Wichita council member Frye’s vote buys time for wife’s employer on city contract
Wichita City Council member Bryan Frye cast a decisive vote Tuesday related to a city contract with his wife’s employer, Copp Media Services.
Frye’s vote raises questions about whether his vote ran afoul of the city’s ethics rules that aim to prevent council members from voting on friend-and-family deals.
Copp Media provides outsourced marketing services to the city’s Eisenhower National Airport. The contract would allow Copp Media to receive a 15% commission for placing advertisements and $150 hourly rates for search engine optimization and social media management.
Sheila Frye, the council member’s wife, is the company’s business manager.
Frye did not disclose the potential conflict of interest from the bench or recuse himself from the vote. And Mayor Brandon Whipple and City Council members who knew about it did not raise any public objections during Tuesday’s meeting, citing confusion over who actually voted.
Frye said he believes he was within the city’s ethical boundaries because his Tuesday vote was not on the contract itself but a decision on when to vote on it. He seconded a motion to delay the contract a week and then voted on the motion, which failed. He then cast what was ultimately the deciding vote on a second motion to bring the contract back up for discussion next month.
“There wasn’t a vote on Copp Media. That was a procedural vote regarding the agenda item and delaying it,” Frye told The Eagle.
“I never asked for the delay. In fact, the only word I ever said during the entire discussion was ‘second’ on (Brandon) Johnson’s motion.”
The delay buys time for city staff and Copp Media to gather information in an attempt to persuade the council to approve the contract, as was recommended by the city’s selection and screening committee.
Frye’s vote keeps the contract in play until at least April 4, when it will be voted up or down.
Frye previously recused himself from voting on a contract with Copp Media in 2018, when it was last approved. He said he plans to recuse himself when the City Council revisits the latest proposed contract in April.
“I will be consistent with what I’ve done in the past involving Copp Media contracts and I will continue to recuse myself,” he said.
Without Frye’s vote, the contract is likely to fall short of the four votes needed for approval.
Whipple, Vice Mayor Mike Hoheisel and City Council member Maggie Ballard have expressed interest in having the city’s communications department do the work.
Whipple told The Eagle that Frye should have recused himself Tuesday. He and Frye are likely opponents in the August mayoral primary election, and Frye previously filed an ethics complaint against Whipple after the city hired a member of Whipple’s campaign team as the mayor’s assistant.
“Our ordinance is pretty specific that you can’t influence the awarding of a contract that impacts a spouse or close family member,” Whipple said. “Copp Media is on Bryan Frye’s statement of substantial interest form, and he seconded the motion to delay the vote. That’s when I called a recess and asked legal whether he was allowed to do that.”
Whipple paused the meeting on Tuesday for five minutes during debate of the Copp contract.
During the break, Whipple said he asked assistant city attorney Sharon Dickgrafe for advice, and “she basically said she thinks that he may be able to second the motion but he definitely has to abstain from the vote.”
Instead, Frye joined Whipple, Hoheisel and Ballard in voting to delay action until April.
Whipple questioned Dickgrafe from the bench. But he did not publicly state his concern about Frye’s vote related to his wife’s employer.
“That motion passes?” Whipple asked.
“Yes,” Dickgrafe said. “If there’s four ‘yes’ votes, the motion would pass.”
“Say more about it,” Whipple said.
“If there’s four affirmative votes, then the motion would pass,” Dickgrafe said.
“The math isn’t what I was worried about, but if you see no issues, I guess we’ll move on,” Whipple said.
Whipple told The Eagle he regrets not being more explicit in his request for clarity.
“My goal was not to make a big scene,” Whipple said. “But there should be no leeway of interpretation here. This should never have gotten his vote.”
Frye said he was unsure how the council would have proceeded if he abstained from the vote.
“Had I abstained, it would have been a 3-2-2 [vote], and then I don’t know if that is a dead vote or if it had to take four to move it procedurally,” Frye said.
Ballard said she didn’t bring up Frye’s vote at the council meeting because she saw a member had abstained and assumed it was Frye.
