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.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A boost for public safety and infastructure?

With 17 vacancies in the police department and no plans for another police academy until January, some city council members are considering pumping more money into public safety in a last minute effort before next Tuesday's 2008 budget vote. And they're also considering more money for street maintenance (which is $900,000 shy of what it was last year) and they even batted around the idea of cameras in police cars.

City Manager George Kolb said his thinking behind keeping the police positions open is that the money that would have gone to salaries can go to planned savings. And, he notes, the department doesn't usually start its academies until there are 25 to 30 vacancies anyway -- this year they've had less turnover than expected. But with a huge upswing in murders this year and what the chief describes as a "gutted" larceny division, council members are pressing Kolb to hire police. After Kolb explained the planned savings, Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey said: "I don't think that's what our citizens want to hear." Council member Sue Schlapp said: "It seems to me the number one priority is the police." And Mayor Carl Brewer said: "I think we need to look at this before Tuesday."

On the street maintenance side, Council member Jim Skelton said he's afraid that a $900,000 cut could put the city on track to have to spend huge amounts to fix ailing streets because, like most maintenance issues, deterioration accelerates. The cut in funding is exasperated by big hikes to the price of materials used to build roads. But, as Public Works Director Chris Carrier pointed out, the cut simply brings street maintenance back to 2006 funding levels. That extra $900,000 was just a nice boost the city approved and hoped to maintain. But, he said, it didn't work out that way.

As for the cameras in police cars (a big issue last year), it's unlikely to happen quickly, especially after the council's inconclusive discussion. The plan is to ask companies to submit bids to supply the city with more cars and include a price tag for equipping at least the traffic division cars with cameras. If the price is right, Kolb said the city would start using them. But, Chief Norman Williams noted, there's a price to maintain the cameras and the video too. He said police used to have cameras in the early 1990s after getting a federal grant, but there was no money to maintain them and they fell to the wayside.

"I think this is important" Fearey said in their workshop Tuesday. "Other cities have this. I have had to be on the other end where I think that I've got citizens' calls that are telling me some kinda big horror stories about police action and, you know, there's no way to know (what exactly happened)." Schlapp said she thinks that the videos could exonerate police in many cases. But Chief Williams, who said cameras weren't even in the top 10 police department priorities, returned to the bottom line argument.

"Cameras are fine if you have ample funds to fund them," he said. And, he noted twice during his discussion that all five of his priorities didn't make the budget this year. That's because the city council wanted to focus on improving fire service, Kolb said. And that has been done -- with three new stations and more than 30 new firefighters expected to be hired.

(Meanwhile, on a fire department note, the city this week will interview finalists to replace the retiring Chief Larry Garcia. The city declined to release candidates' names.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The report that wasn't

A story in today's Eagle highlights how much of a gamble it is to vote on gambling. For example, no one knows what type of casino might be built or where it would be. Developers assure us that it will be cool, but, there's not much to guarantee that other than the state's requirement that developers propose at least a $225 million facility. The experts say voters can't expect specific plans since they're expensive to develop for businessmen who don't even know if voters will approve.

That leaves voters to trust in their local governments to support plans that would be good for the area. But the criteria that Wichita and Sedgwick County officials have developed after months of weekly meetings will remain yet another unknown. More than a dozen people involved have promised not to share the report, which, according to a half dozen sources, includes criteria to use when considering casino proposals. It also has a matrix and checklists to apply to would-be casino developments. This, so far as The Hall Monitor can find, is probably the best indicator for what might type of casino the local governments might lobby for. Sources in several local governments say this document probably won't have any headline news in it. But, they say, it does spell out a process for examining developers' ideas and what may be best for the area -- something voters will probably only hear about after the ballots are counted (if at all).

Friday, July 20, 2007

Quiet agenda -- budget looming -- management expenses

Next week's city council meeting is filled with routine stuff that probably won't spark much discussion. But, there is an opening for talk on the 2008-2009 budget, which could be interesting if someone throws out a new idea or flags a flaw.

Also, we note in this week's agenda a simple record that the city has been transparent about for some time -- managment expense records. This month's is pretty routine. Just check the agenda each month if you'd like to see updates. Here's the report:

City Manager George Kolb, ICMA Strategic Planning Committee Meeting, Richmond, Texas $690.01

Kelly Carpenter, Director of Finance 2007 ICSC Spring Convention, Las Vegas Nev., $1,113.62

Law Joe Allen Lang, First Attorney Litigation, Wilmington, Del. $939.76

Jim Norris, Director of IT IS Broadband Wireless World @ Interop, Las Vegas, Nev. $1,523.32

Larry Garcia, Fire Chief, 2007 Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference, Los Angeles, Cali. $1,909.72

Cynthia Berner-Harris, Director of Libraries Strategic Planning for the Library Services & Technology Act, Topeka $124.90

Nancy Harvieux, Transporation Manager Partnerships For Transportation Conference, Kansas City $430.65

Total $6,731.98

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Check out the new fire stations

About a year ago, people from Jim Skelton's southeast Wichita district walked a picket line along Main Street in front of City Hall asking the city to build a fire station in South City. It couldn't happen soon enough for Skelton. But it will happen sometime around the end of 2008, fire officials say. Above are conceptual designs of all three fire stations that the city council approved. (Just click on the images for a larger view.) The first is Station 20, which will be built in far east Wichita. Station 21 will follow in west Wichita. And, finally, Station 22. Land hasn't yet been acquired for Station 22, but Assistant Fire Chief Mike Rudd said the city is working on that. The new stations will have separate dorm-style rooms instead of the more open rooms that firefighters sleep in at other stations. The two-bed rooms are intended to give firefighters more privacy and help attract more women to the profession. The large rooms next to the fire truck bays on Stations 20 and 21 are there to house alternative communications centers if something disables dispatch and communications downtown. Local community groups could also have meetings there.

