said zoo board members were exercising their First Amendment rights.
“People are free to donate for whoever they want,” he said.
He said Dennis had changed his position on the zoo, saying at a July 14 Republican forum that zoo funding was “adequate” and should remain flat but sending out mailers saying Peterjohn had cut zoo funding. The zoo’s 2016 funding was flat with the year before, but didn’t include an increase outlined in a previous funding agreement.
Dennis said Tuesday he has researched the topic more and is concerned the county is deferring maintenance projects on buildings at the zoo.
“I don’t think it’s (funding) adequate based on what I’ve learned,” Dennis said. “I think we’re going to have to do a complete review of what’s required to run the zoo.”
Dennis said he welcomed support from zoo board trustees, adding that “that support doesn’t come with strings at all.”
Chairman Jim Howell is one of the county’s three trustees and has endorsed Peterjohn’s re-election bid.
Howell said trustees can donate to any candidate they want to as private citizens, but added that the nonprofit board should strive to be apolitical. He said the zoo board should be willing to work with any of the District 3 candidates.
“It may be legal, but it seems inappropriate to me to involve themselves in the race the way they did,” Howell said. “They ought to stay out of politics as much as possible.”
“I don’t want to make too much of it,” Howell said. “But anecdotally, it does say a lot to me. … It speaks volumes.”