It was actually Council member Becky Tuttle who abstained without explanation. Typically, council members announce why they are abstaining from a vote when an agenda item is introduced.
Tuttle told The Eagle on Tuesday afternoon that she abstained because she paid Copp Media Services for work on her campaign in 2019.
“Because of that, I felt that, in full disclosure, I wanted to make sure that I abstained so there wasn’t any question of my intention of the vote,” Tuttle said.
Records show she paid the company $14,938.67 for “geofencing, outdoor digital signage, journal and newspaper advertising.”
That’s not the only time Copp, which has had a contract with the city since 2013, has simultaneously worked for the city and participated in political activities during city elections.
In 2021, former City Council member Cindy Claycomb paid Copp $60,000 for media services in her campaign against Ballard.
Ballard, who defeated Claycomb, said she does not support the contract with Copp because it works on city political campaigns.
“You’ve got two choices,” Ballard said. “You can either take contracts from the city or you can work on campaigns. But you can’t do both.
“It’s nothing against the company, I’m sure they’re a fine firm and do great work, you just can’t do both sides. You can’t double dip like that. So until they decide which side they’re going to pick, I’m a ‘no’ on this contract.”
Frye, who was first elected to the council in 2015 after serving five years on the city’s park board, did not pay Copp during either of his campaigns.
The federal government and some states have laws prohibiting companies from working on political campaigns and government contracts at the same time. But Kansas has no such law and the city has no rules prohibiting marketing companies from working on city elections and accepting city contracts.
Copp indicated the company shouldn’t be forced to choose.
“I don’t think it is [a conflict],” Copp President Bonnie Tharp told The Eagle. “I don’t know why it would be. It’s not in the contract that you can’t handle political campaigns.”
City ethics law prohibits council members from “using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates.”
A council ethics policy, which established the Ethics Advisory Board in an attempt to clean up ethical dilemmas on the council, calls for officials to refrain from “participating in decisions or being involved in transactions in which officials, their family, friends, or business entity have an interest.”
It goes on to state that if involvement cannot be avoided, the official must make a “full disclosure of association.” It’s unclear how to satisfy that requirement. Frye disclosed the potential conflict in a filing with the election office. At no point during Tuesday’s meeting did Frye or anyone else mention that his wife serves as Copp Media’s office manager.
Wichita has paid Copp $1,926,046 over the last decade, city spokesperson Megan Lovely told The Eagle.
“Please keep in mind this includes not only the agency contractual fee but the cost of the ad buys themselves,” Lovely said in a statement. “So not only does this include the agency work of social media management, media buying and planning and assessment, but also the cost of billboards, print, radio, digital buys, etc.”
Ballard and Whipple both pointedly asked City Manager Robert Layton why the city was still moving forward with plans to outsource airport marketing after conversations from the bench last year about shifting responsibilities to the city communications staff.
“Why do we contract everything out? We spend a lot of money asking other people to do our work, and maybe we should hire more people in-house and do some of our own work,” Ballard said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Layton said the request for proposal that Copp Media responded to refined and narrowed the scope of services from previous agreements in response to council members’ interest in shifting responsibilities.
“What we tried to reflect in this RFP is purchasing services that are specialized that we didn’t believe we could build in-house,” Layton said.
Copp was selected from a pool of three applicants by a committee of airport stakeholders, Airport Director Jesse Romo said. A City Hall procurement representative oversaw the process, and Tuttle sat in on agency interviews but did not participate.
Tharp, the Copp Media president, said her agency works with the airport’s in-house marketing team to develop media buying strategies, as well as providing search engine optimization and social media consultation. Copp does not handle day-to-day management of the airport’s social media page.
Hoheisel said he would like to review data on the performance of Copp Media’s previous marketing campaigns before voting on the contract renewal.
Council member Brandon Johnson advocated for passing the proposed contract Tuesday.
“It sounds like some of us would like to bring this in-house, which is a shift in process,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where if that’s where we’re going to go, I would think we should maybe consider that next year just because a process has happened, applicants have applied . . . recommendations to the council, and to say no now kind of flies in the face of that whole process.”