We'll update you with new station addresses and a precise timeline soon.

(If you're curious where other city fire stations are, click here.)
(If you're interested in becoming one of the 31 new firefighters the city plans to hire, click here.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

City council will call bowling congress, examine Exchange Place plans and talk budget

Real Development's plan to turn several downtown buildings into high-dollar condos is about to get one of the last go-ahead signals it needs before developers can start building. The city council votes Tuesday whether to accept the project plan.

Under the proposal, the city would buy three downtown buildings, turn them over to Real Development and build a public parking garage with 150 monthly and hourly spaces. Altogether, that would cost $6 million in property tax money that would otherwise be split among the city, county and school district. The structures included are the Exchange Place Building, Michigan Building, Lerner's Building and a parking lot near Douglas and Market. The city would buy them for $2.25 million and give them to Real Development (AKA The Minnesota Guys), which would convert them into condos that would sell for an average of $200,000. Under the proposed agreement, Real Development would have to cover any costs that the TIF doesn't generate. That is supposed to protect the city's coffers if the project falls short.
(Check out the council agenda for more on the Exchange Place project and other city business.)

And, at some point Tuesday, Mayor Carl Brewer and Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey will have a teleconference with representatives of the United States Bowling Congress, which decided to back out of their plans to have a huge tournament at Century II in 2011. The bowlers have set some ground rules about what topics they'll discuss during the conversation, so it's unclear how much information might come out of it.

Following the council meeting, there will be a discussion about the 2008-2009 budget. There are other public meetings on the budget as well.

July 16 – Evening presentation to all six district advisory boards, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the council chamber (televised live on the city’s cable Channel 7).
July 17 - Public comment at council meeting. A workshop will follow.
July 24 - Set total dollars levied and take public comment at council meeting. A workshop will follow.
Aug. 7 – Public comment at council meeting. A workshop will follow.
Aug. 14 - Official public hearing and adoption of the of the 2008 budget at the council meeting.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Old Town partiers have been holding it (or watering the shrubs)

The public restrooms in Old Town have been open for about a month, but, for at least a couple weeks, some bar hoppers have had to hold it -- or find an alternate restroom (which is often an alley or some landscaping). That's because there's been a glitch in the automatic locks that were set up to close the new public restrooms down at 2 a.m. (bar closing time) on Friday and Saturdays and at midnight Sunday to Thursday.

Dale Goter, the city's lobbyist and fill-in spokesman, assures us the restroom locks are being fixed and will soon have a telephone connection to City Hall so that security officers can lock and unlock the doors as needed.

(See The Hall Monitor's first potty post here.)

Thursday, July 5, 2007

On the cyber trail, Brownback campaigns, bloggers spoof

In the online world, where Sen. Sam Brownback (or his campaign) has set up a MySpace page and a robust, blog-filled homepage, the Kansan is taking some apparently comedic hits for his socially conservative views.

Consider this story today in The Denver Post:

"... And if you peruse some of the blogs supposedly authored by his supporters, such as baptistsforbrownback(, you'll see that he believes in lots of other things too. Like that the Earth is flat - and does not revolve around the sun. And that rape should be referred to as an "unplanned sexual event" in order to "eliminate the excuses given by many women" for getting an abortion." The Post also lists as one of the parody sites.

Later in The Post's story, Brigham Young University political scientist Richard Davis says: "Sites like these don't sway undecided voters or push away (Brownback's) supporters. I think the biggest effect is that it's embarrassing for the candidate."

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

New York Times' Frugal Traveler visits Greensburg

"Some people find Kansas boring, flat and featureless," says The New York Times' Frugal Traveler (Matt Gross), who is traveling the country in a 1989 Volvo station wagon. "But not me. I love how oil derricks dot the cornfields and how sometimes out of nowhere you'll drive into something truly shocking. This is Greensburg. Or rather, this was Greensburg..."

That comes from a Times video taken as Gross visited Greensburg recently and got a plate of gumbo from Gulf Coast volunteers, a tour of the city and a chance to see some teenagers smash a tornado-ravaged, one-string acoustic guitar on a cement slab. The five minute video is on the Times' web site.

For comprehensive coverage of Greensburg's recovery, see The Eagle's special web section.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Pachyderms win trunkload of awards

Wichita Pachyderm Club members did more last weekend than play host to their organization’s national convention. They also hauled away some of the biggest awards in Pachydermdom.

The local club was named “2006 Most Outstanding Club in the Nation,” as well has “2006 Most Outstanding Club in a Non-federated State.” Bob Aldrich, last year’s Wichita Pachyderm president, was named “Most Outstanding Club President in the Nation” and “Most Outstanding Club President in a Non-federated State.”

To be a federated state, Kansas would need to have three clubs; right now it has two, the Wichita club that meets downtown and its spun-off cousin, the Sedgwick County Pachyderm Club, which meets in west Wichita. Club president Sarah Skelton said the Pachyderms are working to establish a third club, in northeastern Kansas.

The Wichita club also picked up awards at the convention for “Best Web Site” and “Best Club Newsletter.”
The National Federation of the Grand Order of Pachyderm Clubs is an officially recognized affiliate of the Republican Party, promoting party unity and citizen involvement in GOP politics.

