Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: The scary subtext to Ranzau’s Spirit outburst

Merritt
Merritt

As the winners relentlessly remind us, elections have consequences. And the most severe consequences often result from elections with low voter turnout.

Sedgwick County residents are facing the consequences of the past two County Commission elections as the new majority of conservative extremists begins to carry out what the three erroneously see as a mandate to slash budgets when no fiscal emergency exists and to renege on agreements with other public bodies.

They are scheduled to complete the job for the 2016 budget year at Wednesday’s meeting.

The consequences of elections, however, do not include reducing to inconsequentiality the great majority of people who did not vote for the winners. Those people’s desires, rights, beliefs and right to representation are not nullified by election returns.

And therein lies the scariest implication of County Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau’s tirade against Spirit AeroSystems at a public hearing on the county budget a couple of weeks ago.

The episode doesn’t get more civil or less concerning with replaying, which I have been doing (sedgwickcounty.legistar.com/Calendar, the July 29 morning video).

An hour and 20 minutes into the session, Spirit’s director of global human resources, Suzanne Scott, was wrapping up a plea to restore a $100,000 cut from the county’s support of Wichita Area Technical College, which trains most of Spirit’s sheet metal workers.

“We can’t afford to have the county working against us,” she said. Spirit, the county’s biggest employer and payer of $11.6 million a year in property taxes, is in the process of hiring 500 more trained metal workers.

Visibly angry, Ranzau asserted that Spirit “reduced funding to WATC to the tune of $350,000” a year ago when it canceled a lease for office space at WATC, and later demanded, “Why are you here talking about a $100,000 proposed cut when you took $350,000 out…?”

Then, “You just said that the county is working against you and that means you’re saying that taxpayers are working against you….

“Do not come in here and tell me that the taxpayers is (sic) working against you.... That’s insulting.”

There was much more wrong with his monologue than its unwarranted and uncivil tone.

▪  WATC is a Kansas Board of Regents institution that’s designed to be supported by taxpayers. Spirit did not “reduce funding” because it has no obligation to fund WATC. It supports it in many ways because the partnership works to the benefit of the community and the company.

▪  Spirit ended the lease because it was in the midst of consolidating functions and no longer needed the space, a pure business decision. That’s yet another demonstration of the fundamental difference between businesses, which exist to maximize profit, and government, which exists to provide public goods (for instance, training sheet metal workers). Ranzau and the commission majority consistently ignore that distinction when they drone on about “running government like a business.”

▪  But the most disturbing part was Ranzau shifting Scott’s comment about lack of support from “the county” to “the taxpayers.” Getting 12,000 votes (from among 50,000 registered voters) in one County Commission district, as Ranzau did, does not make him “the taxpayers” of Sedgwick County, population 500,000-plus.

If the shift was conscious and a rhetorical ploy, it was merely unacceptable. But if it was unconscious and reflexive, it demonstrates alarming arrogance and a lack of understanding of and respect for the governing process.

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.

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