Wichita should consider discarding the water plant contract in order to salvage its reputation and respect for process.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider approving a contract with Wichita Water Partners to build a new water treatment plant. It’s a controversial matter that likely played a significant role in the recent mayoral election. Wichita Eagle reporting by Chance Swaim in the story Wichita’s mayor steered multi-million-dollar water plant contract to friends traces through the issues.
The most important thing is that the city receives a reliable water plant that meets its needs. Currently, the city operates a plant that is the only source of water. It’s described as having outlived its useful life. At any moment over the next several years, the city might have to spend millions to repair a plant it will retire soon.
It’s also important that the city does not reward the corruption — petty or not — surrounding the awarding of this contract. Mayor Longwell was defeated in his bid for reelection, and that sends a message. But the other corrupt party is being rewarded, as it seems likely the city council will approve the contract with Wichita Water Partners. Its principals sought to influence the mayor by wining and dining. (Literally, they offered to deliver leftover wine to the mayor.) They flattered the mayor with honorifics like Mayor Miracle, Your Eminence, His Highness, Homecoming Queen, Eye Candy, Jethro, and Wine Delivery Guy.
Besides this, Wichita Water Partners was not honest with the city. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “Rod Young, president of the engineering firm PEC, and Roger McClellan, president of the construction company Wildcat, both acknowledged to The Eagle their relationships with the mayor. They did not disclose those relationships to the city on a form asking about potential conflicts of interest in the water project.” (emphasis added) PEC and Wildcat are part of Wichita Water Partners.
But the coddling of Longwell worked. After paying the mayor’s $1,000 fee to enter a charity golf tournament, Longwell told them, “I’m going to be super nice to you for a long time.” Longwell switched the basis of awarding the contract, proposing a “design competition.” But only one firm entered the competition, Wichita Water Partners. Jacobs, one of the largest engineering firms, was originally and unanimously preferred by the city’s selection committee. But the company decided not to enter the design competition. The result was only one company participating in the mayor’s “contest.”
There are important considerations going forward, especially as the city considers spending one billion dollars or more on new projects like a convention center, performing arts center, and other downtown projects:
- The selection committee had significant concerns regarding Wichita Water Partners and its proposal. Since the city overrode the committee’s strong recommendation, will the recommendation of other similar committees be taken seriously? Will other committees feel their job is important? What about citizen advisory boards?
One of the nation’s largest and most respected engineering firms declined to participate in the mayor’s “design contest.” Will the city be able to attract bids from other reputable firms given the way the water plant contract process was changed? Will future bidders fear that the city’s bid process will be changed just before the contract is awarded, after bidders have spent time and money preparing their bids?
While Mayor Longwell will be leaving office soon, other city officials who enabled the process — elected and others — are still in place.
This is not the way to do business, even though the government is not a business. As the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Longwell steered the council away from its earlier decision on how to award the water plant contract — away from competitive bidding and toward shadier ways of doing business — and that is unacceptable.”
While Longwell was defeated in an election, the other party to the “shadier ways of doing business” won. That’s bad for the city right now, and bad for the city looking forward.
Should the city discard the Wichita Water Partners contract this week, as is its right? Undoubtedly, starting the bid process again would add cost and cause further delay. And, given the city’s conduct, would a new bid process attract quality proposals?
Canceling the contract and starting over is worth deliberation and consideration. Our city’s reputation and respect for process are more important than any single contract, even its largest.