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.)

District 1 race stocked with names and experience

Maybe it’s because they won’t have to raise any money. Maybe it’s because only 15 people (the District Advisory Board and City Council) will be voting. Or, maybe it’s just the most politically active district.

Whatever the case, more people filed to fill the Distinct 1 City Council vacancy than ran in any of the other districts during this spring’s elections. And with a state representative, former state representative, former Council member, a pastor and three District Advisory Board members, the District 1 roster may also include more experience and name recognition than any of the races voters saw this spring. Some in City Hall say that Rev. Lincoln Montgomery, the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, was also going to submit a petition -- and probably be a top candidate. But his name wasn't on the list by the noon deadline.

“There’s no doubt, it’s a strong bunch of people,” said Carl Brewer, who left the seat to become mayor four weeks ago.

Brewer said that he doesn’t think there is a clear front runner.

Starting tonight, the advisory board will begin interviewing candidates, then it will forward four or five names to the City Council, which will vote until a majority agrees on someone. They could also agree to reject the candidates and appoint any other District 1 resident for the position. Click the "Read more" link for a glimpse of the 11 candidates who filed petitions with at least 100 signature by the deadline noon Tuesday...

  • Eugene Anderson, 63, is a building contractor who was former Democratic state senator (1984-1991) and house representative (1972-1976). He said he wants to add jobs to the city’s economy by encouraging young people to get into the building industry and by making sure downtown arena building and concessions are locally operated.
  • James E. Barfield, 67, is the organizer of the Citizens for Arena Re-Vote and a host of River City Forum on KCTU Channel 5. He’s a former metropolitan Planning Committee member and also served on the city’s district 1 advisory board years ago. He wants to create more interaction between police and District 1 residents to improve community relationships and reduce crime.
  • Lonnie Barnes, 51, is a former Boeing engineer who is now unemployed. He has been involved in the NAACP, Urban League and Northeast Heights Neighborhood Association. He said he wants to encourage more neighborhood revitalization by increasing home ownership and making people more aware of existing city programs that help people improve their homes.
  • James M. Benage, 53, is a program manager at Nex-Tech Aerospace. He returned to Wichita in January after living in Hutchison, but lived in Wichita for more than 20 years. He said he wants to encourage more citizen involvement in city government to improve services and help people take advantage of what’s already available.
  • Treatha Brown-Foster, 61, is a District 1 Advisory Board member and is in the Northeast Millair Neighborhood Association. She said she wants to create new jobs and retain young people by improving downtown and using ideas that have proven successful in other cities.
  • Earl Burkhalter, 52, is the pastor of Strangers Rest Missionary Baptist Church and has worked with numerous boards that have examined policing and spiritual issues. He said he wants to improve reinvestment programs to improve District 1 and make people more aware of programs that the city already offers.
  • Oletha Faust-Goudeau, is a a current Democratic state House representative. She has said she would resign from the position if she is appointed to the Council seat. She wants to address people’s neighborhood problems by being more hands-on and by encouraging citizen involvement in city government.
  • Michael Kinard, 46, is a former Wichita School Board member and former director of the Kansas Minority Business Development Council. He said he wants to find ways to retain young people and increase efforts to reduce blight in District 1.
  • Steven Roberts, 47, is a District 1 Advisory Board member. The Hall Monitor couldn't reach him Tuesday.
  • George Rogers, who is 71 and retired, served eight years on the City Council before leaving in 2001 because of term limits. He said he had the experience and qualifications to deal with a variety of issues, including employment and taxes.
  • Lavonta Williams, 57, is a District 1 Advisory Board member. The Hall Monitor also couldn't reach her Tuesday. But she is on the Visioneering Wichita's Racial Diversity, Opportunity and Harmony Strategic Alliance and a former teacher, middle school after-school program director and secretary for the local and state NAACP.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Do Kansas Democrats have a problem with their primary colors?

Late Tuesday, the Democratic members of the Kansas House lined up for their annual group picture in matching t-shirts.

Red t-shirts.

Of course, as anyone familiar with recent political history knows, the color red is inextricably associated with the Republican Party and blue is the property of the Democratic Party. In fact, years of election maps on TV have reinforced the associations so strongly that the terms “red state” and “blue state” are now an enduring
part of the national political lexicon.

So why were Democrats smiling for the camera wearing their adversaries’ colors?

Rep. Raj Goyle, D-Wichita offered this diving catch: “because we’re taking over red America.”

But Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who organized the photo, said the reason for red was a lot more mundane than that. “We wear a different color every year,” she said.

Written by Dion Lefler