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Nearly six months after the City Council passed its ethics policy, the Ethics Advisory Board meant to enforce it has yet to do any investigating.
That’s not because there hasn’t been anything to consider. It’s because City Council members have yet to appoint a full board.
In Wichita, there is no legal requirement to fill seats on civic boards and commissions, leaving it to the discretion of the mayor, City Council members, the city manager and entities that get to appoint seats. As of Nov. 29, the city lists 23 vacant or expired appointments.
“There’s nothing that forces a council member to fill a position,” said Janet Johnson, an assistant to the mayor who oversees the logistics of the city’s boards and commissions.
Wichita’s Ethics Advisory Board in flux
The Ethics Advisory Board was established in May as part of a new code of ethics for Wichita city officials, including the mayor, council members and advisory board members.
The board is meant to enforce the city’s ethics policy, which restricts officials from receiving gifts worth over $150 and requires officials to annually report gifts of over $50. The policy also specifies that officials should refrain from making decisions in which they, their families or their businesses have an interest.
Five of the seven board members have been appointed. Council member Jeff Blubaugh plans to make his appointment at the Dec. 7 City Council meeting. Council member Jared Cerullo has also not made an appointment and said he’ll leave that to his successor. Cerullo lost his re-election bid, and his term ends in January.
“I don’t think it’s ethical for a person who is not going to even be in office in 60 more days to appoint someone,” Cerullo said.
The Ethics Advisory Board can technically meet with just five of its seven members. But before the board is operational, the City Council must appoint a Chief Ethics Officer who is vetted first by the ethics board. This requires all seven members of the board, Assistant City Manager Donte Martin wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon.
“Given the significance of the seven member Ethics Advisory Board’s work, it is important that all seven members be appointed prior to the Board first meeting,” Martin wrote. “The policy states that the ‘seven member board’ will interview and select the Ethics Officer. A simple quorum to select the officer is NOT sufficient.”
Martin wrote that the city expects the Ethics Advisory Board to have all its members in place by January.
Vacancies on other Wichita boards and commissions
Outside of the ethics board, Wichita had 21 vacant seats on boards and commissions as of Nov. 29. Most vacancies are on the Wichita Sustainability Integration Board and the Stormwater Advisory Board. City Council members appoint residents to the sustainability board, while other entities — including the Wichita Area Builders Association and Sedgwick County Public Works — make appointments to the stormwater board.
City Manager Robert Layton and District 1 Council member Brandon Johnson have the most vacancies overall to fill: three each.
Johnson said she isn’t alarmed by the number of vacancies but does hope to see more movement on appointment of sustainability board members.
“That’s the only one where I’m like, ‘Yikes,’” Johnson said.
The sustainability board, which was established in September, has five open seats.
Want to serve on a Wichita board or commission? Here’s how.
Why board and commission vacancies matter
Civic boards and commissions have the power to make policy recommendations to the City Council, hold public hearings and create strategic plans for Wichita. But they can take action only if a quorum — the minimum number of members needed for the panel to conduct business — is present.
Among Wichita’s civic boards and commissions, a quorum is typically half of the board’s filled seats plus one person, Johnson said.
If board members are not appointed, in some cases the boards are not able to operate due to lack of a quorum.
This is not the case for any Wichita boards currently. The Wichita Sustainability Integration Board has the most seats open, but it reached a quorum of members on Nov. 2. Its first meeting will be Wednesday.
Of the four boards established since December 2020, all had a quorum of members appointed five months after they were established.
Wichita’s boards and commissions underrepresent women and people of color. Here’s how the city plans to change that.
How other cities deal with board and commission appointments
While Wichita does not have deadlines for filling board and commission seats, other nearby cities have systems to ensure certain seats are filled.
In Kansas City, Missouri, boards with charter-mandated or fiduciary responsibilities take priority when appointments are made, said Morgan Said, chief of staff for the mayor’s office. Charter-mandated boards are those established in city code.
“That’s a vacancy that goes to the top of our list,” Said said. “It’s the mentality our office has taken on.”
Martin said Wichita has no policies that prioritize one board appointment over others.