Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler surely can’t be surprised that his “handshake deal” to live in a county-owned house near Wyandotte County Lake Park for barely any rent is raising questions.
How could he be when his arrangement was, for a long time, kept from public view? How could he be surprised when he can knock down his monthly rent payment by simply cleaning the house, mowing the lawn or driving to Lowe’s to pick up some paint? That’s the deal he struck with the county: He’ll fix up the place in exchange for a break on rent.
Zeigler knows that Wyandotte County homeowners can’t reduce their mortgages by doing the same thing.
How could Zeigler possibly be surprised, given his standing as one of the Unified Government’s most high-profile officials? This is an era, after all, when the public is demanding more governmental transparency. Sweetheart deals are as popular as sleet storms.
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But there Zeigler was in recent days expressing shock that the deal was under scrutiny.
“People have verbal agreements all the time. Obviously, I work for the Unified Government,” he said. “I’m their employee. I’m not going to screw anybody over.”
But this is a government deal, and agreements should be in writing so that the public can scrutinize them. Surely a longtime public servant like Zeigler gets that.
Even now, a big question remains: Why in the world does the police chief of Kansas City, Kan., who earned $148,174 last year need free housing? Does any other chief in a significant American city enjoy a similar arrangement?
As is often the case, a citizen brought the matter to the public’s attention. Janice Witt, a county resident who once ran for mayor, started asking questions in July. Last month, she and her husband filed a lawsuit challenging Zeigler’s lease. The lawsuit describes the arrangement as a “sweet deal” made “covertly” through “cronyism and quid pro quo favoritism.”
Under Zeigler’s two-year deal that began Jan. 1, he agreed to pay $19,000 to rent the property for two years. As of last week, he had yet to make a rent payment. That’s because he can offset the rent with his expenses while he fixes up the house.
To be sure, the 1930s two-bedroom house with the dirt floor in the basement was in rough shape. It’s been vacant for years, and the county apparently had little interest in rehabbing it.
But now, thanks to officials’ latest attempt to operate in the shadows, the county has a public relations problem, not to mention a lawsuit. Mayor David Alvey is defending the arrangement, telling The Star that the agreement was in the best interests of residents.
He suggested that Witt publicized the story for political purposes. Whatever. We’re glad she did. Commissioner Ann Brandau-Murguia rightly noted that the fact the lease wasn’t signed until eight months after it went into effect was troublesome. The Unified Government typically requires that any lease be in place before possession occurs.
Zillow notes that other two- and three-bedroom houses within 2 miles of Zeigler’s go for $849 to $1,495 a month.
Wyandotte County could have avoided this controversy with an open, straightforward process. Now a county once known for insider dealing will face more questions about such a questionable arrangement.