Pastor Mark Holland doesn’t confine his preaching to Sunday mornings at church. He is also known to sermonize in his capacity as mayor of Kansas City, Kan.
A recurring theme: the need for transparency and avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest when it comes to government officials.
“You cannot be on both the giving and receiving end of public money,” he says.
On that point, he can be something of a nag. Or so it seems to Ann Murguia, the 3rd District commissioner in the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
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During the eight years she has represented the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods on the 11-member Unified Government board, Murguia and Holland have often sparred over what he sees as her obvious conflict of interest and what she sees as an odd obsession of his.
The sticking point is her role as someone in a position to decide where tax dollars should be spent while at the same time heading a nonprofit corporation that, until Holland intervened several years ago, got some of those dollars for its projects.
Now arguably the two most powerful politicians in Wyandotte County are at it again in a metro enclave where cronyism and self-dealing were supposed to be things of the past after the 1997 consolidation of city and county government.
“It smacks of an old way of doing business,” Holland said of the favoritism that he alleges Murguia has shown recently in recommending funding to projects he alleges she has some involvement in.
The allegation stings Murguia, who counters that she works selflessly to better the county as a whole and the inner-city district she represents in particular. Everything she does, she says, is aboveboard.
“Do I advocate for groups that are in my district?” she said in an angry and exasperated response to Holland’s concerns at a heated budget meeting last month. “All day long, and I will do it all day long 24/7 the rest of my life, and I don’t care what it looks like.”
The agency Murguia works for no longer directly benefits from local government funds. And the Unified Government’s ethics administrator found no problem with one of the projects that troubled Holland. But that didn’t ease his concerns.
Holland says their dispute dates to shortly after Murguia’s election in 2007. That’s when she went from unpaid volunteer to paid executive director of the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association, making $95,000 a year, according to ANDA’s most recent tax return.
Holland also was elected to the commission in ’07. Two years into his first term, he learned that Murguia had begun seeking city funding for her agency.
At first it was two grants totaling $55,000 for neighborhood improvements. In 2009, ANDA put in a request for a large chunk of the $3.6 million in stimulus money the feds had awarded KCK.
Holland thinks it looks bad for public officials to funnel money to an organization where they also have a financial involvement.
So that year, while still an at-large commissioner, Holland narrowly pushed through ethical guidelines that prevent ANDA from receiving any money through the Unified Government as long as Murguia is on that agency’s payroll.
On paper, that would seem to have put an end to the matter. And other than becoming an issue when the two squared off in the 2013 race to replace Joe Reardon as mayor, it really hadn’t come up much lately.
But recently the issue glowed red hot again.
While reviewing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Holland concluded that Murguia was once again using her position as a commissioner to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars not to ANDA but to a group closely affiliated with ANDA.
His line of thought went like this:
▪ She was on the subcommittee that recommended a $500,000 payment to the Argentine Betterment Corp.
▪ Argentine Betterment Corp., known as ABC, listed ANDA as a partnering agency on the plan to build or renovate houses in the Argentine and Turner areas.
▪ ABC hasn’t built a single house in its nearly six years of existence, while ANDA has built a couple of dozen houses over the years.
▪ ABC was the only group recommended for the funding because others weren’t told that money might be available for the first time in years for brick-and-mortar projects like the one ABC proposed.
To Holland, the process felt rigged and unfair.
“I don’t think it looks good,” Holland told his fellow commissioners at a budget meeting last month July. “I think it looks like inside baseball.”
Murguia denied any impropriety when Holland pressed his case at the July 16 commission meeting, although the funding request, now reduced to $350,000, remains on hold pending further discussion.
That holdup is due to Holland’s threat to veto the entire city budget if the allocation wasn’t delayed. His reason for that rests partly on other things his research turned up after the testy exchange between the two of them.
He found at least one other instance where ANDA and ABC were again listed as partners on a project that was awarded $258,000 last year in federal pass-through funds from the Community Development Block Grant program.
That money was for developing a property next door to Murguia’s house on Strong Avenue, partly on land now belonging to ANDA.
What’s more, ANDA is listed on another document filed with the city in June as being the project manager for the 14 villa-style housing units contemplated for that corner. Those units would be for low- to moderate-income residents.
While he alleges no illegalities, Holland said the transactions give the appearance that Murguia is making an end run around the ANDA funding prohibition.
The suggestion angers Murguia and her allies on the commission.
“People need to be very careful about making insinuations that are absolutely a hundred percent not true!” Murguia said on July 16.
At her request, the county’s ethics administrator reviewed the $500,000 project and found no violations of the ethics code. The administrator was not asked to look at the others.
