Interview #60: Wichita, KS Mayor Jeff Longwell (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Known as the “Dry Wit of Wichita” (I made that up), Jeff Longwell can be ornery, humorous, and self-aware at council meetings. We had a fun chat about his 10 years on the council.

Q: At the May 9, 2017 council meeting, you were not actually there. Vice Mayor Janet Miller was running things. Here is how she started off:

Vice Mayor: For those of you who are wondering why I’m here and the mayor is not, his orneriness has finally caught up with him. He is home with kidney stones! He’s probably watching, so our thoughts are with you and I’ve told you not to be so ornery!

I’m not a medical doctor, but I DO believe orneriness IS the cause of kidney stones. Were you watching the meeting at home?

A: I was. I was in and out of taking pain medication. I was battling probably in the worst phases of my very first kidney stone.

Q: How much more pain did it cause you that she was bringing up your kidney stones on TV in front of the whole city?

A: [Laughs] Yeah, there’s not much you can hide as a public official! The nice thing is I received a lot of sympathy from people all over the city.

Q: I want to ask about the joint meeting between the Wichita city council and the Sedgwick County commission from June 27 of this year. You were negotiating a contract for ambulance services that the county provides. I don’t know if you’ve read The Art of the Deal, but in a negotiation, you are supposed to go in with your last acceptable alternative in mind–then threaten nuclear war with North Korea. What was your strategy?

A: [Laughs] I didn’t need a strategy to get them to deal. We held all of the cards! We had the option of signing the agreement or voiding the agreement and doing something on our own.

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Wichita, KS Mayor Jeff Longwell

Q: I noticed you cracking some jokes in the meeting. Do you use humor as a negotiating tactic?

A: I use humor sometimes to drive a point home without trying to make people defensive. My humor’s a little dry at times. It takes a while before you fully understand my humor.

Q: If you came out of a council meeting and couldn’t help a citizen or you voted in a way that made people mad, how long would that stick with you?

A: Oh, wow. We don’t have the luxury to dwell on votes. What I like to tell people: it’s great to have robust discussion. But once that vote’s been taken, everyone should act as if that vote was unanimous.

Q: Have you ever had second thoughts about anything that’s happened in a council meeting?

A: There’s some times where I’ve remained totally quiet and just let people talk and later regret, “why didn’t I say something?” Because what we often forget is what it looks like from the other end. If someone is making statements that aren’t necessarily true and we don’t counter that…oftentimes we say, “thank you. Okay, next speaker.” If we don’t counter those mistruths, at some point many in the community will go, “you didn’t say anything, so it must be true.”

Q: You’d err on the side of inserting yourself into the argument?

A: I think sometimes we have to.


Follow Mayor Jeff Longwell on Twitter: @jefflongwellict

#121: Aberdeen, SD 7/31/17

Do you recall the fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare?”

Well, Aberdeen’s city council meeting certainly started out as the hare: brash. Bold. Uninhibited.

“Ordinance 17-07-02, revising the city code relating to intersections. Anything new here?” queried Mayor Mike Levsen, pausing ever so briefly to listen for any intake of air or shuffling of seats.

Hearing nothing, a slam-dunk unanimous vote quickly dispatched the ordinance.

“Ordinance 17-07-04, relating to obstructions parked on city streets,” the mayor barreled ahead.

Briefly, the city attorney nudged the brakes.

“We did have one person who was all in favor of that change,” he informed the mayor with a hint of suspense. “A city employee in the public works department!”

Guffaws broke out as the ordinance again passed without dissent.

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It’s that dude’s lucky day.

Rounding the 11-minute mark, the mayor joked: “we’re done early; we can all go home!”

However, he received only a few wary nods–giving me the feeling that the tortoise phase of this meeting had dawned.

“The much-anticipated city manager’s report with the 2018 budget is next,” Mayor Levsen announced with a trace of resignation. He glanced over at city manager Lynn Lander. “We’ll see if we can appreciate the numbers you came up with.”

Lander took his place in front of a gigantic monitor and an even more gigantic set of notes. For the next 40 marathon minutes, he was in the driver’s seat on a sightseeing tour through the city’s bank account.

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I get it.

“The 2018 sales tax allocation is based upon the actual sales tax revenue collected in 2016, plus a growth factor,” he opened with a flourish.

“There is NO planned interceptor sewer work for 2018,” he emphasized heavily to grab council members’ attention.

“I am recommending adding three new positions to the city workforce: two patrol officers and a marketing concession manager for Wylie Park,” he dropped this major bombshell 20 minutes in.

The minutes slogged by in a dizzying array of pie charts and spreadsheet tables.

“I know I’m going very quickly,” he apologized, perhaps operating under a very different definition of the word “quickly.”

