At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, I asked a question about council member Janet Miller and her travel and got a bigger response — from the mayor, the Wichita Eagle and other news media, and the public — than I expected. Some issues are still unresolved, however.
First, I was surprised that this matter was reported on so prominently by the Wichita Eagle, as it turned into a front page story. It involves, as I noted in my testimony to the Wichita City Council, a relatively small amount of money. Furthermore, it wasn’t the most important matter I testified about that day. The secrecy surrounding the downtown redevelopment proposals is, I believe, a more important issue, as are things like TIF districts, special assessment financing, and other issues I’ve brought up before the council.
But those matters are more difficult to comprehend. Junkets are easy to understand.
Second: the behavior of council member Miller is an issue that citizens need to know about. The approval of this travel appeared on the August 18 city council agenda. I wrote to Miller on August 15, asking for the cost of the trip. Over the next several weeks, I left several telephone messages and sent at least one other email message. It was Van Williams, the city’s public information office, who promptly responded to my requests and supplied me with the figures.
Miller didn’t respond to my inquiries until I received an email message at 8:11 the morning of the council meeting. And you know what? There are some mitigating factors, such as the host organizations providing many meals and covering other expenses.
So why didn’t Miller respond to my requests earlier? I don’t live in her district, so maybe that’s a reason why. I endorsed her opponent earlier this year, so maybe that’s why.
A more cynical explanation that has been suggested to me is this: She wanted me to make my case in public, and then let Mayor Carl Brewer tell me all the ways I’m wrong — using information that I asked for, but was not given (at least not until right before the meeting). This strategy — if in fact it was used here — has been used against myself and other activists by a variety of governmental bodies.
Another observation is the bizarre analogy the mayor used, that one doesn’t get a divorce to save money just because a marriage is having trouble. Besides not making sense on any level, the mayor made these remarks as he was sitting next to Vice-Mayor Jim Skelton, who is in the process of divorce. As the mayor spoke about this, Skelton expressed astonishment. Eventually the mayor looked at Skelton and smiled. I made a motion towards my microphone, wanting to ask why he was looking at the vice-mayor. But as the mayor reminded me, he had given me my time to speak, and I could not speak again.
(I might remind the mayor that he is not a benevolent dictator who “gives” time to citizens to speak. City statute does that. He doesn’t have a choice or say in the matter.)
There are still some questions to be asked:
First, why is the city paying some expenses for Kelly Harper, president of the Wichita Sister Cities? The mayor forgot to address this.
Second, why isn’t the mayor — instead of Miller — attending the International Cities Conference?
Third: The mayor said that these conferences are important for the city’s economic development. If so, why are we sending the most junior council member, in office for just five months, on such an allegedly important mission?
Finally, the most important question I asked was not addressed at all by the mayor: why can’t citizens see the downtown redevelopment proposals? Vice-Mayor Skelton intervened on my behalf, but was not successful.
(In the video below, I didn’t include Vice-Mayor Skelton’s brief remarks due to YouTube’s ten minute length limitation.)
Loved the Mayor’s mention that Miller would not be drinking pina coladas in Paris.
No they will do that when they go on another sister city junket in Mexico.
Wine will be served in Paris!
As an aside, The Eagle has sought the downtown revitalization proposals. We were given the denial letter that they addressed to you. I agree those documents, investigations into TIFs, specials and other taxpayer-backed incentives are more important — though more complex. In recent weeks/months/years, we have dedicated far more time, effort, ink and prominence to those issues.
Talking down to Mr. Week’s as the Mayor did is not right. He did not admit wrong only that it was necessary so possible economic benefit could result. A “good old boy or girl” mentality that says if there’s a meeting we need to get out there and listen and build those ecomonically necessary relationships. I do not appreciate the “I know better because I sit in this seat and have the experience” tone of the Mayor. Debate would be healthy so that questions of the Mayor’s assertions could be brought to bear. That’s my two cents worth.