The clubs work to recruit, train and assist Republican candidates, although they do not make endorsements in contested GOP primaries or take positions on divisive issues within the party.

By Dion Lefler

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Colorful brick pulled from future Nomar International district

Drivers might get a bit confused if they have to drive over the colorful brick designers envisioned at the 21st and Broadway intersection, traffic engineers say. So they're ditching the bricks. Instead of the circular design seen in the image to the left, the intersection will have brick crosswalks that use three colors of brick and form pyramids. It's not clear if the pillar will remain.

Planners consider the intersection one of the gateways into the proposed Nomar International business district, which aims to revitalize 21st Street. (Learn more about the proposed district on the city's web site.) The city will likely pay about $300,000 to have two large utility poles moved and about $1.5 million to buy the right-of-way to build a larger intersection. That will include buying Sandy's Furniture.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Is the proposed animal shelter too fancy?

The city is considering building a new $6.7 million animal shelter to replace the cramped house and shelter they currently use to register, house and euthanize thousands of cats, dogs and other animals. But the discussion the city council had Tuesday got prickly when Jim Skelton questioned whether designers were adding too many amenities that drive up costs. After all, the very rough cost estimate quoted in 1999 was only $3.3 million -- less than half of the new estimate. Some of the money could be better spent on things like streets, Skelton said, particular in south Wichita. But because the building would be visible from K-96 and Hillside and the new design incorporates three leashless dog parks the public could use, Sharon Fearey said people will want a building that is at least somewhat attractive. (Click on the images above to get a larger view of the proposed layout, conceptual image and site plan.) Designers already made some cuts, though no one said what they were. And, after Tuesday's talk, they're going to look for more places to trim costs.

For years, the city's animal control officials have been working out of a house dubbed the "greenhouse" at 1024 N. Minnesota. The shelter is at 3303 N. Hillside. It was built in 1985, and Environmental Services Director Kay Johnson says the lack of space there leads to an unusually high kill rate, meaning thousands of adoptable cats and dogs are being put down shortly after the required three-day grace period. Last year, 6,300 animals were killed. "That's an unthinkably large number," Johnson said. Under the current plan, the city would pay for their building, the Kansas Humane Society would pay for a similar facility next door and the two would split the cost of excavating the land and building the roads and parking lots. The joint site would make it easier for people to find lost pets, Johnson says, and reduce the number of animals they kill. (Below are images of the existing buildings.)

Monday, June 25, 2007

In the lull of summer...

...Comes a whopper of a Sedgwick County Commission meeting.

Commissioners will grapple with decisions about more than a few contentious issues this Wednesday: the interior design of the planned downtown arena, an update on the arena's budget and cost, the future of the Wichita Arena Technical College and how and when to open proposals for a casino at the Kansas Coliseum.

They will also consider whether the Eagle Valley Raptor Center near Cheney should be allowed to expand, a move owner Ken Lockwood's neighbors protest.

The meeting starts at 9 a.m. at the county courthouse, 3rd floor, 525 N. Main. Or you can watch it live on TV on KPTS Channel 8 or check it out at

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lavonta Williams asks Democratic legislators for help

Locked in a 3-3 vote with Treatha Brown-Foster, Lavonta Williams, an independent, is asking some of the most prominent Democrats in her district to encourage Council members to change their votes, according to an e-mail she sent last week. On the list were Sen. Donald Betts, Rep. Melody McCray-Miller and Rep. Oletha Faust-Goudeau.

"Presently there is a 3/3 vote and I need one more vote and need to make sure I maintain the 3 that I have," she wrote. "I would be a hard worker for my community, I listen and work well with people, and my word is my bond. Anything you could do would be greatly appreciated. We especially need Sue Schlapp or Paul Gray."

Council members will resume voting at the end of their Tuesday meeting and continue until they choose a candidate. It takes four votes to win. Council member Jeff Longwell, a Republican who is a Pachyderm member, like Brown-Foster, seemed to be the most likely tie-breaker. But he has said that Williams is the best candidate for District 1 and that he's doesn't plan to change his vote. Mayor Carl Brewer, who appointed both candidates to the District Advisory Board when he held the District 1 seat, voted for Williams. He has said he maintains an open mind on the candidates and that information continues to pour in. However, Williams appeared in one of Brewer's campaign ads on TV and it seems he may be returning that support now. Even some of the most connected folks in City Hall say the outcome on Tuesday is anyone's guess. But, unless they change their rules, which sometimes happens, they'll continue voting until someone wins.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Council agenda: District 1, repealing gun laws, paying DETAMC, Inc.

Who will switch their vote for a new District 1 Council member? Will an $80,000 check really be the end of the DETAMC, Inc. discrimination case? Will anyone bother commenting on the repeal of local conceal carry laws that the state overruled this year?

It's all up for grabs at 9 a.m. Tuesday when the City Council meets.

Voting to break the 3-3 deadlock between Treatha Brown-Foster and Lavonta Williams will be one of the last items council members consider. Their rules require them to vote until someone is chosen. But, to do that, someone will have to switch their vote and explain why they changed their mind after voting 20 times in a row for the same candidate last Tuesday. Or, members could cast votes for one of the other three candidates -- Eugene Anderson, Michael Kinard or George Rogers. But that seems unlikely. (For more on the ballots, see The Eagle's story.)

