Monday, December 10, 2007

2008: A year of change ahead

Wichitans got a new mayor and two new city council members this year. In 2008, the city will pick up a new city manager, and it also will see the next steps in the changing face of downtown. (Not to mention a presidential campaign, the start of council campaigns in Districts 1, 3 and 6 and a new legislative session.)

Already, from Kellogg one can see three cranes in the sky -- something Mayor Carl Brewer has often noted as a sign of progress in other cities. One crane is helping turn a once vacant field into the WaterWalk after what seemed to be an eternity to many of the projects' critics. The other two are beginning the first phases of construction on a downtown arena. These things are almost certain to face continued criticism from people who have questioned government's involvement in them from the start. But the construction also will give people a chance to see the reality of what millions and millions of their tax dollars can do. We will be watching the price tags of these projects as well as the plans to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods.

We haven't posted here on The Hall Monitor in more than a month. But 2008 will bring a change in that, too. The blog is being redesigned, and, once it is complete sometime in early 2008, we will be back with regular posts that we hope will offer stories that aren't in The Eagle (or anywhere else) and expand your understanding of what's happening in Wichita, Sedgwick County, Kansas and beyond.

Until then, here's to safe and happy holidays and a strong new year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Flight Festival running a deficit with the wind at its back

This year's Flight Festival at Jabara Airport lost $160,000, but city council members saw silver lining in the red ink -- the festival lost $30,000 less than it did in 2006. And with that they gave the informal go-ahead for the city to sign a new contract for next year's air show with Wichita Festivals Inc., which organized the event the past two years. The council will vote on the new contract in the next month or two.

Janet Wright, executive director of Wichita Festivals Inc., told the city council last week that rain, a late start recruiting sponsors and big spending on a musical act probably all contributed to the financial loss. Only 1,300 people attended the festival on Friday, when the Commodores played under rainy skies. Saturday and Sunday showed a recovery with a combined 7,800 in attendance, but it was not enough for the festival to make money. Wright said that if promoters can get a quicker start recruiting corporate sponsors that want to get their name out there, the event will not lose as much money. Wright also said she'll consider reducing the music budget significantly, even if it means they get something a little less marketable than the Commodores. Wright also plans to send in applications to the Department of Defense to see if Wichita can score the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels or other military planes that might help attract a larger crowd.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The long saga of writing your own rules

More than a year after the city council began reviewing and rewriting the rules that govern its meetings, the tires are still spinning.

No one is quite sure how to deal with the public comment portion of the meetings, which devote up to 25 minutes (five minutes per person) to anyone who signs up two weeks ahead of time to address the council on their topic of choice. ("Choice" is relative here. The council doesn't allow people to talk about pending lawsuits.) The council, which has frequently brought up off-agenda items (meaning topics it didn't include on the public agenda), is considering barring folks from straying from their stated topic and from allowing a substitute speaker. That means if John Doe wants to talk to the council during the meeting and gets sick, his wife, brother or son couldn't take his place and deliver the public message. People only can comment once every four meetings, so the wait for a second chance can be a month or longer.

This all stems from a showdown last year when African-American community leaders, including prominent pastors and a state senator, addressed the city council in support of Sarah's Ice Cream and Bakery, a minority-owned business facing contract difficulties at the city-owned Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. One speaker was listed, but several people lined up in his place. Several council members criticized then-Mayor Carlos Mayans for not taking control of the situation.

"It turned into a real dog and pony show," council member Sue Schlapp said this week during a council workshop.

The council hasn't made any moves yet, instead appointing members Jeff Longwell and Jim Skelton to look into it and make recommendations. What is clear is that the public comments are likely to change.

"Unfortunately, there are some who want to take advantage of it," City Manager George Kolb said.

