Sedgwick County: please don’t ratify Wichita’s disrespect of citizens

Remarks delivered at the December 17, 2008 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners.

I’m here today to ask this commission to not approve the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. The reason I ask this of you is for reasons of good and open government, something I’m sure we can agree that all citizens are in favor of.

There was a defect in the public hearing that the Wichita City Council held on December 2, 2008 regarding this matter. The defect in the public hearing is not the fault of this commission. That blame lies across the street at Wichita city hall.

The undisputed facts are that the City of Wichita added a large amount of spending to the project plan less than 24 hours before the public hearing. Besides greatly increasing the size of the project, this additional spending is of a different character. Citizens, news media, and even at least one council member were not aware of this change until it was announced at the public hearing.

Besides being disrespectful to citizens, there may very well be a legal problem with the way the City of Wichita conducted the public hearing. Kansas Statute 12-1772 requires that if a substantial change is made to the project plan, there must be another public hearing after publication of notice.

Does roughly doubling the budget of a plan qualify as a substantial change? Does adding a new type of project, one that wasn’t mentioned in the notice of the public hearing qualify as a substantial change? Yes. I believe these are substantial changes.

Wichita interim city manager Scott Moore admits there were problems with the public hearing. Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle recognizes them, too. And Randy Brown’s description of changes to the public hearing having been “sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness” accurately captures the nature of what the City of Wichita did.

But what the City of Wichita will not do is accept the consequence of its actions.

A volunteer citizen watchdog like me can’t afford to file a lawsuit against the city to force them to hold a proper public hearing. The city has nearly unlimited means to defend itself. Not lost on me is the irony that my own tax dollars would be used in a legal fight against me.

This commission has the power to stand up for good government. Please don’t consent to what’s been termed an “aggravated assault on the spirit” of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Please vote against the downtown arena TIF and ask the City of Wichita to hold a proper public hearing.

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