In Argentine, a stew of ethics questions over a fitness center, a Parks board seat, and Commissioner Ann Murguia

Gina Pepitone

On a muggy morning in early July, the Joe E. Amayo Argentine Community Center is deserted, save for a lone security guard. Tscher Mancks greets the man by name, and he waves us into the building. The doors lock behind us. We walk toward the gymnasium. It’s empty.

“A few years ago — before they put the Metro 24 in here — this place was always packed with all kinds of kids in here playing basketball, or different activities, at this time of the day,” Mancks says.

Mancks resides in Kansas City, Kansas, and spends a lot of time volunteering with kids in the community. She’s unhappy with what’s transpired here at the Amayo Center over the past few years. In 2017, a for-profit gym called Metro 24 Fitness took over a large chunk of this public building, after entering into a contract with the Unified Government of KCK and Wyandotte County to manage and operate a gym here. According to Mancks, children are only allowed in the gym for a few hours later in the afternoon, and Metro 24 Fitness only serves members ages 14 and up. The kids from the neighborhood, Mancks says, don’t have anywhere to go anymore.

For Metro 24 Fitness, it’s a pretty sweet deal. The company pays for supplies, furniture, equipment, and fixtures — the usual costs of operating a gym. But there’s no lease. The UG, which owns the building, doesn’t charge Metro 24 Fitness any rent. The UG also covers all Metro 24 Fitness’s utility bills. The gym is also permitted to set its own membership rates — which are currently $19.99 per month for KCK residents — and keep all the profits. (Those rates are subject to approval by the UG’s Park and Recreation Department.)

Since March, Mancks and a small but growing chorus of citizens have been expressing their displeasure with this public-private arrangement. They want Metro 24 Fitness gone and their old community center back. They were particularly appalled to learn, just a few weeks ago, about a recent nomination to join the UG’s Parks board: Matthew Warner, owner of Metro 24 Fitness. It would mean Warner sits on a board that makes recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Department — which in turn oversees Warner’s fitness center.

At the UG’s commission meeting on June 27, several KCK residents spoke out against what they view as a clear conflict of interest.

“This thing kind of looks dirty,” KCK resident Janice Witt told the commissioners. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test — that this guy is now being put on the board that will then allow him to vote on benefits that fall directly to him.”

“Well, let’s be clear,” UG Mayor and CEO David Alvey said following Mancks’ remarks at the meeting, “the members of the Parks and Recreation Board do not vote on anything. They are simply an advisory board. They have no fiduciary power. They simply hear from the community and then move that back and advise our Parks and Rec. So there is no ethical conflict here.”

After hearing more statements from residents, county administrator Doug Bach pointed out that the UG’s ethics board had previously ruled on similar appointments and determined that there was no conflict of interest regarding Warner. He said he had spoken with Ruth Benien, the UG’s ethics administrator, who told him she would take a closer look, but that the commission could go ahead and vote on Warner’s appointment. It was also stated that Warner would be required to recuse himself from any recommendations or votes that would directly involve Metro 24 or his financial interest.

Still, doubt about the ethics of the arrangement persisted. Warner was one of four nominees being considered for appointments to various boards that evening, and the agenda called for the vote to be done in one fell swoop: a commissioner could only approve all four appointments or oppose all four appointments, rather than support one appointee while opposing another.

Commissioner Melissa Bynum (1st District At-Large) asked if it would be possible to vote individually on the appointments. She was told that, because the agenda was already set, the votes could not be done separately.

Given the ethics concerns, Commissioner Tom Burroughs (2nd District At-Large) called for a vote to delay making a decision on the nominations until Benien could further consider the Warner pick.

“This probably isn’t going to be a favorable motion because I do know we have appointments that need to move forward, but I’m going to make a motion that we table this until we hear back from ethics,” Burroughs said. “I do believe there’s an opportunity here to vet some of this out without making a good situation bad, or a bad situation better.”

The vote to delay the approval of nominations indeed failed, 5-4. Commissioners Burroughs, Bynum, Harold Johnson (4th District), and Brian McKiernan (2nd District) voted in favor of the delay. Voting against the delay were Commissioners Angela Markley (6th District), James Walters (7th District), Jane Winkler Philbrook (District 8), Ann Brandau Murguia (District 3), and Mike Kane (District 5).

The commission then voted on the slate of nominees that included Warner. It passed 8-1, with Burroughs as the only commissioner voting against.

Bynum was the only commissioner who responded to The Pitch’s request for comment on the vote. She said in an email that she would have liked to have heard back from ethics, but that since the delay did not pass, and since the votes could not be unbundled, she did not want to vote against her own appointment to the planning and zoning board.

“Our county administrator had advised us in the commission meeting that in his communications with both our Legislative Auditor, Tom Wiss, and our ethics administrator, Ruth Benien, no conflict was present,” Bynum says. “However, it seems our ethics administrator was also going to do a bit more research. I was willing to wait for that to occur. However, that was not the case Thursday night.”