The DETAMC settlement stems from a lawsuit that was settled in March. Here's a snippet from a story by The Eagle's Christina Woods:

"The city of Wichita broke its contract with a welfare-to-work program but didn't discriminate against the owners because of race, a federal jury found Wednesday.
A jury in Kansas City, Kan., ordered the city to pay more than $50,000 to George and Pamela Johnson, the owners of Diversified Educational Training and Manufacturing Co., or DETAMC.

The Johnsons, who are African-American, had sought $3.9 million in damages.Their lawsuit claimed that a city-led audit of their job-training company was racially motivated. They contended the city held DETAMC to higher scrutiny based on their race. The city's audit alleged the company billed the city for books never provided to students and failed to file required monthly progress reports, among other findings."

Conceal carry repeal
In December last year, the council unanimously passed a bill that made it illegal for people with conceal carry licenses to carry firearms on public property, such as parks. But, when Sen. Phil Journey, a Republican from Haysville and a leading advocate for conceal carry, spotted it, he penned a bill to stop cities like Wichita from further restricting people's right to carry. It passed in Topeka. Several council members now support the repeal -- despite having voted in favor of more restrictions.

And, as always, the entire city council agenda can be seen online in a PDF.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Tiahrt blasts mayors group and KAKE TV for illegal guns campaign

U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt is in a showdown with a coalition of mayors (none of which are in Kansas) who say his amendment to a bill in 2003 prohibits public access to a database that tracks all firearms recovered at crime scenes. (See The Eagle's story for more details.) And the national campaign has been localized this week.

A drive-by bill board has been sweeping through downtown, television ads have aired and today there was a full page ad in The Eagle -- all urging Tiahrt to repeal the amendment. Though Tiahrt acknowledges some clarifications could be added to the bill, he stands by it, saying it protects undercover officers. And he blasted the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group that has opened a major campaign against the amendment and KAKE-TV for airing ads.

“We might expect this from the New York Times or an East Coast liberal media outlet with an agenda, but it is very disappointing that KAKE has decided to run this misleading ad,” wrote Tiahrt communications director Chuck Knapp in a statement this week. Since The Eagle ran a print ad from the same group, it seems likely Tiahrt is also upset with the newspaper. (See the New York Times' editorial on the issue that ran in their Sunday edition and a piece by the New York police commissioner in the paper.)

Washington reporter David Goldstein reported the base of the argument like this: "Tiahrt and others say the restrictions are necessary because disclosure could reveal names of undercover officers and informants, or tip off targets involved in investigations related to those weapons. (New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg and more than 200 other mayors counter that the restrictions handcuff their efforts against violent crime where illegal guns are involved because they can't trace their source."

For more, see the Mayors Against illegal Guns site and Tiahrt's response to the campaign.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Kansas among 22 states that don't lower flags for fallen soldiers

A story in USA Today this morning says that Kansas is among 22 states that don't lower the flag every time one of the state's soldiers is killed overseas. The other 28 states have different policies -- sometimes lowering all flags, other times lowering flags only at request or in a soldier's hometown. The Hall Monitor contacted the Governor's office to see why Kansas decided to keep flags at full staff. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran wrote in an e-mail that Sebelius follows the President's lead and the U.S. code (Title 4, Chapter 1) related to flag protocol.

"In conferring with our State’s Adjutant General very early during the Governor’s first term, it was determined that the best way to honor the memories of our soldiers is to fly our flags high with pride," she wrote. "Our Adjutant General advised Governor Sebelius that some may see the lowering of the flag as defeat and that is not a message we would send to our troops fighting for freedom and the strength of our country. When we lower our flags on the morning of Memorial Day each year, and have a special ceremony with our Governor and families of fallen soldiers, that is our time to lower our flags and encourage all Kansans to do the same. (The President orders the US flag to be lowered at this same period.)"

For more on flag etiquette and efforts in Kansas, see Beccy Tanner's piece in The Eagle.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunflower, George Kolb and a courtroom

It's been months since Sunflower Community Action members protested with residents at City Manager George Kolb's house. They were trying to force the city to clean up a chronically trash-packed yard at 10th and Volutsia. Now the yard has been cleaned. But the story continues. Sunflower will have a press conference Thursday afternoon to say that the city has spent an exceptionally large amount of money and energy to prosecute a brief protest at the doorstep of Kolb's home (as seen in the video below). Then, on Friday, three Sunflower members and a woman who lives next door to the now-cleaner property at 10th and Volutsia will be in court facing criminal trespass and illegal dumping charges for being on Kolb's property and leaving their protest signs behind.

Sunflower's media conference is at 2 p.m. The trial starts Friday at 9 a.m., but Sunflower members will be outside City Hall at 8 a.m. trying to gather support. (Read more about the case in previous Hall Monitor posts.)

Batter up: What the city wants from a baseball team

As The Eagle's Joanna Chadwick reported this morning, the Northern League will be in town this week chatting with potential investors who want to bring a new baseball team to Wichita. If and when the money comes together, one of the first steps new teams will take is a tour of the ballpark. In April, Northern League Commissioner Clark Griffith foreshadowed some concerns about the stadium in The Eagle. "It probably needs some upgrading to realize its full potential," he said. "When you walk in and see slabs of wood for seats, it probably needs some new seats. You can't get away with that now. People expect more, and they expect government people to supply them with more."

The city is already designing improvements to the dugouts, locker rooms, infields and concession stands at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. But whichever teams submit proposals to be Wichita's next baseball team will be asked to outline other potential improvements to the 72-year-old ballpark, according to the city's request for proposals. (See a PDF of the RFP on The Eagle's site.)

