Wichita has laws that seem clear. But the city attorney said they don’t mean what they seem to say. Will our next mayor stand up for ethics?
Wichita has a city code that seems to give guidance to council members (the mayor is a council member) on ethical behavior. The code says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”
But Mayor Carl Brewer and many council members have done just that. Many times, in fact. And the Wichita city attorney said that the city code doesn’t really need to be followed.
Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.
Following, from July 2013, what Wichita city code says and what the city attorney said about that law. We have a new city attorney this year, so maybe things will change. But I have a feeling that change must be started from the top, which is the mayor. The city attorney, indirectly, works for the mayor and council.
Wichita city code seemingly ignored
When a city has laws that it doesn’t enforce, what are citizens to do?
Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):
“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”
When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:
Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.
Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.
So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”
We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law.
I wonder whose interests the city attorney represents. The people of Wichita, who want to be governed in a fair and ethical manner? It doesn’t seem so.
If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.
Giving that impression, though, would be false — and unethical.
Here’s the Wichita city code:
Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.
Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.
Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.
City staff that is involved in contract negotiations with vendors and developers should also have at least a 1 yr prohibition from going to work for any of those companies that received a contract based on the staff recommendation. Many cities have their own City Ethics Commission to oversee ethics, accountability, and fiduciary responsibility of their elected officials. These ideas will not stop every deal, but will at least slow them down. There is just too much money in the system. Many deals are being consummated prior to the spring election just in case that new the City Council takes off in a new direction.