You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Wichita ethics board members, candidates could be disqualified under 'goofy' policy

Wichita Eagle logo Wichita Eagle 5/17/2022 Chance Swaim, The Wichita Eagle

May 17—Quirks in Wichita's ethics policy threaten to further delay a board that has been dormant for more than a year, stalling any investigations of potential misconduct by city officials, the Wichita Eagle has found.

One empty board seat — the ethics officer position — stands between the passage and enforcement of the city's ethics rules. But the three finalists for the position have either dropped out of the race or face disqualification.

A prohibition on "active members" of political parties and nonpartisan political organizations disqualifies two of the three finalists, one of whom already dropped out of the race. The other finalist moved out of town and is no longer interested in the position.

The controversy stems from what Mayor Brandon Whipple describes as "the goofy unintended consequences" of the city's new ethics policy. He said the language of the policy does not match its intent and the City Council should re-write it to expand who is eligible to serve on the ethics board in response to several potential disqualifications identified by Eagle research.

The Wichita City Council spent nearly a year drafting, debating and passing an ethics policy that created an ethics advisory board and outlined ethical conduct by the city's elected and appointed officials. It took another year to appoint seven members to the board.

Whipple's own ethics board appointee, Kelly Schodorf, could be disqualified based on the ethics policy because she is a municipal judge in Newton, violating the policy's prohibition on public office-holders serving on the board. Schodorf said she's going to defer to the City Council on whether she should remain in her position.

"I don't see how being a judge in Newton could have any negatives for her work on the ethics board," Whipple said. "Frankly, isn't a judge the exact kind of person we're looking for on this board?"

City Council member Jeff Blubaugh's appointee, Clark Owens II, is a retired judge who fills in on a temporary, part-time basis at Sedgwick County District Court. The council, on advice from City Legal, determined he was not a public office-holder for the purposes of the ethics board.

It's unclear how many other members of the ethics advisory board could be disqualified. They are not required to publicly disclose their affiliations with outside organizations, such as political parties and nonpartisan organizations.

Nancy McCarthy Snyder, the lone remaining candidate who is interested in accepting the volunteer ethics officer position, is a member of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization that aims to educate voters on the democratic process and local issues.

She acknowledged the language of the ethics policy would disqualify her because it prohibits "active members" of nonpartisan political organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, from serving on the board.

McCarthy Snyder, a retired director of the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, said she was not aware of the language in the ethics policy that barred participation in nonpartisan political organizations when she applied. She disclosed her affiliation with the League of Women Voters in her application for the ethics officer position.

"Right now, I have a lot of questions that I really want to ask as well as let them ask me about whether my qualifications and experience meet what they're looking for," McCarthy Snyder said.

"I've committed my whole professional career to building good government and ethical government and government that serves the people and the public," she said. "And so to the extent that we need people to trust those institutions, I think it's really important that there be ethical standards that are enforced and acknowledged and understood so that people can trust what their local government is doing for them."

The other two finalists, Michael Andrusak, a banking and real estate attorney, and Jessica Scott, an anti-money-laundering trainer at Crosswind Casino, dropped out of the race last week.

Andrusak likely would have been disqualified because of his position in the local Democratic Party. He is listed on the Sedgwick County election website as a Democratic Precinct Committeeman, making him an "active member" of a political party under the city's ethics policy. He told the Eagle on Friday that he has officially withdrawn from consideration.

"I have officially withdrawn my name from the position of ethics officer because I do not have the time to dedicate to the position," he said.

Scott notified the city earlier in the week that she was no longer interested in the position because she moved out of Wichita, emails show. She did not return a message from the Eagle.

Whipple said the City Council can either appoint McCarty Snyder, violating the ethics policy, or change the policy to make an exception for the League of Women Voters. A third option could be re-opening the application and asking the ethics board to choose up to three new candidates for the ethics officer position, a process that could take months.

"The League of Women Voters technically meets the definition of nonpartisan political organization, so, yeah, that would be a disqualifier," Whipple said. "But a group like this isn't what we thought of when we discussed the purpose of this language.