As he crossed the finish line, Lander concluded, “thank you for listening to me. I hope my rambling made sense.”

The mayor took a second to shake off the inertia and reach for his microphone. “Made sense to me!” he quipped cheerfully.

But suddenly, as folks gathered up their papers and rubbed their eyes, one person tossed a wrench into this finely-tuned budgetary machine.

“I have one thing. In the [promotion] fund allocations, we didn’t count the zeros,” Council Member Jennifer Slaight-Hansen thundered. “When you go in counting the zeros, it changes a half dozen of the allocations. I think we need to count the zeroes.”

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Make heroes out of the zeroes.

But Lander raised his hand and politely explained this complex piece of mathematics. “If there wasn’t at least five votes, the zeros really doesn’t matter.”

“It DOES make a difference in that median allocation,” she insisted.

“But,” interjected a confused Council Member Clint Rux, “if you have five people who voted for funding…then…there’s five people who voted for funding. Correct?”

This is why I hate calculus. Aberdeen’s “Zerogate” scandal was spiraling out of control. For the sake of ending the meeting on time, Council Member Slaight-Hansen retreated.

“Karl will send [the spreadsheet] to us and it’ll be more clear,” she sighed.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Karl, who was volunteered for spreadsheet duty apparently.

#117: Park City, KS 7/11/17

Emotions were running high at City Hall as Mayor Ray Mann called the meeting to order with a tearful farewell to an old friend.

“Daniela,” he murmured, “for the last time in this building that has served us well, would you call the roll?”

That’s right, the doors are closing on fabled Hydraulic Street and the message was clear: don’t leave anything behind tonight.

“We’ll be closed Thursday and Friday and Monday,” announced the city administrator. “We’ll be moving from this facility to the new facility.”

“We’ve got movers in place. So it’s gonna be a busy day Thursday and Friday,” the mayor observed, glancing sideways at a couple of the council members as if to say, “you’re still coming to carry boxes, right?”

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The new Park City Hall, I’m assuming

But rather than rest up and conserve their energy, the council found themselves thrust into the middle of an existential crisis.

“What has happened is the Kansas legislature decided to take a more proactive approach encouraging people to use their seatbelts,” an employee explained to steely glances. “They established a ‘Seatbelt Education Fund.’ Fines for seatbelts will increase from $10 to $30, and $20 will be sent to fund this.”

Then he revealed the kicker: “They’ve also added a section that says that no county or municipality can change it. Because we have an ordinance on the books that says the seatbelt fine is only $10, we have to change it.”

Council Member Tom Jones jumped in sounding about as enthusiastic as someone who’s been asked to move an entire city hall. “We don’t have any choice,” he sighed.

He added, seemingly with sarcasm, “they’re ‘helping’ us out again.”

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“Could they also help us load the vans on Thursday?”

But while Park City was cleaning up its ordinances, there was a lingering question: who would clean the brand new City Hall?

“They come in and clean the building while staff is not there?” quizzed Council Member George Capps.

“Yes, sir,” the clerk answered.

Capps seemed astonished. “What have you done to check their security?”

“They go through an extensive background check and get fingerprinted,” she assured him. “And those same individuals will have to clean every week.”

“Okay,” he eased up. “Thank you.”

Getting fingerprinted to clean a city hall? What kind of top-secret, classified, national security information are they stor–hold on. I just noticed something: EVERYONE is wearing official Park City-branded shirts! Man, that mayor runs a tight ship here.

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I DEMAND YOU SEND ME ONE OF EVERY COLOR, MAYOR!

As the meeting wrapped up, people shared their fond–and not so fond–memories from the Fourth of July.

“I thought the holidays went real good, except all the fireworks really got the dogs upset,” Council Member Capps smiled wearily. “I, for one, got bit. It’s just the price we pay, I guess.”

While I admire his cavalier attitude in the face of, well, sharp teeth, someone else paid zero price for his canine encounter.

“I was able to be part of the pet judge contest,” bragged Council Member George Glover. “They had ‘wagging tail dog’ and ‘best sit-up dog,’ ‘best trick dog’….It was good to be part of that.”

To that, Council Member Melvin Kerr retorted, “I think I was the most popular councilman. I was handing out the ice cream!”

With a hearty laugh, the last meeting in the old City Hall was over. Onward to greener pastures!

Final thoughts: Seriously, I would like a shirt please.