Monday, September 17, 2007

First-class flight is near ethical violation

When City Manager George Kolb and Mayor Carl Brewer accepted first-class seats on a flight to Jacksonville last week, they came close to breaking the city's own ethics policy. But the upgrades, which Brewer and Kolb insist they didn't ask for, don't have enough monetary value ($40 per upgrade) to break the rule, City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said. What's more, Rebenstorf said, is that to be a "gift," they would have had to shown some sign of acceptance. Because they didn't know about the upgrade until just before boarding, there was no acceptance, he said.

Rebenstorf said that although the city has paid AirTran to keep airfares low, the upgrades weren't a conflict of interest either.

The city's policy on gifts reads: "An occasional non-monetary gift of nominal value shall not be considered a gift, such as food at a reception generally open to employees or the public, so long as such a gift does not present any conflict of interest in fact or appearance. For purposes of this section "nominal value" shall mean having a value not exceeding $100 on any occasion, or from one person or entity in the aggregate during a consecutive 12 month period."

Brewer criticized The Eagle in a letter to the editor Saturday for printing a story about City Manager George Kolb and Brewer getting first-class seats in their flight to Jacksonville, Fla. He called the column by Carrie Rengers a "a lapse in basic journalistic standards."

Wrote Brewer: "Rengers seemed reluctant to emphasize that neither City Manager George Kolb nor I requested or expected preferential treatment. AirTran Airways officials, unbeknownst to us, assigned the business-class seating. It seemed neither prudent nor practical to interfere with the airline's seating decisions."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Several states make it tougher for illegal immigrants to get licenses

Last Sunday, The Eagle reported on new state laws that make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.

For a look at what other states are doing, check out this new piece that explores a "handful of states that issue licenses to illegal immigrants are stepping up efforts to combat fraud and identity theft. That means stricter rules for ensuring immigrants live in-state and are who they say they are."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

See Sedgwick County's 50 most hazardous railroad crossings

Some of the railroad crossings with the most potential for train-vehicle collisions will probably go years without an significant changes. But city council member Jim Skelton has been turning up the volume of the debate.

Known for his vocal persistence on specific projects in southeast Wichita, Skelton is pressing local, state and federal officials to elevate the tracks over Pawnee Avenue where about 38 Burlington Northern-Santa Fe trains pass each day. The intersection has flashing lights and gates, but it has the highest hazard index rating in Sedgwick County because of the volume of trains and the 20,536 vehicles that pass over the tracks on average each day. It's unclear when, if ever, a multi-million dollar project will be started to raise the tracks. But when the city council approved its 10-year spending plan earlier this month, it appeased Skelton by pulling plans for a crossing improvement for a Union Pacific crossing at Pawnee and replacing it with a generalized placeholder -- that means the dollars won't be dedicated to a specific project and leaves the door open to shift money to the BNSF crossing.

Meanwhile, the first phase of the elevated central rail corridor going through downtown will be completed sometime in September. Then the next phase will begin. When it's done, the city estimates it will reduce the area's overall hazard index by 12.5 percent.

Follow the "read more" link to see the area's 50 most hazardous crossings.

Here are the 50 crossings with the greatest potential for collisions, according to the Wichita Area Planning Organization's analysis:

The list shows the street intersection, surface type (C&R=concrete and rubber), average vehicles per day, average trains per day, warning device (Xbucks=crossbuck signs; FL=flashing lights; FL/G=flashing lights and gates), hazard weight (based on warning device) and hazard index (combination of traffic counts, train counts, crossing type and warning device).

