Monthly Archives: March 2008

Amtrak, Cowtown and homelessness on Council’s agenda

City Council On Tuesday, the Wichita City Council will vote on whether to endorse a plan to end chronic homelessness, a resolution supporting the expansion of Amtrak passenger rail service through the city and a $54,000 contract to market the Old Cowtown Museum. And there’s also a contract on the agenda that would sell a city-owned downtown parking lot to Cargill Meat Solutions for $1.

Homelessness: This move wouldn’t commit the city to any spending, but it would let Interim City Manager Ed Flentje work with County Manager Bill Buchanan to develop yet more recommendations on what local governments should do to help people who are on the streets.

Amtrak: It has been 28 years since Wichita had passenger rail service, and now many are calling for an extension of existing rail lines through Wichita. That would provide train service from Fort Worth to Kansas City. This resolution wouldn’t authorize any spending, but it would formally encourage the project.

Cowtown: The museum is set to re-open May 9, and the city wants to hire and advertising firm to get the word out via a marketing campaign. The gig would go to Jajo, Inc., a Wichita company that would use e-mail, radio and other tactics to “generate buzz” and bring people into the struggling museum.

Cargill: The parking lot is located near First and Water streets downtown, which is near one of Cargill’s buildings. The company has been expanding downtown, and it is adding more and more employees.

The debate over banning plastic bags

A plastic bag Are plastic bags man’s best friend, the environment’s worst enemy or something in between? A story on National Public Radio this morning says that more and more cities are banning the bags. (Wichita is not one of them. And, at least in The Eagle’s electronic archives dating back to 1984, such a ban hasn’t been discussed by local governments.) But The Eagle’s Annie Calovich reported last year that some local stores have started selling reusable bags. Those include Food for Thought, GreenAcres and the Wichita Whole Foods stores.

Dillons also sells reusable polypropylene bags and offers a drop-off box to recycle plastic bags in all their Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri stores, said Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie. The store sells reusable bags for 99 cents (or an insulated one for $2.99), and they give a 5 cent credit each time a customer uses one. (The bags are on sale through April 16 — four for $5 for the simple bags, and two for $4 on the insulated ones.) The recycled plastic bags are turned into plastic pellets that are then used to make more plastic bags, Lowrie said. She said the bags are selling well. “Our customers are really embracing it.”

Municipal wireless largely fails nationwide – would it have here?

 

wireless-antenna.jpg Just over a week ago, the City Council voted to use grant money that would have helped fund citywide wireless Internet on a “point-to-point” system that can only be used by city employees. That effectively kills one of Mayor Carl Brewer’s campaign initiatives — at least for now. And it comes nearly a year after council members declined to accept blueprints offered by Azulstar and several other companies involved in spreading Internet access across entire cities. Now, a new article in The New York Times says that many cities that embarked on widespread wireless Internet have found themselves backing out or frustrated.

“Prices for Internet service on the broader market also began dropping to a level that, while above what many poor people could afford, was below what municipal Wi-Fi providers were offering, so the companies had to lower their rates even further, making investment in infrastructure even more risky.” — Terry Phillis, Philadelphia’s chief information officer, said in The New York Times article.

Following that trend are Azulstar’s problems in Rio Rancho, New Mexico that gave cold feet to Wichita’s council members who loved the idea of mostly-free web access. The company also had problems in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Azulstar was the company Wichita’s tech department recommended, and Azulstar provided piles of research that showed how such a system could work here. But even the city’s tech gurus approached cautiously, based on interviews that happened before the council voted.

Municipal wireless offers one of the most promoted ways to bridge the so-called digital divide that leaves some of us connected to nearly endless information and others left to find information by more traditional means. Libraries seem to be the answer for many people who lack a connection now. But what’s ahead? Did Wichita save some troubles — or miss an opportunity?

Brewer presses to end chronic homelessness and beyond

Homeless manMayor Carl Brewer made an impassioned plea to his fellow city council members in a workshop Tuesday, trying to overcome the philosophical differences on the government’s role in ending not only “chronic homelessness” but homelessness in general. That plea came after Council member Paul Gray questioned whether the city should spend any additional money on a plan that the faith-based community might be able to fund. Gray noted that The Lord’s Diner has been run for years with private donations. “If they’re willing to do it, why do we have to do it?” he asked. Council member Sue Schlapp was also skeptical, saying that people tend to donate more when government isn’t involved. “It makes me always nervous to think that if we throw taxpayer dollars in that the rest of the community then backs off,” she said.