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

It’s time for the newest installment of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! You probably have not heard of Lake Forest, Illinois, but it is one of numerous Chicago suburbs along the North Shore of Lake Michigan. If you are a lover of trees, animals, or college towns, this is right up your alley. Oh, and the alleys in Lake Forest are beautiful also, by the way.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to pet some horses and reptiles with me, come on down to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 9: Lake Forest, Illinois

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Photo source: Google Street View

Lake Forest is about 30 miles north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a population of 20,000, Lake Forest is very affluent, very tree-lined, and the home of Lake Forest College, a private liberal arts school. We hear from a city councilwoman about the most important location in the city, go pet some reptiles at an animal house, plant trees with college students, and visit a horse-riding academy for kids with disabilities.

#114: Minnetonka, MN 6/26/17

“The next item on the agenda is ‘special matters,’ and that’s, uh, having me receive the C. C. Ludwig Award,” announced retiring Mayor Terry Schneider.

He practically whispered the last part, seeming slightly embarrassed to be standing in the middle of the room while superlatives were broadcast about him. Chalk it up to Midwestern modesty.

“A kind-hearted individual….we are eternally grateful,” Council Member Brad Wiersum read from multiple glowing recommendations. The mayor clutched his mic timidly with both hands.

“I want to reflect on a personal story that many of you haven’t heard,” he said cautiously, “that might be difficult for me to talk about.”

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I’m all ears

“People asked me, how can I sit through a contentious, controversial meeting and keep my cool and keep it civil? My standard answer is, well, I’m an introvert,” he explained in a gravelly voice. “So it’s the easiest thing for me to do. While that is true, it’s not the real reason why. And, um….”

Schneider coughed lightly and stared at the ground, trying not to cry. A black-and-white photograph of the mayor’s grandfather flashed onscreen.

“My grandparents lived in Plymouth [Nebraska] and I spent most of my summers with my grandparents. It was a phenomenal experience–particularly for an introvert–to be in a low-key town.”

The entire room was listening silently.

“I didn’t realize until after the fact, when we’re in a small town, you didn’t have any toys. One time, I made a bunch of darts. I was doing it in the living room. He was sitting on a rocking chair smoking his pipe. I was throwing and all of a sudden, it stuck him right in the eye.”

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IN THE EYE?!

A few people nervously chuckled. The mayor again paused to collect himself.

“He just sat there. Didn’t say a word. There’s this dart in my grandfather’s eye. So I walked up and took the dart out. He never said a word. That kind of quiet lesson taught me that there are consequences to your action.”

The mayor reached into his pocket and brandished a small trinket.

“I’ve got a little toy tank that he gave me when I was a kid. I would spend hours on the carpet running the tank around. So I carried this with me every day to remember to act like my grandfather. I realized after 20 years, I didn’t need to carry it.”

Council members smiled sympathetically as the mayor concluded: “My grandfather passed away exactly 50 years ago. So thanks for listening to that little story. Maybe somebody will be touched by it.”

I see the man’s point here. But if I may: when someone throws a dart into your eyeball, how on earth is the lesson to sit there until they come and pluck it out?! I’ve heard of turning the other cheek, but you’ve only got so many eyes–and those things are NOT dart-resistant.

I believe silence is golden, but retina damage is PERMANENT.

Speaking of which, in another first for me, council members abruptly donned official “Tour de Tonka” sunglasses as the bike ride’s director strode to the podium.

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Awww, group picture!

“You guys are amazing,” he beamed, pulling out his phone and snapping pictures. “You look amazing, every one of you.”

The ride, he said, “is a sense of accomplishment. It’s not a race. If you can go that far, you deserve a pat on the back.”

Now THAT is a perfect lesson about life–and about being mayor.

#113: Guthrie, OK 6/20/17

Spirits were riding high in the Guthrie council chamber as Mayor Steven Gentling took center stage with a beaming gray-haired woman.

“Whereas Maxine Pruitt has displayed a true commitment for the city of Guthrie for 25 years,” he read from a plaque so shiny I could see my reflection through the TV, “and has worked for NINE mayors, I am honored to declare Friday, July 7 as Maxine Pruitt Day.”

Whoops and hollers erupted in the standing room-only chamber. The mayor flashed an ear-to-ear grin and Pruitt accepted his handkerchief to dab her eyes.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” she spoke haltingly between tears. “My father-in-law, he very seldom missed a council meeting. He loved this town. I love this town. I love everybody in it.”

She whirled around to the dais. “And council, you all are the best.”

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What a gentleman!

City manager Leroy Alsup crept up to spring a second surprise on her. “Maxine collects paperweights,” he explained with a hefty key-shaped object in his hand. “So we got her a paperweight that has her name on the top and it says ‘Key to Retirement.'”

However, the good vibes promptly faded as the council turned to a subject even heavier than a paperweight: the old Excelsior Library.

“There’s been quite a bit of history on this,” frowned the city manager. “Over a three-year period, the Friends of the Library have committed to certain steps renovating the building.”

Suddenly, Council Member Brian Bothroyd leaned forward, grabbing his microphone.

