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Paper: Wichita mayor steered water plant contract to friends

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell steered the city’s nearly $524 million contract for a new water plant away from a nationally known design team and toward his political supporters and friends, a local newspaper has reported.

A city selection committee unanimously recommended that the contract to replace the city’s 80-year-old water plant go to Jacobs Engineering, a national design firm that specializes in water-treatment plants.

Instead, Longwell urged the City Council to first change the terms for the bid for the contract and then recommended awarding it to Wichita Water Partners, despite city staff employees’ warnings that the group had far less experience in water-plant design than Jacobs, according to thousands of pages of documents reviewed by The Wichita Eagle.

Wichita Water Partners is composed of several local companies, and Longwell, a Republican seeking re-election in November, acknowledged he is friendship with the presidents of two of those companies. But he said those friendships and the meetings he had with the men during contract negotiations hadn’t affected his decisions on the water plant.

He said his recommendation was made after considering both the contract’s price and which company had promised to provide the most local jobs at the lowest price. He called it “irresponsible reporting to paint this picture of favoritism.”

“And after 25 years (in public service in Wichita), you develop roots in this community,” he said. “I’ve grown up here. When you spend this much time in one community, you’re going to have deep roots. You’re going to form friendships.”

The Eagle paid $1,092 for thousands of pages of public records, including Longwell’s work calendar and communications between staff and contractors involved in the water plant. It also interviewed dozens of people, including current and former city officials, other local government officials, industry experts and contractors.

The information suggested that between the time the water project went out for bid and an initial contract was signed, Longwell had met with members of the Wichita Water Partners’ team at least eight times and corresponded with them through email, including twice sending information about the project to them. He had a meeting at a private golf course with his two friends from Water Partners the week before the proposals were due, according to Longwell’s work calendar.

Other information showed that Longwell and a city engineer went on a golf trip to Oklahoma with a Water Works contractor, and that the president of one of the Water Partners’ companies paid for Longwell to enter a $1,000-per-person charity golf tournament.

A city law says council members “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.”

Some council members defended the mayor, saying the law is ambiguous about what constitutes a friend. They also said Longwell didn’t have the clout to make final decisions about the water-plant contract.

“Yeah, this idea that the mayor of the city of Wichita has enough power to make any decision he would like is something that I think is a misconception,” said Republican City Council member James Clendenin said.

Marla Flentje, a former director of education for the Kansas Association of Counties who helped draft the state’s first code of ethics for Kansas counties, said it “is not even a close call” whether Longwell violated the city law.

“There’s nothing wrong with elected officials having friends who are competing for the city’s business,” she said. “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.”

The city is faced with a tight deadline for the project. The application for a federal loan that would pay for as much as 49% of the project is due at the end of October. Without the loan, the project would have to be put on hold for another seven years. City staff has said the water plant is in danger of failing at any time.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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