Then Brewer tried to change some minds, and he said the city must do its best to end chronic homelessness and then move on to helping others who are a paycheck away from being on the streets. It’s something, Brewer said, that many people sitting on the council and in City Hall may not understand because they haven’t been there.

“I wish there was someway you could flip the script and put the policy makers in the shoes of the homeless person,” Brewer said, using a tone that he has used only a few key topics, such as gang violence. “If there was some way that that could ever happen, I think that people’s attitudes would change. We have never experienced the suffering that those individuals have to suffer.”

Brewer grew up poor, a fact that he has only discussed on a few occasions. And he hasn’t yet brought it up in the context of the plans to end homelessness.

The Mayor also emphasized that some of those on the streets are the people who fought for the country in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that the task force has noted as well. He said many men and women come home only to immediately lose their jobs, leaving them with one last paycheck to live on at a time when they may be struggling to re-adapt to life without explosions and death. Many of them end up homeless, he said. “War does that.”

With clear philosophical differences among council members, it remains unclear how they will vote when they’re asked to endorse the plan April 1.

Ozone, President Bush and what the city has done

Exhaust pipe, a contributor of ozoneThe Eagle reported today that Wichita will probably be teetering on the edge of not complying with the stricter new ground-level ozone rules the Environmental Protection Agency approved this week. This morning, The Washington Post is reporting that those new ozone levels would have been lower if President Bush had not intervened and pressed for higher limits.

The Post reports:

“The dispute involved one of two distinct parts of the EPA’s ozone restrictions: the “public welfare” standard, which is designed to protect against long-term harm from high ozone levels. The other part is known as the “public health” standard, which sets a legal limit on how high ozone levels can be at any one time. The two standards were set at the same level Wednesday, but until Bush asked for a change, the EPA had planned to set the “public welfare” standard at a lower level.”

That is being sharply criticized by environmental groups, and it is clear that many scientists said that lower ozone thresholds are necessary to protect not just humans, but wildlife. But it also may be viewed by some as good news for cities like Wichita that will probably be on the cusp of non-compliance when the EPA labels cities for attainment and non-attainment in 2010. Given how close Sedgwick County is to being above the new limits today, even lower limits would greatly increase the area’s chances of losing highway funding and other restrictions.

Another thing worth examining is what the city of Wichita has done. In interviews yesterday, Environmental Services Director Kay Johnson said the city has known for years that ozone levels were flirting with regulatory action. And, she said, the city has continued to ramp up its public education campaigns as well as examine how things are done in City Hall, home to hundreds of taxpayer-funded vehicles and other ozone-contributing equipment.

Among the things Johnson said the city has progressed on are:

  • Recent presentations to the Regional Economic Area Partnership about the risks the area faces.
  • Broadcast presentations about ozone and associated risks on the city’s cable Channel 7.
  • Upgraded most of the city’s bus fleet with more efficient buses. (The Eagle notes, however that the price of riding those buses recently went up.)
  • Funding of the Intelligent Transportation System, which is a network of cameras and billboards that, in several years, will line most of Kellogg and I-135 in the central Wichita area. The idea is to divert traffic around accidents and construction that would otherwise leave them idling in the road.
  • Completed most of the elevated railroad corridor, which also reduces the number of cars eating gas while trains pass.

The city put out a press release late last night. See that here.

That’s one busy City Council…

City CouncilWhile several Wichita City Council members were away in Washington D.C. requesting federal money for road, drainage and water projects (not to mention decrying the tanker contract), city officials were busy building a heavy agenda for their March 18 meeting. (Download the agenda here.)

The 482-page reader includes:

  • $320,000 more for snow and ice removal, prompted by a snowy, icy winter
  • Bigger budgets to build three new fire stations due to rising construction costs
  • Mostly minor changes to the city’s building, mechanical and inspection codes
  • Organization of the National baseball Congress, Inc., which the city now owns
  • A lease agreement at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for the National Baseball Congress
  • A public hearing for anyone to raise concerns about an 8-block tax increment financing district (C.O.R.E. Redevelopment District) generally bounded by Central, Murdock, Santa Fe and Topeka streets (At least two people have already signed up to address this proposal.)
  • A request for proposals to develop a master plan for the New Communities Initiative, a complex and controversial concept aimed at improving a large swath of central and northeast Wichita that include some of the city’s highest crime rates and most visible blight
  • New rules to govern City Council members’ conduct and procedures, which includes new ways for members to censure each other, rules discouraging leaks after private council discussions and a new procedure for filling vacancies on the council
  • The final appointments to a committee that will screen applications to fill the city manager position vacated by George Kolb

