Thousands of dollars have been rolling in to local city council campaigns this year from law firms, builders, engineers and others who could have an interest in future projects, a review of recent campaign contribution reports reveals.
An examination of pre-primary giving shows contributions disclosed to the county election office have been especially focused on two Overland Park city council races in which tax incentive skeptics are running.
Some of the longest development interest contributor lists are to opponents of incumbent Councilmember Faris Farassati, a critic of tax incentives, and Stephan Glentzer, a Brookridge neighbor who has spoken frequently against that project.
Development interests that could be readily identified pumped $4,100 into the Ward 5 campaign for Phil Bressler, who is challenging Farassati. Some of the same names donated $2,950 to Tom Carignan, who is running against Glentzer in Ward 3 for the seat being vacated by Councilmember David White.
The donations do not necessarily indicate attempts to gain influence over the candidates who received them — but they do show the high level of interest among developers and other interests in a few key local races. Bressler and Carignan have both said they will listen to all constituents and will not allow donations to influence their votes.
Law firms with real estate practices active in campaign contributions
The Post examined the receipts and expenditures reports that were due at the end of July, just before the primary. Races in question were in Overland Park, Shawnee and Lenexa – cities with ongoing development and contested races. Although hundreds of names appeared on those lists, a few stood out.
The law firm Lathrop Gage was one of the biggest contributors overall, giving $2,500 to Overland Park ward races and another $1,000 in Lenexa and Shawnee. That firm has an active real estate services section listed on its website.
Polsinelli law firm came in second, with $2,500 in Overland Park from the firm and individual lawyers John Petersen, Curtis Petersen and Robert Johnson. Polsinelli lawyers appear frequently at council and planning commission meetings to promote various projects, including the Brookridge development.
The Post reached out to representatives of both law firms. Polsinelli’s communications department noted that it is typical for Polsinelli to support candidates in government across all types of races.
Lathrop Gage provided the following statement: “Lathrop Gage campaign contributions are public record. Our firm has a proud tradition of leadership in government at the local, state and even federal levels. Our attorneys have served on school boards, city councils, as Mayors, as Governors, in state legislative positions, and even the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. We believe in investing in our communities.”
Other contributors overall included the Home Builders Association, civil engineering firm Affinis and a number of individual lawyers or employees of building-related firms.
Use of tax finance incentives key issue in Overland Park races
The Overland Park races hold particular peril for development interests because the makeup of the council and the public discussion has been changing.
Much of that can be traced to Brookridge, a $2 billion multi-use development proposed for the golf club near 103rd Street and Antioch Road that has been in negotiations with the city on various issues for over four years. Many neighbors closest to that project have adamantly opposed it and appeared again and again at public hearings to speak against it.
The development’s progress through city channels has sometimes faltered, and as time has passed, support on the council has weakened. White, for instance, has expressed doubt at times about its chances of approval and has voted against it on occasion.
Of 12 members Farassati and Gina Burke, who are newer to the council, have often voted against public/private financing packages for developers. But in some cases, a supermajority vote of nine is required. That would make this election of critical importance for that development.
Pro-development interests are not the only ones to take notice. Some Overland Park council candidates have received support – although at a much lower dollar value – from individuals who have been frequent questioners of tax incentives. Holly Grummert, Dan Osman, Glentzer, Farassati and Scott Hamblin have each received $500 or less from people such as Bob Miller, Ralph Beck and Charlotte O’Hara, who often speak against incentives.
Those candidates, labeled by Farassati as “outside” candidates, indicate that Overland Park citizens want to “reform” their representation, Farassati said.
“We have started a movement,” he said. “The time to be mesmerized by lobbyists is over.”
A young Overland Park may have once been wide open for developers, he said, but the times are changing. “Obviously they are moving to protect their influence on the city of Overland Park. They are professionals and they know what they are doing. They are doing it legally. But when it comes to representation there is an effort to cut this movement right now. I have been the leader of this movement,” Farassati said.
