Editorials

No, Mayor Longwell: This isn’t the way city business should be done

It’s disturbing enough that Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell pushed to have the city award a multi-million-dollar contract to his friends and political supporters.

It’s disgraceful that, after accepting an invitation to play in a golf tournament with local executives, Longwell pledged in an email, “I’m going to be super nice to you for a long time.”

And it’s downright deplorable that some city leaders say that’s “just the way it is” with government business in Wichita.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

A Wichita Eagle investigation revealed that Longwell steered the contract for a $524 million water treatment plant — the largest in city history — to Wichita Water Partners, a group that has limited experience designing large water plants.

Longwell framed the decision as a choice between locals and outsiders. What it looks like, though, is a favor to insiders who wined, dined and golfed with the mayor before and during the bid process.

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This comes just months after city leaders voted to push through a riverfront ballpark development despite lingering questions about that project and its investors.

Longwell took a “just trust us” approach then, too. He thwarted established guidelines for the sale of city property and ignored the city’s time-tested bid process.

Residents and this editorial board voiced concerns about transparency and said we hoped the mayor and City Council would be more upfront in the future.

That clearly hasn’t happened.

In an e-mail response to recent questions from a Wichita Eagle reporter, Longwell said some city staff members have “felt bullied” by our stories about the shoddy state of our city’s water infrastructure, which revealed that 99 percent of our water treatment plant is in poor or very poor condition.

“We have citizens who have called us in a panic because of the way you have positioned the city’s water issues,” the mayor wrote in the email.

We have described Wichita’s water issues precisely the way they are — which is “critical,” according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. That’s not a situation we can or should ignore, so our reporters continue to press officials for answers and explanations.

More recently, our reporters combed through thousands of pages of documents obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act. What we found were cozy relationships and sizable gifts from a firm wanting to do business with the city.

Longwell steered the council away from its earlier decision on how to award the water plant contract — away from competitive bidding and toward shadier ways of doing business — and that is unacceptable.

Longwell violated public trust by not disclosing his relationships with members of the Wichita Water Partners team.

That’s a blow to transparency in government. But an even bigger concern is what it could mean for the city’s future:

If contractors think Wichita isn’t a level playing field, with only a select few companies having nearly unlimited access to City Hall, they may hesitate to do business here. That could mean fewer bidders and higher prices for more than $1 billion in projects on the city’s short-term agenda.

In just a few weeks, Wichita voters will decide whether to give Longwell another chance and another term as mayor. Given his questionable practices up to now, he doesn’t deserve it.

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