But the dispute is ongoing, with neither side backing down, and more discussions set for next month.
Code of ethics
To outsiders, the turmoil might be dismissed as inside baseball of the ho-hum sort.
But given Wyandotte County’s history, Holland and his political allies say the discussion is paramount to the integrity of the Unified Government.
After all, one reason for combining city and county governments nearly two decades ago was to cast off Wyandotte County’s reputation as a swamp of political corruption, rife with kickbacks, cronyism and inefficiency.
The Unified Government has striven since then to establish a squeaky-clean, businesslike image, which has helped attract business development, especially out near Kansas Speedway. The Unified Government’s voter-approved charter called for the establishment of an ethics commission to enforce a code that “requires that unified government representatives be independent, impartial, and responsible to the people.”
Most other communities in Kansas rely on the state ethics commission to weigh in on real or perceived conflicts of interests, but the committee that drew up the charter thought the Unified Government needed one of its own.
“They wanted checks and balances in place so that history didn’t repeat itself,” said Carol Marinovich, who was the last mayor of the old city government at the time of consolidation and the first elected mayor and CEO of the Unified Government.
Only a year ago, Murguia and some of her allies on the commission suggested that it might be time to get rid of those checks and balances. Wyandotte County’s image had changed since 1997.
But there wasn’t much support for a change.
“I’m not sure we’re as far along as you suggest,” District Judge Wayne Lampson, who helps select members of the local ethics commission, said at the time. “I still get a lot of language from people they don’t trust any of us.”
Murguia ran for office because she wanted to help revitalize Argentine, the largely Hispanic neighborhood immediately south of the BNSF railroad yard and west of the 18th Street Expressway.
She is from Iowa, but her husband, U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia, grew up in Argentine and chose to raise their family there.
To help revitalize a neighborhood that many had deserted, Ann Murguia helped start ANDA, which works on blight removal, advocates for public improvements and builds housing.
“We’ve built 25 houses with 19 more units on the way,” she said by phone last week during a meeting break of the Kansas Board of Regents, of which she is a member.
Revitalizing the inner city is also a goal of the Unified Government, which is why Murguia has always found it strange that Holland sees her dual role to be a conflict as long as she is not personally benefiting from government funding.
But she says she has lived within those rules since ANDA was cut off from Unified Government funding, which is why the recent controversy has been such a shock.
“I was taken completely off guard by his flare-up on this,” she said.
It’s never been a secret that ABC works closely with ANDA, she said.
The very same month that the Unified Government turned off the cash spigot to the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association in 2009, the Argentine Betterment Corp. was formed, with a former ANDA board member, Mario Escobar, installed as chairman.
Although ABC held itself out as a separate entity, it took over some of the projects ANDA was working on, such as the effort to attract a Save-A-Lot, the first of now two grocery stores in what was then a food desert.
And recently ABC began seeking city funding for housing projects in Argentine and Turner.
One of those requests drew Holland’s notice this summer because ANDA was listed on the funding application as a “partnering agency.” In her written opinion, ethics administrator Ruth Benien agreed that the mention left the impression that ANDA also might be receiving some of the money.
But that concern would go away, Benien ruled last month, if Escobar simply blacked out the reference on the application because, according to Murguia, ANDA was only offering free consulting services to ABC.
“ANDA does not receive one dime,” Murguia said.
Holland counters that “a black marker doesn’t change that appearance” that ABC and ANDA were financial partners.
And it doesn’t negate what he sees as a troubling pattern.
“My concern is that it’s not one instance, it’s five instances in 18 months,” he said, “and it’s not one year but eight years.”
In June, for example, ABC received $45,000 in casino grant funds through Murguia, thanks to an application that listed ANDA as “a key community partner,” Holland said.
Murguia shrugs it off, pointing to her repeated clear bills from ethics officials over the years, and predicts that relations on the commission could be tense from here on.
“I anticipate it will be difficult,” she said.
When a six-person majority signaled its intention to fund ABC’s latest request over Holland’s objections, he threatened to veto the entire Unified Government budget.
Murguia and her allies backed off, but not happily.
In a Facebook post the next day, Commissioner Angela Markley said she was “disappointed that our mayor continues to allege inappropriate behavior, even in light of the analysis of our ethics commissioner.”
His position, she wrote, was damaging to the commission and the community.
Markley did not respond to an interview request.
Commissioner Mike Kane also was aggravated at Holland’s veto threat and in the heat of the moment criticized the mayor for being divisive.
But Kane was more measured in his assessment when reached last week.
“I would like to see us move forward,” he said. “I think we can.”