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Editor’s note: We corrected this story on May 12 to add that the Library Board of Directors also asks its members to fill out conflict of interest disclosure forms. The headline, a photo caption and the story were revised to reflect this update.
On May 16, the story was revised to clarify that while the city only mandates that the Ethics Advisory Board asks members about conflicts of interest, other boards may independently require their members to do so. Also, the Cultural Funding Committee was added to the list of boards that ask members to disclose conflicts of interest.
Every year, Wichita City Council members appoint scores of people to the city’s dozens of boards and commissions, which have powers from levying fines on public officials to recommending blighted homes be demolished.
And not just anyone can serve. The city’s ethics code asks council members and the mayor to refrain from appointing a variety of people they might be close with, including immediate family members, business associates or employees.
But the city of Wichita doesn’t require its 37 boards and commissions to ask members to fill out conflict of interest forms, outside of the Ethics Advisory Board. At least two boards choose to ask members to fill them out. None asks appointees about their relationships with council members. Only two panels — the ethics board and the Diversity Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory Board — require appointees to undergo criminal background checks.
“Because our boards are advisory in nature, it’s not so critical,” said Janet Johnson, the supervisor of the Office of Community Services who oversees the logistics of the city’s boards and commissions.
But other nearby major Midwestern cities — including Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Missouri — require board members to fill out conflict of interest forms.
How the city fills seats is important as it faces over 30 vacancies on boards and commissions. The number of vacancies has gone up since November as the city added seven new seats to the Citizen’s Review Board and created the Affordable Housing Review Board.
How Wichita boards and commissions work
Cindy Miles started applying to join Wichita boards and commissions about 10 years ago, she said. But at first, her applications didn’t get her anywhere.
“I went and applied many times. I never received a single response, a single thank you for applying, you don’t meet our qualifications,” Miles said. “I got nothing.”
But in 2015, Miles said she received an interview to participate in the District 3 Advisory Board from the sitting City Council member. Miles also said she remembered filling out a conflict of interest form for the DAB and her later appointment to the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, another city board.
But Miles’ experience is not everyone’s. After board and commission members apply to be on a board, next steps can vary broadly based on the City Council member and type of board.
“It just kind of depends on the council members. Some of them interview every applicant, some of them interview the top applicants, some of them don’t do any interviews at all,” Johnson said. “That part varies.”
Members of the Ethics Advisory Board and Diversity Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory Board undergo criminal background checks.
But every board and commission member is not required to fill out a conflict of interest form, which City Council members must do. Council members have to complete substantial interest forms that include any ownership interests, gifts received and places of employment.
Board and commission appointees are asked to refrain from violating the state conflict of interest statute. They also must follow the city’s ethics policy that asks appointed officials to avoid conflicts of interest. Appointees to the new Ethics Advisory Board have to attest that they have no conflicts of interest, including owning business entities that contract with the city of Wichita. Library board members are asked to fill out conflict of interest disclosure forms when they are appointed, according to Wichita Public Library Communications Specialist Sean Jones. So are members of the Cultural Funding Committee.
There is also not a formal process to vet relationships between appointees and council members to ensure they are not business associates, clients or employees, Johnson said.
“For the most part we rely on the honor system from both the council member and their appointment,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon. “Staff doesn’t have the capacity to determine the nature of council members’ relationships with various citizens.”
How other cities vet board members
Three other nearby cities require board and commission members to fill out conflict of interest forms.
In Kansas City, Missouri, board members are required to fill out a conflict of interest form prior to being officially approved for a seat, according to The Kansas City Beacon. The form asks applicants if they own a business that contracts or supplies with the city and to list any property within city boundaries, among other specific questions.
These reports must be filed annually. Board members who fail to update these forms annually are considered to have resigned, according to KCMO’s municipal code.
In Kansas City, Missouri, city staff members also run online searches and call references when a resident applies for a board, according to The Kansas City Beacon.
Neither Oklahoma City nor Kansas City, Missouri, requires background checks for their boards and commissions, like the majority of Wichita boards.
“Most of the appointees are informally vetted as we either know them or they have been recommended by trusted sources,” Steve Hill, the chief of staff for Oklahoma City, wrote in an email to The Beacon.
Wichita ‘trying to evolve’ its policies
Many of the boards in Wichita are advisory, Johnson said. This means that the board makes recommendations to the City Council, but the council has the final say on issues.
Some boards have more power than others, Johnson said. The Library Board of Directors determines policy and procedure for the city’s libraries. The ethics board can levy fines and publicly censure elected or appointed officials. Recent changes to the Citizen’s Review Board allow it to issue written reports when it reviews investigations into complaints about police officers.
Mayor Brandon Whipple said that as Wichita evolves, it may need to consider more policies and procedures around ethics. Last year, the city passed a new ethics policy that limited gifts officials could receive.
“One of the things Wichita is doing policywise is trying to evolve from a small town to a big city,” Whipple said. “We have that small-town feel. Usually in smaller municipal governments, you don’t need to have big conflict of interest stuff, everyone kind of knows each other.”
Russell Arben Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, said that bigger cities tend to have stricter rules about who can be appointed to boards and commissions and how to prevent conflicts of interest.
“I think that Wichita is slowly flailing its way towards the sort of very, very clear and very strict lines that exist in larger cities,” Fox said. “I just don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet.”
Some Wichita council members said a conflict of interest form for boards and commission members is something to consider. But they also emphasized how difficult it is to find appointees in the first place.
“I think it’s worthy of considering, certainly,” said council member Bryan Frye, who represents District 5.
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