“What happens if, after year one, the terms aren’t met?” he inquired sharply.

“The city has the right to terminate with 60 days written notice,” the manager replied.

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This is Dewey Decimal devastating

His answer set off Council Member Bothroyd on a forceful diatribe toward the Friends of the Library.

“I was requested to champion and make sure this building wasn’t gonna get demolished. And I did that,” he thundered.

“My goal was always to get y’all the key to the building, which I did. We surplused the building so I could hand you the keys on a silver platter! And it’s still sitting there.”

He gestured in outrage. “I wanna see you guys be successful. Leroy said it: the city has 60 days and they can retract the deal! I don’t wanna do that!”

“The city has some responsibility,” interjected Mayor Gentling hotly, “that we’re not turning over a building that’s set for failure.”

I don’t know what part of “key on a silver platter” the mayor wasn’t understanding. But Bothroyd reached into his bag of superlatives and pulled out a ringer.  “Again, when I’m championed to do something, I follow through. A hundred percent.”

If Council Member Bothroyd was a teensy touchy on the whole keys-on-platters ordeal, it may be because there was another issue knocking in his brain.

“I’m a straight shooter and I throw it on the table,” he ratcheted the folksiness to eleven.

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“I put the pedal to the metal and tiptoe through the tulips, okay?”

“Let me tell you what happened the other night: I got about 40 calls and counting. They asked, how come I didn’t want to settle the Bruning case?”

His voice went high in disbelief. “I said, I voted no on the MOTION. The motion WASN’T to settle the lawsuit. The other part was a tax on you and I! THAT’S what I voted against.”

He waved his hand dismissively after venting. “So I don’t have to field any more phone calls on it.”

I’ll spread the word.

#111: Sioux Falls, SD 6/13/17

When you think of South Dakota, you picture the lineup of four presidents gazing out from a mountainside. But after watching the Sioux Falls city council meeting, I’ll always picture the lineup of provocative public commenters!

“I’m a retired lawyer and full-time writer of nonfiction books,” announced a gray-haired man sporting a white Wilford Brimley moustache. “I want to talk about Senator R.F. Pettigrew. What would he think of his creation today?”

The commenter then traced a mesmerizing biographical journey through the life of Sioux Falls’s version of George Washington.

“He’s one of these people who could sit around a campfire and see a city in the making. He had a funny way of dealing with people standing in the way of progress: they were called ‘kickers’ and ‘croakers.'”

After listing several Sioux Falls mainstays that Pettigrew would’ve admired–schools, small businesses–the man reached an ironclad conclusion:

“One of the things that would make him especially proud is that his city, Sioux Falls, is far, far bigger than Yankton. He didn’t like Yankton.”

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R.F. Pettigrew, seen here grimacing in the direction of Yankton

“It’s tremendous commentary,” gently interrupted Mayor Mike Huether at the five-minute mark, “but I need you to wrap it up.”

Secretly, however, the mayor no doubt wished for another history lesson. Because the next commenter sauntered to the microphone with an American flag t-shirt and a palpable chip on his shoulder.

“I want to apologize to the people that are watching this city council meeting,” he began, presumably not including me. (But just in case, apology accepted, fam.)

“When people come up to me in the grocery store and they talk to me about issues in this city, I apologize for bringing them up to the city council,” he continued with his arms braced squarely on the podium.

“I always ask ’em, why don’t you come and do it yourself? And they said, no, we watch how people are treated at city council meetings. You’re either chastised during the meeting or chastised at the end of the meeting. That’s true.” He frowned deeply and took his seat.

“Thank you, Tim. Appreciate it,” the mayor viciously chastised him.

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Stay strong, patriot

Tim was replaced by an even more cocky complainant who aggressively launched into his grievances.

“After last week’s meeting, I sent you all a copy of the First Amendment. I thought maybe you could sharpen up on what it is,” he oozed with contempt.

“Tim said it best: why don’t a lot of people come up here to speak besides us five? Because they’re scared TO DEATH! They’re scared about repercussions. I hear it A LOT!”

He raised his voice an octave in closing. “We get yelled at. We get chewed out for doing what is our constitutional right!”

“Very good, thank you,” Mayor Huether chewed him out.

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Sioux Falls’s mayor, seen here screaming in the direction of Yankton

As councilors returned to the honorable business of legislating, something was clearly bothering Councilor Rex Rolfing.

“I have one observation,” he grimaced with arms folded. “It was sad to see the media leave directly after public input with seemingly no real interest in the real business of the city. It’s revealing to me, and I hope it is to the rest of the city.”

The mayor paused, then gestured to the back of the room. “Scouts, welcome,” he waved at the dozen Boy Scouts who were caught up in the middle of this awkward exchange.