Allegations of wrongdoing continue to fly between two Lawrence City Commission candidates.
In statements emailed to the Journal-World last week, City Commission candidate Christian Lyche accused incumbent commissioner Matthew Herbert of being “scolded by the city ethics committee for awarding his personal company huge city painting contracts.”
Lyche’s accusations came after Herbert’s wife, Rachael Sudlow, posted on social media allegations that Lyche had hosted a keg party at a rental property that Herbert and Sudlow manage, and that the party caused thousands of dollars in damage to the property. On her Facebook page, Sudlow called Lyche a "dirtbag kid." Lyche, 19, has denied that he was a host of the party.
The Journal-World did not immediately publish Lyche’s accusations against Herbert because it wanted to investigate the veracity of the claims. Upon review, several of Lyche’s claims proved incorrect.
There is no city ethics committee, and there are no records that Herbert’s house painting business has been awarded any city contracts. However, Herbert did acknowledge that he briefly investigated seeking a city painting job, but abandoned the idea after the city attorney counseled against it.
Herbert, who in addition to being a high school teacher runs his own property management company, said that he was asked by Lawrence Police Officer Drew Fennelly to assess a painting job for the department's training room. Fennelly is also chairman of the local police union that represents Lawrence police officers. Herbert said that on May 4 he visited the facility, but after speaking with city legal staff did not submit a bid.
“It was all over and done with in a day,” Herbert said. “And like I said I never submitted a bid and I called (Lawrence Police Department staff) and left a voicemail saying that I wouldn’t be submitting a bid.”
The Journal-World did not locate a record of the painting project in the city’s published bids, but City Attorney Toni Wheeler confirmed that Herbert has not submitted a bid to paint the police facility training room. She did not say whether or not she spoke with Herbert about it but stated the situation is governed by state statute.
The statute, K.S.A. 75-4304, states that local governmental officers cannot make or participate in a contract in which they have a “substantial interest.” However, local leaders could receive such a contract as long as they abstain from any action regarding the contract. Essentially, it is legal for city commissioners to enter into contracts with the city as long as they don’t vote or otherwise participate in the contract in their capacity as an elected official.
The Journal-World informed Lyche shortly after receiving his allegations that the city does not have an ethics committee and that the Journal-World hadn’t thus far been able to locate a bid matching the one Lyche described in his original statement. Lyche maintained Herbert used his position unethically.
“Had he not been convinced otherwise, he would have used his government position to award his own company a very valuable city contract,” Lyche wrote in an email.
Herbert disputes that assertion. Herbert said when he asked Wheeler about the painting job immediately following the assessment, she told him not to submit a bid and that he "absolutely" understands that. He also said that he has never submitted any other bid to the city and has not received any payment other than what he receives for his seat on the City Commission, which he noted that he donates.
“The very first thing I did was contact the city attorney and ask about the situation,” Herbert said. “And I followed, to the letter of the law 100 percent, what she advised me to do, which was to not submit a bid, not take any interest in it, not do the work, not receive any payment for it. I have no interest in violating any ethical standards set forth by the state, by the city, by the federal government.”
The incident does highlight how the city’s bidding process has changed in recent months. Previously, all city bids and many city purchases were approved by the City Commission, which would have made it obvious to the public that a city commissioner was being awarded a contract.
However, the city’s bidding and purchasing policies were changed last year. The City Commission is required to approve purchases or services only if they are greater than $100,000. Previously, the commission approved all bids and all purchases greater than $15,000. City staff recommended the changes because those purchasing limits hadn’t been updated in years, and it was agreed the changes would make routine purchases more efficient.
The painting job in question may not be found in the bid results on the city’s website due to its price. Under the same procedures adopted last year, bids are required only when it is expected the goods or service will cost $50,000 or more. Previously, bidding generally was required for purchases greater than $15,000.
After the party at the rental property, a small-claims lawsuit was filed against Lyche but was dismissed in December. Lyche avoided multiple attempts to serve him with a summons, according to court documents. Herbert and members of his family have alleged that Lyche misrepresented himself as a pastor hosting a church retreat in order to actually rent the Airbnb property for a wild party.
Herbert and Lyche are two of eight candidates seeking three seats on the Lawrence City Commission. The terms of commissioners Lisa Larsen, Mike Amyx and Herbert are expiring this year. The other candidates are: Larsen, Bassem Chahine, Dustin Stumblingbear, Jennifer Ananda, Ken Easthouse and Mike Anderson.
The filing deadline for the City Commission race was last week. An Aug. 1 primary will narrow the field to six candidates.
Candidates filing for 2017 Lawrence City Commission electionJune 1 — Christian Lyche
May 30 — Mike Anderson
May 26 — Ken Easthouse
May 15 — Jennifer Ananda
March 31 — Dustin Stumblingbear
March 8 — Commissioner Lisa Larsen
Feb. 28 — Bassem Chahine
Feb. 23 — Commissioner Matthew Herbert
Related: Commissioner Mike Amyx announces he will not run for re-election (May 18)
Related: Seventh candidate filing forces Aug. 1 primary election (May 30)