Among things the city suggests a new team check out are improvements to general seating, player facilities, the field itself, back of the house operating spaces, press facilities, fan experiences, concession and food service locations and services, merchandising locations and spaces, premium services and seating, advertising and sponsorship opportunities, parking improvements and overall site improvements.

Whew, sounds like a whole new ballpark. And the city suggests a new team identify public and private funds to pay for it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

New District 1 Council member, wireless Internet and Montel

It has been six months since all seven City Council seats were filled. That ends Tuesday -- probably. Using paper ballots, Council members will choose between five District 1 candidates. On the list are Eugene Anderson, Treatha Brown-Foster, Michael Kinard, George Rogers and Lavonta Williams. First one to get a majority (four votes) wins.

City Council members have already privately held interviews with each of the candidates. At the Council meeting Tuesday, people will see only short monologues from the candidates before the voting begins. But this event might get pushed back a little so that Mayor Carl Brewer can zip over the Center for Health and Wellness to welcome talk show host Montel Williams. (See The Eagle's story about Williams' visit.) Brewer said several times Friday that the District 1 seat is his top priority despite the hoopla with Montel.

The new District 1 member, who will be sworn in a week later, will soon get thrown into the debate over luring a citywide wireless Internet provider to the city. Tuesday, the Council will vote on whether to invite the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to conduct an evaluation of the request for proposals the city let months ago, which only drew five proposals. The Council's poised to approve that. What will follow is meeting of the Knight Foundation's Jorge Martinez, City Council, Sedgwick County Commissioners and the Wichita School Board. Each government entity would be an anchor customer of the wireless company.

See more on the Knight Foundation's role in wireless.

For more, see a PDF of Tuesday's City Council agenda reports.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

It's a bargain: Lunch with President Bush $500, photo $4,600

A picture is worth a thousand words -- or $4,600 if you want one with President Bush. That's the going rate for a photo at the $500-per-head lunch reception Bush will attend to raise money for Sen. Pat Roberts in Wichita on Friday, June 15.

That's an expensive photo, but when Dick Cheney came to Wichita in 2002, the Vice President drew $5,000 from folks who wanted a private meet and greet and photograph. The Hall Monitor dug a little more using Lexis-Nexis and found the Wichita event is a pretty fair price -- if not a bargain -- compared to other fundraisers.
The Prez drew $1,000 a plate and $10,000 per photo at a fundraiser at a Hilton in Milwaukee last July, according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
People paid $1,000 a lunch plate in Denver last year, too.
In Tennessee last year, Bush supporters paid $2,100 a plate to attend a fundraiser for Senate candidate Bob Corker, The Commercial Appeal reported.
Californians peeled off the same amount for a photo at an event near San Fransisco last year, The Contra Costa Times wrote. And, down in Phoenix, folks paid $500 for breakfast and $2,100 a photo during a cash-raising event for Rep. Rick Renzi, according to The Arizona Republic. We called the Roberts Victory Committee, which gets the cash, to see how they decided the going rate for a plate and a photo, but haven't heard back yet. The business attire lunch is near the Country Club in east Wichita at the home of Dave and Janet Murfin. Dave is the president of Murfin Drilling Company. No surprise, both Dave and Janet are registered Republicans who have voted in the last three elections. For more on the Bush visit, check out The Eagle's story. Here's a Kansas City Star story about the fundraiser. The photo above shows Roberts next to Bush, Sen. Sam Brownback and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in Greensburg.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Commissioners to hear arena plea Wednesday

Sedgwick County Commissioners have started each of their last two meetings hearing from people who want a second public vote on the planned downtown arena. This Wednesday, they'll get the other side of the story -- from Joe Williams, organizer of the Web site

In his email asking the county permission to speak at the June 6th meeting, Williams said he would ask the commissioners to not consider putting the arena revote question on the Aug. 7 ballot, when people will vote on a casino. Williams directly targets an arena opposition group that has said it has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from people wanting to vote again on the arena because of changes in its cost and design.

"The reasoning why the re-vote arena group's claim is illegitimate is that the organizational members of the group deliberately miscontrued the facts and information they told to the public and people they coaxed into signing the petition," Williams wrote. Most commissioners have said they do not support a second vote because 52 percent of people approved the arena in 2004. There is talk, however, of holding a public forum to let the public air its grievances and allow the county to respond to them. Commissioners will likely discuss that option on Wednesday.

City to examine the other wireless: cell phone towers

After mediating several fiery disputes between homeowners and cellular phone companies, the City Council is planning to consider amendments to their wireless communications tower guidelines. They'll vote Tuesday to open the discussion, a necessary precursor to an amendment to their zoning codes.

So what's in store? "Controversy," says John Schlegel, the city/county planning director.

Most folks expect a signal on their phone wherever they are in this city of 355,000. But, as companies try to put up new towers to handle more calls, neighbors are fighting to keep the poles out of their backyards -- and even the backyards that are more than a block away. They fear their home values will fall and their view of the big Kansas sky will be ruined. Wichitans aren't unique here -- people across the country have fought off towers and found companies willing to disguise their facilities, hide them or simply find a different location. So the Wichita-Sedgwick County planning department has drafted a plan to outline areas that are acceptable for towers. Schlegel says he expects cell phone companies to dislike that since they have a lot of freedom to place towers now. But, the plan is just a starting point, he said. This month, the City Council will review the plan. Then it will be heard by community people with the wireless industry before going before district advisory boards citywide in August and September. A Council vote on new regulations is expected in November. Check out this PDF link if you'd like to see what the city considers "sensitive" areas. And check out this PDF link for the city's existing policy, which was created in 2000.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Baby steps toward citywide wireless Internet

A little more than three weeks ago, City Council members decided not to start negotiating a deal with Michigan-based wireless Internet company Azulstar for citywide wireless service. Instead, the Council appointed members Paul Gray and Jeff Longwell to travel to a couple cities that already have an Azulstar wireless system to see how well it performs firsthand. But that's not happening yet, either.