Pawnee Avenue C&R 20,536 38 FL/G 0.1 78037
47th Street C&R 18,090 38 FL/G 0.1 68742
13th Street C&R 14,898 38 FL/G 0.1 56612
Murdock Street C&R 13,440 38 FL/G 0.1 51072
Central Street Concrete 13,371 38 FL/G 0.1 50810
Macarthur Road Rubber 13,143 38 FL/G 0.1 49943
21st Street C&R 12,912 38 FL/G 0.1 49066
31st Street C&R 1,287 38 Xbucks 1.0 48906
Harry Street C&R 11,931 38 FL/G 0.1 45338
63rd Street C&R 10,905 38 FL/G 0.1 41439
K‐15 Highway Rubber 31,407 2 FL 0.6 37688
K‐15 Highway Rubber 29,319 2 FL 0.6 35183
Lincoln Avenue C&R 8,372 38 FL/G 0.1 31814
29th Street C&R 7,744 38 FL/G 0.1 29427
53rd Street C&R 7,583 38 FL/G 0.1 28815
Mt. Vernon Street C&R 7,108 38 FL/G 0.1 27010
Hydraulic Avenue C&R 7,065 38 FL/G 0.1 26847
21st Street C&R 13,393 20 FL/G 0.1 26786
77th Street C&R 6,762 38 FL/G 0.1 25696
37th Street Rubber 6,424 38 FL/G 0.1 24411
Washington Street C&R 5,782 38 FL/G 0.1 21972
Market Street C&R 5,219 38 FL/G 0.1 19832
Wassall Road C&R 4,933 38 FL/G 0.1 18745
Seneca Street Rubber 15,383 2 FL 0.6 18460
17th Street C&R 4,639 38 FL/G 0.1 17628
21st Street Concrete 12,983 13 FL/G 0.1 16878
Pawnee Avenue C&R 22,964 7 FL/G 0.1 16075
13th Street North Concrete 15,343 10 FL/G 0.1 15343
K‐53 Highway C&R 5,126 29 FL/G 0.1 14865
17th Street Asphalt 4,515 3 Xbucks 1.0 13545
Douglas Street C&R 10,714 2 FL 0.6 12857
Murdock Street Concrete 12,577 10 FL/G 0.1 12577
95th Street East C&R 2,215 52 FL/G 0.1 11518
Main Street C&R 3,000 38 FL/G 0.1 11400
29th Street Concrete 10,851 1 Xbucks 1.0 10851
Macarthur Road C&R 14,259 7 FL/G 0.1 9981
47th Street C&R 13,824 7 FL/G 0.1 9677
1st Street Concrete 2,520 38 FL/G 0.1 9576
Meridian Avenue C&R 7,487 2 FL 0.6 8984
Maple Street Rubber 7,446 2 FL 0.6 8935
61st Street C&R 2,187 38 FL/G 0.1 8311
71st Street Timber 2,135 38 FL/G 0.1 8113
190th Street C&R 1,540 52 FL/G 0.1 8008
55th Street Timber 348 38 FL 0.6 7934
Harry Street Concrete 10,435 7 FL/G 0.1 7305
Clifton Avenue C&R 1,871 38 FL/G 0.1 7110
Maize Road Asphalt 5,335 2 FL 0.6 6402
Meridian Avenue C&R 1,680 38 FL/G 0.1 6384
5th Street C&R 1,648 38 FL/G 0.1 6262
Woodlawn Blvd C&R 10,299 1 FL 0.6 6179

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The city is sending more dollars to disadvantaged businesses

It has been four years since a local waste hauler secretly recorded the city's administrative services director alleging that high-ranking city officials discriminated against minority business owners. The tape aired on KAKE, and what unraveled was an audit and, eventually, a program aimed at making it easier for minority and disadvantaged businesses to win the often lucrative contracts let by the city. That mostly involved certifying new businesses and offering training classes on how to make successful bids on contracts.

Now the city is spending millions more on contracts with minority businesses, a new report out of City Hall shows. (Click on the graph above to see more detail.) Minority owned businesses received about 17 percent of all the city's contract dollars in 2005. In 2006, 19 percent of the contracts went to those businesses. City council members applauded the increases in their meeting Tuesday. And some voiced support to continue the diversity task force -- perhaps indefinitely. "I think there should be a longstanding committee," Council member Lavonta Williams said. Mayor Carl Brewer also indicated he wants the groups work to continue.

An extension of their work is expected to come up for a vote in coming weeks.