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."