"The current ethics policy is the product of compromise, and I think this shows that we need to revisit the policy and plug some holes and fix some of these unintended consequences.

"I mean, in one section of the policy, we're asking for professors, we're asking for legal experts, we're asking for people with incredible backgrounds to step up, put your name in a hat and work for free," Whipple said. "And then we're saying, 'if you've obtained a position within those fields, such as a judge, you're disqualified — unless you're retired but still acting as a judge.' It needs cleaned up."

Schodorf said she hopes the City Council will consider re-writing the rules so she can continue serving on the board, but she said she's willing to step down if the policy is not changed.

"I would hope that the council could take a look at what they have implemented thus far, and tweak it, so that those unintended consequences aren't so limiting on the population who is allowed to participate," she said.

"It seems to be a very narrow scope," she said. "We want to be able to implement guidelines that protects the process, but we also can't be so exclusionary that we don't have important voices in the community being able to participate."

No officer, no hearings

The only known ethics complaint against a city official was filed two months ago against Whipple by City Council member Bryan Frye, but it cannot be investigated until an ethics officer is named. The ethics board can censure elected officials, recommend removal from office and levy fines of $100 to $1,000 for each violation.

Before a complaint makes its way to the board, or becomes an open record, it has to be vetted and investigated by the ethics officer and an outside legal counsel, according to the ethics policy. Outside legal counsel has not yet been selected.

The ethics officer would be the chairperson and tie-breaker for the seven-member board, appointed by city council members and the mayor.

The officer would hold considerable power in deciding how to handle complaints against city officials, including the discretion to toss out complaints deemed to be frivolous before they receive a hearing. The officer would also be in charge of investigating complaints and presenting findings and recommendations on what action to take against city officials.

The Wichita Ethics Advisory Board, one of Whipple's top 2019 campaign initiatives, was created last spring after nearly a year of policy debate, more than a dozen drafts and considerable pushback by some members of the City Council against a new ethics policy. Along with the ethics board, the policy limited gifts for elected officials for the first time in the city's history in response to a string of City Hall scandals.

So far, the only known complaint was the one filed against Whipple. The city has declined to provide a copy of the complaint because it has not been reviewed by an ethics officer. Frye personally disclosed the complaint to the Eagle in March.

It's unknown if any other complaints have been filed because they are not disclosed by the city unless the ethics officer finds they rise to the level of a violation of the city's code of ethics or ethics policy.

Frye's complaint could have major implications for the future of city government and the 2023 mayoral race. It accuses Whipple of political patronage and undue influence in the hiring of his former campaign manager, local attorney Casey Yingling, as assistant to the mayor. Whipple denies the charges and claims Frye is abusing the ethics policy to kickstart a 2023 mayoral campaign.

The city's human resources department told the Eagle that Yingling's hiring "followed the standard practice of all city hires."

As an independent panel, the ethics board could determine whether Whipple improperly influenced the hiring process.

The policy does not give the ethics board the power to fine or discipline Yingling, who is a city employee, not an appointed or elected official.

The Wichita Ethics Advisory Board chose the three finalists from a pool of eight applicants earlier this month. At least one of the applicants, former Democratic Kansas House Majority Leader Jim Ward, was turned down because the board said he would be a political "lightning rod."

Ward is no longer an elected state official, but he is a Democratic precinct committeeman, which disqualifies him from the Ethics Advisory Board for the same reason Andrusak would be excluded from holding the position.

McCarthy Snyder said she believes the ethics policy's exclusion of members of nonpartisan political organizations is overly broad and discourages qualified candidates from serving in the role.

"If I understand what you're telling me, it disqualifies anybody who's been involved in civic activity," McCarthy Snyder said. "Does that seem right?

"It would be my hope that a position like this would be filled by someone who has some knowledge and experience with local government, to understand what government does, and what the potential conflicts and challenges are so that we can address those."

(c)2022 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


More from Wichita Eagle

Wichita Eagle
Wichita Eagle
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon