Wichita mayor says ethics complaints shouldn’t be weaponized

Kathy Sexton, senior management consultant with Wichita State’s Public Policy and Management Center, has directed the Ethics Advisory Board as it reviews Wichita’s ethics policy ahead of suggested revisions.

Kathy Sexton, senior administration advisor with Wichita State’s Public Coverage and Administration Middle, has directed the Ethics Advisory Board because it evaluations Wichita’s ethics coverage forward of steered revisions.

After in depth delays, Wichita’s Ethics Advisory Board is predicted to start reviewing complaints subsequent month. The timing has at the least one official elevating questions in regards to the affect it might have on this yr’s metropolis elections.

Mayor Brandon Whipple says he desires to ensure the ethics grievance system isn’t weaponized for political functions throughout the marketing campaign.

“My concern after seeing how this has been handled the final yr is abuse,” Whipple stated throughout a Metropolis Council workshop Tuesday. Whipple is operating for re-election and is going through at the least one ethics grievance filed by a possible challenger.

After not assembly for seven months, the ethics board has convened 3 times since mid-December, when the council enlisted Wichita State’s Public Coverage and Administration Middle to guide the board in recommending revisions to make clear the coverage and to vet complaints till an ethics officer is called.

“The objective is to make it possible for this isn’t political,” Whipple stated after the workshop. “That we take this coverage critically and never use it for tit-for-tat sort stuff.”

4 complaints have been lodged with the appointed board for the reason that Metropolis Council adopted the ethics coverage in Could 2021. The coverage units present limits for elected and appointed officers for the primary time in metropolis historical past and offers the board authority to difficulty fines of as much as $1,000.

Ethics complaints filed with the board aren’t made public. The Eagle obtained one grievance final March via a Kansas Open Data Act request. In it, District 5 council member and seemingly mayoral candidate Bryan Frye accused Whipple of meddling within the hiring course of for his assistant — an accusation Whipple denies and maintains was politically motivated.

Whipple expressed concern that political actors might encourage supporters to file ethics complaints towards an opponent, inundating them with accusations they must reply to.

“That’s my concern as a result of we’ve seen that sort of maneuvering the final yr on this,” Whipple stated throughout the workshop.

Frye rebuffed the notion that his grievance towards Whipple was improper.

“I filed that grievance method earlier than I ever considered operating for the rest, so I don’t assume that has advantage,” Frye stated.

Frye registered the area title “bryanfryeformayor.com” in November 2019, information present, however he stated buying a site and submitting for workplace are “two various things, clearly.”

Frye stated “low blow vigilante-style ethics complaints” don’t have any place in metropolis elections.

“Actually it has the potential to additional harm the general public belief,” he stated. “We clearly want an setting that’s not filled with moral prices and counter-charges as a result of that finally goes to harm our neighborhood. The essential objective of this coverage and the system is that we wish an trustworthy, efficient authorities that serves our neighbors.”

The up to date metropolis ethics coverage will embody revisions that make clear who can and might’t serve on the advisory board and set up a course of for vetting complaints when the ethics officer place is vacant.

As soon as an ethics officer or interim management determines a grievance shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous, the accused particular person will likely be notified that they’ve seven enterprise days to reply to the accusation in writing. The WSU middle’s Senior Administration Advisor Kathy Sexton, who has directed the advisory board because it evaluations the ethics coverage, stated officers gained’t be overwhelmed by the quantity of complaints.

“If I get 20 [complaints] on the identical day, it doesn’t imply I’m sending all of them to you on the identical day,” Sexton stated. “We are able to stagger these as it’s. In actual fact, we most likely would simply because we now have to have time to sit down down and have a look at each and talk.”

The board can even suggest a revision to the ethics coverage that will permit officers accused of a violation to petition the ethics officer for an extra seven enterprise days to reply.

Sexton has stated she expects the board to start reviewing ethics complaints in February after they’ve been vetted with the assistance of outdoor authorized counsel.

Paid ethics officer

The town took no binding motion on its ethics coverage Tuesday. When the Ethics Advisory Board formally proposes revisions quickly, it would counsel that the ethics officer be switched from a volunteer place to a paid one.

“I believe we’ve seen that that’s a really troublesome factor to search out as a volunteer,” Frye stated of an ethics officer.

9 candidates utilized for the unpaid officer place and three suggestions had been forwarded to the council in Could. One candidate was deemed ineligible. One other moved away from Wichita and the third stated they had been solely in a paid position.

Professionalizing the ethics officer place will guarantee they’re accessible to reply ethics questions from officers and members of the general public, Whipple stated.

The ethics board is creating a brand new grievance type that requires complainants to offer their contact data and specify which a part of the ethics code they assume an official has violated.

“It’s not purported to be a gotcha,” Whipple stated. “It’s not purported to be a political weapon or a option to get headlines. It’s purported to be just about the interior checks and balances to make sure that folks aren’t profiting from their place.”

The Metropolis Council’s ethics coverage reform was adopted following a sequence of Wichita Eagle investigations into unethical habits by native elected officers.

Extra revisions

Earlier than the ethics board had acquired its first grievance, it had already began to deviate from its personal guidelines by deciding on three finalists for the ethics officer who gave the impression to be disqualified by a residency requirement and prohibitions on political affiliations.

The Metropolis Council is now poised to drop the residency requirement for the ethics officer, which is in place for all metropolis board members, and loosen its blanket ban on “lively members” of political events and nonpartisan political organizations.

The adjustments would additionally guarantee Whipple’s appointee to the board — Kelly Schodorf — is certified to serve. Schodorf, a Wichita lawyer who’s additionally municipal decide in Newton, would have been disqualified underneath the unique prohibition on public workplace holders.

A revision would permit appointed public workplace holders, resembling municipal judges in different jurisdictions, to serve on the board and prohibit solely elected public workplace holders and candidates for elected public workplace.

The ethics coverage bans “lively members of a political social gathering” from being appointed by council members to the seven-member committee, which the board will suggest clarifying to imply somebody who’s at present being paid to work for a political social gathering or a marketing campaign, or who’s serving as a precinct committee particular person.

Anybody who holds county, state or nationwide social gathering management will likely be deemed ineligible, together with anybody who’s “considerably concerned, paid or unpaid” with a marketing campaign for the present or most up-to-date metropolis election cycle. Metropolis elections are technically nonpartisan contests.

The unique language adopted by the Metropolis Council additionally bars ethics board members who take part in partisan or nonpartisan political golf equipment or organizations, which Sexton identified might embody members of teams just like the League of Ladies Voters and different grassroots organizers.

“Nonpartisan might be anyone engaged on any form of a faculty board difficulty, an election difficulty with the college coverage, a save-the-swimming-pool effort, a faculty bond difficulty — any metropolis difficulty, as a result of metropolis can be nonpartisan,” Sexton stated.

“We felt like if we simply eliminated the phrase ‘nonpartisan’ then it will get to the meat of what you had supposed beforehand with the wording of this coverage. However not eliminating from qualification of serving on this board so many good folks locally who work on nonpartisan points on a regular basis.”

All ethics board appointees can even be topic to a prison background examine as a prerequisite for his or her service. The board decided that subjecting potential members to a civil background examine could be an overreach.

“A civil background examine is actually a monetary examine,” Sexton stated. “Did you’ve a chapter? Have you ever been evicted? Do you’ve another monetary points in your historical past? The board talked about that and simply thought you recognize, private monetary points aren’t actually an excellent instrument to make use of to disqualify folks from a board that’s engaged on ethics of present elected officers.”

Frye stated he’s glad town is making progress on its ethics coverage and that the advisory board will quickly start reviewing complaints.

“It’s just a little later than I’d have favored however at the least we’ve obtained that course of going,” Frye stated.

Contributing: Likelihood Swaim of The Wichita Eagle

Associated tales from Wichita Eagle

Matthew Kelly joined The Eagle in April 2021. He covers native authorities and politics within the Wichita space. You’ll be able to contact him at 316-268-6203 and mkelly@wichitaeagle.com.

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