Rule seeks to stop leaks after private city council meetings

City CouncilCity Council members are considering an addition to their rules that would discourage them from leaking out information about what they discussed in private executive session meetings. Open government watchdogs are disappointed with the rule. Council members say it’s a necessary way to keep personnel information from getting out and save the city money by not driving up the price of property when the city is considering buying it. Council member Jeff Longwell said he strongly believes in transparency in government. But he said some things must remain private and that the city attorney always interjects if the private meeting discussions stray from what they may legally discuss.

The proposed policy states:

“During the course of their duties, Council members will receive confidential information or attorney-client privileged communications that for good reason may be withheld under the Kansas Open Records Act, Kansas Open Meetings Act and other laws. This will be information that is commercially sensitive or is personal to a particular individual or organization and may affect City’s legal rights and responsibilities. Council members acknowledge that failure to observe confidentiality will impede the performance of the council by inhibiting information flows and undermining public confidence in the council. The confidentiality of this information will be protected by Council members and not disclosed unless a resolution of the Council to release the information is adopted by a majority vote of the Council members.”

If someone violates the policy, the council by majority vote could either “censure” or “reprimand” that person, which is recorded in council minutes showing majority of the council believe the “leak” was improper and violated council rules. The policy seems to stem from council members telling reporters and others about some things that were said or discussed in executive session. It was most prevalent during last year’s council and mayor campaigns. Some “leaks” have come from council members who believed discussions went beyond what can legally be discussed in executive session. Other “leaks” have been to business people and lobbyists about land acquisition and business proposals.

Wichitopekington e-mailed the proposed rule to open government advocates for reaction. Here are some excerpts.

Randy Brown, a senior fellow at Wichita State University’s Elliott School of Communication and the executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, wrote: “Sure there are a few things that need sensitive private discussion. But this proposal is part of a new culture of secrecy that can only damage the democratic and further erode the public trust. The idea that the City of Wichita or any other government body can control the flow of information is a kind of governmental arrogance that’s epidemic these days.”

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, wrote: “If the council wants to increase the public’s confidence in it, then it should limit executive sessions to a bare minimum and make sure the discussions never stray from those subjects covered by the Kansas Open Meetings Act. To muzzle those courageous enough to speak out when KOMA is violated is an anti-free speech and free press stance that should not be tolerated by the citizens of Wichita.

Mike Merriam, a Topeka-based attorney who has represented the Kansas Press Association and some media outlets, wrote: “This proposed rule is rather silly. It apparently only applies to “information” received and attorney client privileged communications, so it would not prohibit revealing any other aspect of the discussion. The elected council members are the “client” for privilege purposes, and the client controls the privilege, not the attorney. A client is always free to disclose otherwise privileged communications if it so chooses. It’s only the lawyer who can’t disclose without permission. The threat of censure is meaningless. The council can say whatever it likes but it has no power to punish an elected member. If I was on the council and was censured for whistleblowing on an improper session, I’d be proud of it. Maybe issue my own censures right back.”

The Council plans to vote on this proposal along with other revisions and additions to the council’s rules at their March 18 meeting.

Kolb now teaching Flentje’s former class

KolbIn something of a switcheroo, former City Manager George Kolb is now teaching a class that used to be taught by the man who replaced Kolb — Ed Flentje. Here’s why: When Flentje stepped down as director of Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, that left a void at the school. John Wong, a WSU professor and specialist in state and local government finance, took over at Hugo Wall just weeks before the semester started. But Public Administration 825: State and Local Government Administration still needed a teacher. “Literally, there’s not a whole lot of people around that you could get to do that, especially with the short notice we had,” Wong said Thursday. So he called Kolb. “He’s basically switched places with Ed Flentje,” Wong said. It was an easy choice, Wong said. “That’s what he (Kolb) has been doing, that’s his career,” he said.

Kolb said he hasn’t taught in years — since he got out of college, in fact. He said he digs teaching again, but wants to get back into municipal management. He’s just not sure where that may be yet. “Teaching is like standing on the sidelines,” Kolb said in a brief chat with Wichitopekington. “It’s sort of like a spectator sport. You observe what’s going on, you analyze and you make judgments. If you’re in the game yourself, you have to react.”