The downtown development issue will cost this community’s taxpayers more than all of the cost of sending the ENTIRE CITY COUNCIL AND STAFF to France, Mexico, China,….wherever for the entire next decade. The city’s spending for the junketeers is chump change compared to the looming “redevelopment” boondoggles. Hundreds of millions have already been spent for downtown “redevelopment” and what do we have to show for it? In contrast, look at the “benign neglect” the city has had on the thriving east and west sides of town where projects at Maize and Webb roads have prospered despite heavy property taxes.
Over 20 years ago the current downtown developer of the languishing East Bank project Jack DeBoer provided his vision for revitalizing downtown. There was a lot of public discussion about DeBoer’s proposal including front page Wichita Eagle articles at that time. No one in the local news media wants to talk about this now apparently.
Ironically enough, at that time, DeBoer’s plan did not include the struggling East Bank project that he is currently involved in. DeBoer’s vision of downtown projects were largely implemented by taxpayers over time.
The largest and most expensive of these projects will be the Intrust Arena with its $200+ million price tag. The only one that has been partially rejected was turning the “Keeper of the Plains” into a 500 foot community version of a Seattle “Sky Needle” that one might argue was at least partially implemented when this statue was placed on a much higher pedestal at a more prominent point where the two rivers meet at high cost to city taxpayers.
Lesser downtown projects that were part of DeBoer’s plan, that were a lot less expensive than the new arena, were completed years ago. This public infrastructure is now in place at a very expensive cost to taxpayers of the past few decades. Another example, Exploration Place still has years before its mortgage will be paid off I believe.
Where has been the return for this community? It is invisible to this taxpayer. Look at the downtown taxing district takes in about the same level of property tax revenues as it has always received. It is clear that there is no private sector growth downtown. So tax revenues are stagnant. This publicly funded but privately selected downtown board operates with almost no media oversight. There is some taxpayer subsidized remodeling going on but outside of that, I can only think of the Garvey Center where significant private funds are being spent on a partial remodel of their downtown property.
The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Since the downtown development plans are NOT being made public it looks like we’ll soon have another, 21st century version of the 1980s DeBoer plan that the taxpayers in our community will be expected to fund. In Washington, nothing fails like excess (see GSE’s Fannie & Freddie) and in Wichita we are trying to follow in our federal masters’ footsteps. Since local govt. can’t print money like the political fools in DC can with the Federal Reserve, the fiscal chickens will come home to roost a lot more quickly here. Mr. Weeks is right in trying to see the details of these proposals. If we did, the price tag would probably take our collective breaths away. The downtown development folks who want to be the 21st century reincarnation of Mr. DeBoer are just as right in wanting to keep this information hidden.
Thank you, Brent. In the short time that I’ve been working on issues like these, I’ve come to realize and appreciate the difficulty of the job that you and others have at the Wichita Eagle and other media outlets.
I can understand Miller’s interest in providing a carefully accurate answer to Bob’s/your request. You publish responses and deliberately suggest an alternative motivation than stated. You are not restricted to journalist’s ethics like the Eagle. As a blogger you can make wild unfounded criticisms and a public figure has to accept that some will find truth in them when none exist. A responder must also evaluate how you will use the response to suggest some other motive.
The real story is that you are respected. That your courtesy in delivering your criticisms has helped provide a legitimacy to them. The Mayor, Council and the Eagle recognize the impact your statements are having on our citizens.
Sister Cities International is not having a meeting in Paris, France during September 21-27. The Loire Festival is an annual nautical festival that brings boats from all over Europe to the Loire River in Orleans, France. Councilwoman Miller is neither being invited by the Mayor of Orleans or our sister city. Mr. Wistrom should call SCI and the City of Orleans (they do speak English there) and verify the trip, itinerary, and invitation. I did and it does not exist.
Bob, Based upon Ruben’s comments can you find out what is going on and why Miller and Harper are going? Who invited them or who’s idea was this?