On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will conduct a hearing for review of the award of a contract for the construction of the new Wichita Airport terminal. But because of relationships between nearly all council members — especially Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — and one of the parties to the dispute, the city council should not participate in this decision.
The contract, worth about $100 million, was awarded to Dondlinger and Sons and its partner. Dondlinger has built many large projects, including INTRUST Bank Arena. But the city then ruled that Dondliger’s bid is “unresponsive.” The reason is that Dondlinger may not have met bid requirements regarding disadvantaged and minority business enterprises.
The firm next in line to receive the contract is Key Construction of Wichita. If the city council finds against Dondllinger, Key gets the contract, presumably. That’s the source of the problem the city council faces, as Key is heavily involved in politics, with its executives and their spouses often making the maximum allowed campaign contributions to nearly all members of the council. Personal relationships may play a role, too.
For the mayor and current council members, here is my tabulation of how much Key-associated persons made to each member’s most recent campaign:
Carl Brewer: $4,500
Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita): $4,000
Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita): $3,000
Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita): $2,500
Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita): $1,500
James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita): $1,000
Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): $0
Is there a pattern to these contributions? That is, does Key make contributions to candidates with a specific political philosophy, such as conservatism or liberalism? Of the top three contributors, two have distinctly liberal ideas about taxation and spending, while the other is touting conservative credentials as he campaigns for another office. Patterns like this suggest that the contributions are made to gain access to officeholders, or for favorable consideration when the donor asks the council to vote to give it money or contracts. Key Construction does that a lot.
The political influence of Key Construction extends beyond campaign contributions, too. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.
These political investments have paid off for Key Construction, as it has received a number of no-bid contracts over the years. Last August the council decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted for the no-bid contract to Key Construction, although Mayor Carl Brewer was absent. It is likely that he would have voted with the majority, however.
Later the city decided to place the contract for bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price some $1.3 million less.
What citizens need to know is that the city council, except O’Donnell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million on a project awarded to a politically-connected construction firm.
So should the Wichita City Council make the decision on the airport contract? City documents don’t indicate whether Tuesday’s hearing is of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council is being asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.
That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.'”
Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”
The mayor and council members are not judges. But they’re being asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction need to recuse themselves from Tuesday’s decision on the Wichita Airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.
Finally, this episode is another example of why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.