Longwell says that the two cities he and Gray were going to visit -- Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Rio Rancho, New Mexico -- aren't fully functional. City officials in Rio Rancho have vented frustrations about Azulstar's service and failure to meet contractual obligations. Meanwhile, Winston-Salem's system has yet to be built. Longwell said setbacks in these cities further justify the Council's cautious approach. "I don't think we're doing a disservice to the public by dragging our feet a little bit," he said in a conversation with The Hall Monitor this week. Longwell hopes to see how Azulstar reacts to the complaints they're facing before moving ahead with contract talk. Futhermore, he says, the city may benefit by waiting as new technologies surface. You can't wait forever because there will always be something new, he said, but in this case a slow approach may be best. "There's no reason for us to get too excited," he said. "It's not like anybody is dramatically ahead of us." Longwell said the issue will likely be discussed at the June 12 Council meeting.

For more on Rio Rancho's problems, see this story.
For an update on Winston-Salem, check this one out.
For an overview of problems cities are having with wireless Internet, check out this AP story.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A first flush for the Old Town restrooms

City Hall press releases don't get much better than this:
"Potty in Old Town!
You are invited to the...
Toilet Paper Ribbon Cutting & First Official Flush of the New Public Restrooms in Old Town!
Saturday, June 2 at 11 AM
Public Restrooms located on Mosley Street
between Douglas & 1st Street"

The Hall Monitor leaves the city's capitalization in to emphasize the excitement exclaimed in the release. After all, it's not everyday that there is an official inaugural toilet flush. The release does not specify what will be flushed.

In all seriousness, the public lavatories will be welcomed by many Old Town partiers. The city's nightlife core is notorious for having more than its share of public urination and the police have noticed. For example, in 2005, a special operation including plainclothes officers led to 26 arrests, mostly for public urination and drinking in the streets. (See the law here.)

The facility is the first of five new public restrooms in the Old Town area that the city says will be well lit, have individual locks and will be accessible to people with disabilities. They will also have a baby changing station. It all costs about $275,000 in tax increment financing funds -- which comes from the extra property tax money generated by development in that area. We're counting on former mayoral candidate James Mendenhall, who campaigned for cleaner restrooms earlier this year, to watchdog the upkeep of these water closets.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Fireworks in the sky, debris on the bridge

The orchestra played, the cannons thundered and fireworks splashed across the sky to close out this year's River Festival. But for hundreds of people on the 1st Street bridge, the shells of the fireworks were also part of the show as they rained down in the steady Kansas breeze Saturday night. (In the photo to the left you see an example of some of the cardboard casings that fell from the sky, accompanied by clouds of sulfur-flavored smoke.)

But perhaps that's secondary. The closing night and the Friday evening festivities before it showcased the new paths along the Arkansas River, which were lit up with hundreds of people who were camped out for an early summer fireworks display. And, of course, the Keeper of the Plains and the ring of fire around it. The question remaining for the downtown portion of the river corridor is will that swath of land a little farther south, called the WaterWalk, one day be part of the spectacle?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What is the Wichita school board doing Monday?

The Wichita school board meet Monday and it's a full agenda.

The consent agenda, which is usually a list of bills to pay and is voted on all at once, has some interesting items including renewing licenses for SchoolNet, a network that allows teachers to have a clearinghouse for all the information they need to know including student test scores. The cost to renew is $640,000.

Another item is the increase in student lunch prices by 10 cents starting July 1. Adult lunch prices increase by 15 cents.

Most of the rest of the agenda, which is usually voted on separately, are adjustments and changes to policies including the student code of conduct, the voluntary early retirement program, and providing unpaid leave for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Probably the most anticipated item is the memorandum of understanding between city and the school district on school resource officers. The document formalizes each entity's role when it comes to school resource officers. Mainly, it says that the officers are city employees, the board can't make any policies to hinder the use of any of their equipment and, with permission from their bosses, the officers can do a summer program at their school.

Monday, May 14, 2007

When politicians fumble in Favre country

Referencing the hometown team will almost always buy a political candidate some applause -- after all, even if the crowd isn't excited about the candidate, most people stand behind the team. The flip side to that is if you mention the competition.

Over the weekend, Sen. Sam Brownback dropped the Peyton Manning bomb in Brett Favre country. The crowd let him know, according to an Associated Press story that several news websites picked up this weekend.After he realized his analogy flopped, he backtracked. "That's really bad," he said. "That will go down in history. I apologize."

"Let's take Favre then," Brownback said later. "The Packers are great. I'm sorry. How many passes does he complete without a line?"

"All of them!" more than one person yelled from the back of the room.

Friday, May 11, 2007

City Council examines District 1 candidates, police contract and a skate park

The Hall Monitor will bet its lunch that no one on the City Council can land a kick flip or pop an ollie, but that doesn't mean the elected officials are ignoring those who can. The Council is going to vote on building a third city skate park at Edgemoor Park, at 5815 E. 9th St., next Tuesday. It will cost $160,422 (See skate park contract and other Council agenda items).

