Mayor defends Sister Cities trip to France

WICHITA — Facing criticism of City Council member Janet Miller’s planned Sister Cities trip to Paris, Mayor Carl Brewer launched a long defense, saying that such trips can draw business to the city.

Brewer’s response today comes after Bob Weeks, a local blogger who has pressed the city on the issue, called the International Sister Cities Conference a “junket” that the city should not pay for in a tough economic climate.

“Even in good budget times, I would argue these trips should be avoided,” Weeks told council members this morning.

Weeks said the city estimates the cost of the trip at $4,000, which includes airfare for Miller and Kelly Harper, a non-city employee who is president of the Wichita Area Sister Cities.

Weeks referenced the city’s call for residents to make sacrifices as the city faces a $13 million budget deficit, which is leading to layoffs and cutbacks in many departments.

Miller didn’t comment. But Brewer said the trip is an important “social and economic exchange.”

He said the trip serves two purposes: One is to seek any new businesses that may come to Wichita or conduct business here; the other is to visit one of Wichita’s sister cities, Orleans, France, which Brewer said is an hour from Paris.

Previously, that would have been two trips, Brewer said, noting that the city is trying to cut back on city council travel.

Brewer said Miller and Harper will pay for all expenses besides airfare.

The trip, Sept. 21-27, has a rigorous schedule, Brewer said.

“They don’t get to sit on the beach,” he said. “They don’t get to sip pina coladas.”

Brewer said the situation is similar to a married couple going through tough times. He said you shouldn’t get a divorce just to save money — just like the city shouldn’t decline an invitation to the Sister Cities conference just because of a tight budget.

Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said a recent trip he took to Germany with aircraft industry leaders has led to some business between Wichita and a company in Germany.

Still, Skelton acknowledged Weeks’ complaint.

“We do need to watch international travel and provide an extra level of scrutiny, especially when the city is laying people off,” he said.