Corrupt or crazy? County commissioners trade accusations

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By Sam Jack

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau attacked the integrity of his colleague, Michael O’Donnell, during two commission meetings last month,  Nov. 8 and Nov. 29, and he repeated his accusations in an interview this week.

O’Donnell represents the Second District on the commission, including Haysville and Clearwater, while Ranzau represents the north central part of the county, including Valley Center and Maize.

Ranzau claims that O’Donnell has tried to push the county government toward contracts and real estate deals that would benefit his friends, business associates or campaign contributors.

“He likes to go out and find ways to help his friends and campaign contributors get county work, and rather than letting staff take care of the issues, he tries to get involved himself, especially when it comes to buying and selling buildings,” Ranzau said.

He pointed specifically to the county-owned Kansas Greyhound Park. Last week, the commission voted 3-2 to sell that property at auction; O’Donnell voted in favor of the sale, while Ranzau voted against it.

“We actually, earlier this year, made an offer to sell it to Phil Ruffin for $1.3 million, even though it was appraised at $2.9,” Ranzau said. “And then he came up with an idea to swap it with the Ruffin Building downtown, for a new administration building. Those ideas didn’t come from staff; they didn’t come from hiring a real estate broker to find a solution.

“I don’t know that it’s anything illegal, but he’s operating in a way completely different than anything I’ve ever seen on this commission,” Ranzau added. “Anytime we have a situation, he’ll say, ‘I know this person. Let me see if I can connect the dots.’ ”

Ranzau’s concerns led him to make a motion to remove O’Donnell from the position of commission chairman pro-tem on Nov. 8. That failed on a 4-1 vote.

At last week’s commission meeting, Ranzau accused O’Donnell of changing his position on a county health department issue out of a combination of political expediency and personal pique.

“Mr. O’Donnell is not someone you can trust,” he said at the meeting. “He’s been completely disingenuous, and he is lying. … The public needs to know that you cannot trust a single thing coming out of that man’s voice, out of that man’s mouth.”

O’Donnell said that he did change his position on the county health issue, but only because he became convinced his initial stand was wrong.

“Yes, I changed my mind. Yes, Commissioner Ranzau was mad about it,” he said. “Before his eruption, I laid out the reasons why I changed my mind on that particular position. Even if I hadn’t changed my position, Commissioner (Jim) Howell did, so it would’ve passed 3-2. Commissioner Ranzau, unfortunately, is acting like a crazed person, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Responding to Ranzau’s broader accusations that he has behaved unethically or tried to engage in self-dealing, O’Donnell reiterated that he thinks Ranzau is “unstable.”

“He does not have the support of the commission and he is acting like a crazy person,” O’Donnell said. “This isn’t new: If you follow what Commissioner Ranzau has done the last seven years on the commission, his behavior is out of control.”

Ranzau said O’Donnell’s statements questioning his mental state are “an act of desperation,” and suggested that O’Donnell might be in “legal trouble.” The FBI tapped O’Donnell’s phone in June and July 2015, a fact that became public this February.

“He knows the facts are on my side, and he’s in a desperate situation. I think he’s actually scared because of the legal trouble he’s in, and what else can he say?” Ranzau said.