The Council will also discuss how it's going to handle the review process to fill the vacant District 1 Council seat and vote on whether to approve a three-year contract with the police union. Council members will also vote on an agreement with the school district for school resource officers and a contract with The Wichita Eagle to print legal publications that are required by law. Last year, that contract was worth almost $200,000, according to the city's analysis.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What happened to the school board meeting?

This past Monday there was no Wichita school board meeting because they only meet every second and fourth Monday. But this week, board members attended the retirement and longevity banquet honoring employees who have served in the district for several years.

Among this year's retirement list are some pretty big heavy hitters. Galen Davis, the district's safety services executive director will be leaving. Along with Mary Ellen Isaac who is in charge of the district's curriculum focus and Emile McGill in charge of early childhood education. John Updegrove, who is one of the district's statistics guru will be retiring as well. Updegrove is best known for reciting numbers such as enrollment, percentage of minorities students, and how many parents deferred in the busing lottery, by memory.

The next board meeting is May 21 and the agenda for that will be available the afternoon of May 17.

New state education guru appointed

In their second day of meeting, the Kansas State Board of Education appointed Alexa Posny as the state's new education commissioner.

Posny was one of two finalists for the job. Marilou Joyner, executive director of the CEO Blackwell Education Support Team, an educational consulting firm was the other finalist.

Posny was the former deputy commissioner of education in Kansas before becoming director of the office of special education for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

She also applied to be commissioner before but, the then-conservative board chose Bob Corkins.

"I am pleased to be back in Kansas and I look forward to working with Board members, administrators, teachers, and others involved in the education of our children. All students in Kansas deserve an education that allows them to be competitive in the 21st century," said Posny in a statement.

Her first day is July 1 and she'll be paid $165,000.

Aging Minisa Bridge will wait a year for a facelift

The city has doubled the money it will spend to rebuild the historic Minisa Bridge that carries 13th Street traffic over the Little Arkansas River. But it will probably be 2008 before the facelift begins and Riverside drivers are forced to detour around the heavily traveled bridge. That's because the city is trying to make sure North High School is on summer break at least part of the time the bridge is closed. And it's expected to close for six months. During that time, most traffic will be re-routed to 21st Street. Neighborhood traffic will take a shorter cut over the N. Bitting Avenue bridge.

Since it takes more than a month to get state approval and let bids for the construction, the city can't get it started this summer. The Feds will still pay $1 million, but the city has increased their budget from $800,000 to $1.6 million due to the rapidly rising cost of construction. That, the city is hoping, will lock a price in and prevent them from raising the budget for the bridge even more. The city's long-term capital budget is already getting squeezed and this will just add to that, reducing the number of capital improvement projects they can handle in coming years. Once the bridge is complete, it will have all the historic features it has today -- minus the cracks in the pillars and potholes in the red brick surface. The Minisa Bridge was built in 1932.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

MySpace the land of fertile political ground

If you're running for president there are several things you have to have in your campaign:

A communications director to help craft your message to the American people
Tons of volunteers to help run the campaign
A myspace page

A myspace page? Yes. Candidates vying for their party's nomination have a myspace page and Sen. Sam Brownback isn't any different.

A voter can learn alot about Brownback from his page such as he's a married, Virgo, Catholic with more than 6,000 friends on the social networking website. Voters will also be able to view a video of Brownback speaking on what he stands for and what the country needs in their next president. And if voters are confused at all by the video, 15 clickable icons will tell his stance on a variety of issues including marriage, the Iraq war, culture and values and education.

And yes there's a blog and a list of interests like his favorite movie (Amazing Grace) and books (Lord of the Rings and the Bible).

Monday, May 7, 2007

A walk through Greensburg three hours after the storm

The nurse stood in the middle of the street as the steady and strong breeze pulled her curly hair around her head. Her flowery nurse's shirt and blue pants fluttered like a flag in the wind. She had what has become known as "the stare." She told photographer G. Marc Benavidez and I that she could hardly recognize the faceless and crumbling businesses that stood next to her on Main Street. She said she had helped splint someone's compound fractures in the back of a pickup. She said her family was OK. She said the hospital and clinic were destroyed, but that all the patients were moved to the basement in time. She had heard the last patient got in at the last second and that the first destructive gust of wind to hit the building slammed the door of the basement in the face of another nurse.

She didn't know what she would do next. No one did, including us.

We just kept walking into the wind, specks of debris sandblasting us. We couldn't open our eyes enough to see all the details. Just saw flashing red lights and big search lights ahead, to the left, to the right and behind. The beeping of trucks backing up, the scraping of snowplow blades clearing the streets and shouts of people's names filled the air. All around us people were walking over mounds of twisted houses looking for any sign of life. Some guys from Texas were in the basement of a house (pictured above). The house had shifted entirely off its foundation, exposing the basement below. The Texans shouted and lifted boards that probably used to be ceiling or wall. Nothing. But, they told us, if somebody was in this house, they'd probably be down here. It's hard to imagine how they might have survived, yet hundreds did just that and emerged from rubble.