Bynum declined to speculate on if she would have voted against Warner’s appointment had the votes been done individually.

Several community members in attendance were disappointed that Warner’s nomination was approved. Dianne Aguirre, a KCK resident who says she’s spent 20 years volunteering with kids at the Amayo Center, says they’ll be closely monitoring the ethics review.

“We made a complaint … that this is unethical,” Aguirre says. “[The ethics commissioner] says she’s still going to do the investigation, and we’re going to follow behind her.”

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Gina Pepitone

Find a Wyandotte County development where government dollars intersect with private dollars, and you’re likely to find the combative 3rd District Commissioner Ann Brandau Murguia. The Metro 24 Fitness situation is no exception.

Part of Metro 24 Fitness’ contract with the UG stipulated that, “upon the availability of funding,” the UG would renovate the community center to “enhance the appearance and functionality of Fitness Center.” Last November, those renovations were completed. But the funds didn’t come from the UG, which Murguia says didn’t have the cash when the time came. Instead, Murguia raised the money herself, privately.

Loyal readers of The Pitch may not be surprised to learn that those funds were raised through efforts Murguia directed for the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association, or ANDA, a controversial nonprofit in Argentine. At the time, Murguia was the executive director. (She stepped down from the role in November 2018.)

As it happens, Murguia was also the commissioner who nominated Warner to fill the vacant seat on the Park Board.

“Matt is a small business owner and a fitness entrepreneur,” Murguia told The Pitch in an email. “I think his experience can be very helpful to the county parks department.”

For skeptical community members, Warner’s nomination coming from Murguia only adds to the perception that the Metro 24 Fitness deal isn’t above board.

“[Murguia] is for the Metro 24,” says Faith Rivera, an Argentine resident who says her kids used to attend dance classes at the Amayo Center until being told by new management that they couldn’t use the community center to rehearse anymore. “What will happen now is Matt [Warner] will be able to make decisions. That’s a conflict of interest. What’s crazy is that he’s a for-profit business in the community, in a not-for-profit building,”

Murguia points out that it is her responsibility as a commissioner to make nominations and that the renovations she supported were for the entire center, not just Metro 24 Fitness.

“I represent the majority of people in my district,” Murguia says. “This small group [of opposition] does not represent the majority of people in my district.”

To emphasize the community’s support of Warner’s appointment to The Pitch, Murguia promised she’d have several Argentine residents call or write to attest to his virtues. We heard a few. One, Chris Wing — 31 years old, lifelong resident of the Dotte — called Warner a “proven gym leader” who “took a risk” by opening Metro 24 Fitness at the Argentine location. Another, Mario Madrigal, who confused The Pitch for the Star, wrote the following:

The Kansas City Star has become one of the laughing stocks of America. It is because of a few people in district 3 in my great city that you and others continue to crap on the people of Argentine especially. Commissioner Murguia has done more for this community than any of her predecessors since this city went to its current format. Her predecessor was born and raised in district 3 and the only time he was seen was during an election year. We had streets and sidewalks that had gone untouched in my sixty years of living in Argentine until Ann took office. She is constantly walking the neighborhood or driving around. We had business after business because are city leaders kept pouring our tax dollars out west. Also tons of our tax dollars have gone to the fairfax district and General Motors. Many of the businesses out West have come and gone here in Argentine though our commissioner continues to fight. With her help we have a save a lot a neighborhood Walmart new curbs and sidewalks paved streets and volunteers who gather a few times a year to clean the neighborhood. They also cut grass on some vacant lots. The appointment of Matt Warner is a no brainer instead of writing the crap your paper enjoys putting out bring yourself to Argentine and when you do post it so we can all show up. If the Kansas City Star would put the effort into delivering an actual paper to a home instead of wanting us to read your crap online it might become enjoyable again. With all the violence in other neighborhoods you and others on the staff continue to attack this great lady. As far as the gymnasium at the community center in my sixty years of living here from the day I was old enough at the old community center and now the current one there was only a couple of hours a day of free play. If you wanted to use it for practice we where charged a small amount per hour with an exception for grade school teams.

As for Warner, he tells The Pitch he feels like he’s a good fit for the board because Metro 24’s mission — “revitalizing body, mind and spirit in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas by providing a safe and affordable workout facility where the entire community can maintain health and fitness” — closely aligns with the mission of the Park Board.

Warner also says the previous fitness center, which was managed by the UG, had very few members, and that he’s grown membership to 1,500. He adds that the fitness center is separate from the gymnasium, and that he has no control over its availability to the public.

“I do not see it as a conflict,” Warner writes in an email. “[Our mission] is completely in line with what parks and rec is wanting to accomplish across the county.”

On Twitter: @ByEmilyAPark.

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