The Wichita Eagle reported over the weekend that Mayor Jeff Longwell, a Republican who faces a potentially competitive re-election battle next month to keep his job as head of Kansas’ largest city, steered a large and crucial city contract for a new water treatment plant to his political allies and friends.
According to the Eagle, the city’s selection committee unanimously recommended that Jacobs Engineering receive the $524 million contract to replace the current plant, which officials warn could fail at any time. However, Longwell instead convinced the City Council to award the contract to Wichita Water Partners, where two of Longwell’s friends have top positions. Officials warned that Wichita Water Partners not only has less experience with this kind of project than Jacobs Engineering, but that the firm had also sought advice from one of the companies that was blamed for the Flint, Michigan water poisoning.
The Eagle goes on to say that Longwell repeatedly proposed altering the bidding criteria for the contract to favor the company that offered the lowest bid rather than the “best value”—in other words, Wichita Water Partners—and cast the deciding vote that implemented this change. The paper adds that, by directing a taxpayer-funded project to his allies, the mayor appears to have violated city law. The law in question says that City Council members, including the mayor, “shall refrain” from “making decisions involving friends” or “using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends.”
City Council member James Clendenin tried to defend the mayor by arguing that the law was too ambiguous, asking, “What constitutes a friend? How good of a friend? An acquaintance? We’ve got to be careful not to split hairs.” Longwell himself, though, acknowledged to the Eagle earlier this month that he had been friends with two leaders of Wichita Water Partners for the last 12 years, though of course he insists that his relationships had no impact on his actions.
However, Longwell didn’t disclose these relationships; rather, the paper only discovered them by analyzing documents. Among other things, one Wichita Water Partners official paid to enter the mayor in a $1,000-per-person charity golf championship before he cast the deciding vote that helped the firm get the plant contract. Marla Flentje, who helped draft the original code of ethics for the state’s counties, told the Eagle, “There’s nothing wrong with elected officials having friends who are competing for the city’s business,” but added, “It’s the failure to disclose those relationships that we need to be concerned about because that gives rise to the perception of undue influence from private interests.”
Longwell predictably defended himself after the story broke, saying he also had close friends at Jacobs Engineering, the company that was initially recommended for the contract. He also argued that he’d chosen Wichita Water Partners because they were a local company.
Longwell’s opponent in November’s officially nonpartisan race, Democratic state Rep. Brandon Whipple, responded to the Eagle’s reporting by calling it “the latest example of the culture of corruption” that he says has flourished under Longwell’s watch. In the August primary, Longwell edged Whipple just 32-26, suggesting Democrats could flip this office. If this story gains traction, it could put Longwell in deeper jeopardy.
Want more great elections coverage like this? Sign up for our free daily newsletter, the Morning Digest.