Farassati said he is not always against incentives and would listen to developers and vote for incentives when appropriate. But he turned down proffered contributions from a law firm and construction company in his first race. His contributions this year have come primarily from doctors and dentists. One exception was a $400 contribution from Pars Consulting Engineers of Leawood, which he said is owned by a family friend.
His opponent, Bressler, said he values all points of view that he hears campaigning. “Nobody could buy my vote. My job is to listen and that’s what I want to do. I’ll listen to anybody and everybody and make the best decision for what I would hope would be what the majority of residents of Overland Park want.”
Although he demurred from saying how he might vote on Brookridge in the future, Bressler said he sees himself as having a more positive outlook on growth than Farassati. “I appreciate anybody who serves, but I think there’s some concern he is maybe anti-business and anti-growth,” he said.
Tax incentives are tools are sometimes misunderstood as giveaways, he said, when actually the development will garner more tax revenue in the long run than undeveloped property. Without business development, residents will bear more of the tax burden, he said.
“I’m not all yes but I’m not all no. Redevelopment and northern Overland Park is where we need that development. We don’t want things to decline in our city.”
Glentzer, who lives in the Wycliff neighborhood near Brookridge, has often taken the podium to oppose it.
People should be aware that development interests have some dollars sunk into the city races, he said. “The money usually talks,” Glentzer said. “Is he (opponent Carignan) going to turn a blind eye to the fact that he took all this money from them and then he’s going to start voting against them? Common sense would probably say no.”
Carignan said the development related money would have no influence on his votes. “No, absolutely not,” he said. Carignan received the endorsement of David White, but he declined to say how he might vote on Brookridge. “At this point both ears are open and I’ve been listening to everyone I’ve been talking to.” Carignan said he’d rather wait until elected to make decisions how he would vote.
He does see public/private partnerships as a good way to encourage growth. “I think public private partnerships should be a tool in our toolbox,” he said. “I definitely would approach any project on an individual basis and learn as much as I can about whatever the proposal is and make a decision on a case by case basis.” He said he’s heard from residents on both sides of the Brookridge issue.
Development-related giving has been a factor to a lesser extent in other races in Overland Park and elsewhere. Records showed $1,250 in contributions to incumbent Terry Happer Scheier, $1,750 to incumbent Fred Spears and $1,850 to incumbent Richard Collins. Collins is opposed by Scott Hamblin, who recently won a court battle regarding eminent domain proceedings on his property. Neither Hamblin nor the other challengers showed any obvious contributions from real estate interests.
Contributions of note in Shawnee, Lenexa
In Shawnee, most development related activity has been in the mayoral race, with incumbent Michelle Distler getting $1,000 total from Ernest Straub and Straub Construction, and challenger Stephanie Meyer getting $1,600 from development interests.
In Ward 1 incumbent Jim Neighbor got $1,350 from similar interests and in Ward 3 Kevin Straub, himself a real estate agent, listed $3,620 in contributions from himself. Readily identifiable development contributions did not show up in the reports from Neighbor’s opponent, Tammy Thomas or Straub’s opponent, Lisa Larson-Bunnell.
In Lenexa, Julie Sayers in Ward 4 was the only candidate with more than $1,000 in contributions from development related interests. She received $1,850, most of which came in a $1,000 donations from Linda and Robert Taylor of Realm Construction, Blue Springs. Her opponent, Linda Leeper, received $750. In Ward 1, Chris Poss received $600 from development interests while Courtney Eiterich did not have obvious development contributions.
One interesting side note was to be found in Stephanie Meyer’s contributor list. She reported a $500 contribution from Richard Smotkin, a Pennsylvania consultant.
Smotkin had a brief moment of fame last year when it became known he helped arrange a trip for former EPA head Scott Pruitt to Morocco. Smotkin was registered as a foreign agent to promote Moroccan interests. According to a Washington Post story, the arrangement raised questions for its expense and because federal law prohibits public officials from using their position to financially benefit personal connections.
Meyer said she knew Smotkin because of her participation in the American Council of Young Political Leaders, a non-partisan group that sends young leaders on exchanges to other countries. Meyer said she met Smotkin, who is a trustee of ACYPL on one of those exchanges and had mentioned she might run for mayor, but did not solicit a contribution.