Moving west, I jumped over a stream of draining water, which were at most intersections and many were about ankle deep. Marc followed. And something caught my attention from the corner of my eye in a tree. It was what appeared to be a bloody bed sheet with something inside of it. It can't be a body, I thought out loud. Marc agreed. Couldn't be -- not with all these search teams around. But it looked like it could be until we saw it from the back side. We walked on, just saying 'oh my God' or some expletive that newspapers don't print. It was like we had to empty some of our thoughts to take in new ones. It's not a Katrina. It's not a 9/11. But it is devastation. It is destruction. It is tragedy. It is 10 lives gone and more than a thousand altered forever. It is millions of pieces of other people's lives forced into a blender and ruthlessly dumped in a pile. It's Greensburg. And everybody we've talked to says it used to be a great little town.

We walked for several more hours, talking to residents as they wandered the streets of what used to be their town. People had had their prized possessions destroyed. Some didn't want to be quoted because they didn't want to look vain worrying about their life's projects and memories and possessions when there could be unthinkable death among the ruins.

It was past 4 a.m. when I spotted a boat trailer and sat down for the first time. Marc wondered where we might find the boat. We were about a quarter block from some emergency crews, who were quietly planning. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes. The sheets of tin, fluttering plastic and thunderous street scrapers across the city sounded like how far off battle fields sound in the movies. After five minutes, we walked on, thinking we should get an hour's rest before the sun exposed this disaster. As we walked through the north part of town, my legs began to ache after perhaps 5 to 8 miles. It got quieter as we walked north, near the grain tower in what appeared to be an industrial part of town. Many trees remained standing, but their branches were all gone. They looked like mangled forks -- the way dead trees look years after they die. This is what hell must look like, I told Marc. Nothing but stressed out heroes, crying families, lost dogs and a strong, wet wind blowing from the south and carrying smells of wood, chemicals and things I couldn't identify.

We got back to our car on the east edge of town about 45 minutes before the first hues of morning exposed the hedge line in front of us. Marc and Dan Close (a journalist who is a Wichita State University professor and volunteered to help) got about 30 minutes of rest before going back out. I couldn't sleep and started typing my story. It was about the first place we stopped as we walked into the town. It was a bar. I saw about 10 people gathered inside next to candles. The building lacked most windows, but it had walls and roof. I approached cautiously, but was greeted warmly, even after I explained I was a journalist and had never been to Greensburg until now. A woman told me that this bar was to become the morgue. Within 10 minutes the first body bag was being unloaded. The floor was cleared in case it got worse. People could only assume the worst with such destruction.

Marc and I stopped back at the Bar H Tavern hours later before taking our break. The woman said another body had been brought in, but was taken to a nearby hospital or morgue after a few hours. It was quieter now than the first time we stopped. The 54-year-old woman was still shocked, but in good spirits considering the situation. We joked lightly about insurance and clean up. And she said you have to laugh a little. You have to smile, she said, otherwise, it's just too much.

Friday, May 4, 2007

How did Brownback fare in the GOP debate?

One way to gauge a candidate's impact at a debate like the Republican presidential debate Thursday night is to see how many of their words made it into major news stories from outlets such as the Associated Press, USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

On this front, Sen. Sam Brownback did better than many in the crowded GOP field. The Kansan, who trails several candidates in polls and fundraising, was largely in the shadows in most national wire stories last night. But a Republican political consultant with, which sponsored the debate, wrote that Brownback "had a particularly strong night. He talked with passion and elegance about the social issues that are the backbone of his candidacy." Brownback also picked up some quick hits in an Associated Press story where he raised his hand to show he doesn't believe in evolution and when he said the day the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade would be a "glorious day of human liberty and freedom." McClatchy's Washington Bureau quoted Brownback when he said he could support a more liberal GOP candidate. "Somebody who is with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy," Brownback said, citing Ronald Reagan's philosophy.

Based on his comments to the Christian Science Monitor last week, he probably won't worry about the coverage too much. When the newspaper asked him about debates, he said: "I think it's important to get candidates side by side. I don't think you make the candidacy or lose it over a debate or two, [but] I think they're very helpful to have."

See coverage of the Democrat's debate last week.
See what Eagle readers had to say on WE Blog.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The dust hasn't settled on paving the city's dirt streets

Five months after the City Council first discussed ways to make it cheaper for people to get dirt streets paved, the conversation continued this week. It wasn't much more than an echo. They even saw the same PowerPoint -- complete with thrilling photos of empty gravel roads and bar graphs. As one long-time City Hall official put it in a different context this week: "Things in City Hall have two speeds: 0 MPH and 1,000 MPH."

Council member Jim Skelton has anxiously advocated for a solution to get more of the city's 96 miles of dirt roads paved, including dozens in his district in southeast Wichita. It's clear from listening to him that he feels this is one of those 0 MPH issues. Skelton got little support for his ideas to use more bar ditches to reduce costs drainage costs in areas that aren't flood-prone and extending the time people have to pay off the special assessments (a state legislature issue). But, when he suggested the city could let more people low incomes defer paying special assessments by increasing the city's poverty guidelines, he got some support. As it is, a family of four must make less than $30,600 a year to qualify for deferral (it's an annual process). That's considered "very low income." City finance officials said the city could use the "low income" level instead, allowing a family of four that makes less than $48,950 to forgo payments until they move or exceed the set income level.

City Manager George Kolb said the issue will get more serious consideration when the Council prepares its capital budget in June. Council members already say they expect things to be tight. It won't help if the Council approves a three-year contract with the police union next week that pushes them $6.5 million beyond what they had budgeted for (See story). And things could get even tighter with Sedgwick County Commissioners' decision to charge the city for the suspects it houses in the county jail (See story) and revenue lost from statewide business property tax exemptions. (See a PDF about petitioning for paving here.)