The city of Wichita has a new auditor. Celeste Racette isn’t actually on the city payroll, but the self-appointed watchdog is adept at getting things done — and undone.
Take the hidden 8 percent “ballpark development fee” imposed by owners of the Wichita Wind Surge baseball team on popcorn, T-shirts and other purchases at city-owned Riverfront Stadium last year.
Racette filed a complaint with the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office. That office had already opened its own investigation into the fee, but Jason Roach, head of its consumer protection division, said Racette’s “well-documented” complaint helped lead to the issuing of a cease-and-desist order against the Wind Surge. Last month, the Wind Surge settled the matter by splitting $63,000 among six local charities.
Of bigger impact was Racette’s opposition to an ambitious proposal to redevelop the riverfront.
In 2019, a billion-dollar plan to replace Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center appeared headed for approval with the backing of civic leaders. Save Century II, a group led by Racette, gathered more than 17,000 signatures on a petition drive demanding that voters be allowed to decide Century II’s future.
The riverfront plan “has been paused due to the impacts of COVID-19,” according to a website maintained by its supporters, and the city this year budgeted $18 million for improvement to Century II over the next decade.
“I wouldn’t say I won that battle because I know they’re still eyeing that land,” Racette said last month, shortly after addressing the City Council about another issue affecting the riverfront. “We still watch the developers carefully because in my mind, it still seems like developers make the decisions over public land.”
However, Racette’s influence can’t be ignored.
“I think that there’s nobody in Wichita who’s had a greater impact on city policy over the last few years than Celeste,” said Chase Billingham, an associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University. “I think the impact she’s had is monumental. Her work is controversial, and there are a lot of people who are very opposed to what she’s done. I think whether you support her or not, it’s undeniable what she’s done.”
“She’s a force,” said arts advocate Ann Garvey. “She truly makes people accountable, which is something we really need.”
In December, the Civitan Club of Wichita honored Racette as its Citizen of the Year.
Mayor Brandon Whipple, who has sparred with Racette on occasion, credits her for generating interest in historical preservation and transparency in local government but said she sometimes distorts facts for what seems like “political goals” while blaming current city officials for actions taken by their predecessors.
“She’s right on some stuff, but sometimes she’s wrong, and a narrative is not accurate, and it causes a lot of distrust from the public,” he said.
Whipple said Racette had spoken five times during a recent City Council meeting and “it took us an extra hour fixing misperceptions.”
However, he added, “I think it’s great any time we have citizen engagement.”
So how did a retired bank examiner who returned to Wichita for family reasons come to play that role?
Racette is the daughter of Judy and Vincent Bogart, a Wichita lawyer and Democratic Party political figure who served as mayor in 1964-65, when the ground was being cleared for Century II. Like other Wichitans, Racette attended events there and even performed in its concert hall as a violinist with the Wichita Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Racette worked for Intrust Bank as an accountant and auditor for two decades, then took a job as a fraud investigator with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “I brought down some pretty big payday lenders,” she said. “I was pretty proud of the work I did with the FDIC.”
The work took her to the Kansas City, New York and Atlanta regions, and after several years of living out of hotels, Racette said, “I just got tired of it.”
With her father in poor health — he died in 2012 — she returned to help take care of her mother. Racette enjoyed going through her father’s papers, which included correspondence with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Truman as well as architectural renderings, Kansas Gov. Robert Docking’s second inaugural address — delivered at Century II in 1969 — and other documents pertaining to the building. When she learned that supporters of the riverfront development plan were holding a public meeting at the Boathouse in the summer of 2019, Racette brought along some of the Century II memorabilia and set up a small display downstairs from the meeting. An organizer of the event ordered Racette to remove the materials.
“I was stunned,” Racette said. “It made me mad, because I love Wichita.”
The Wichita Eagle reported on the incident, and Racette said she started receiving telephone calls from people who believed she’d been treated rudely and who were also fond of Century II. Historic preservationist Greg Kite, businessman Bill Warren, architect Dean Bradley and Garvey were among the first who reached out. Racette formed Save Century II and started holding public meetings, giving media interviews and selling “Save Century II” T-shirts to raise awareness and money. Their arguments were that the blue-domed building is an iconic structure, having been designed by two students of Frank Lloyd Wright to commemorate the city’s first 100 years; that community arts groups would suffer through its loss; and that citizens should be allowed to vote on its future. Yard signs were added to the group’s campaign, which also includes saving the former Central Library on Main Street (although not the convention center attached to Century II).
By January 2020, Save Century II had opened an office on Broadway — since moved to 3,330 W. Douglas — and launched its voter petition with a rally outside City Hall. The group gathered 5,000 more signatures than required for a ballot measure, but a judge sided with city officials who argued that the ordinance proposed by the petition would violate state law. Save Century II members then unsuccessfully sought help from state lawmakers.
The COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on the riverfront plan, although civic leaders say they believe it or something like it will be brought back for discussion again.
‘I find things that are wrong’
Meantime, Racette has broadened Save Century II’s mission into scrutinizing a variety of city actions and serving as a kind of resource center for citizens with complaints. It’s Racette who calls herself an auditor.
“I look at the numbers and I find mistakes and I find things that are wrong,” she said.
Racette has argued that city diverted maintenance funds intended for Century II to private developments and channeled money from other projects to pay for the $83 million baseball stadium. She criticized Genesis’ management of the city-owned Wichita Ice Center and opposed details of the sale, tentatively approved last month, of riverbank property to the Hyatt Hotel. At the same meeting, Racette held up two $2 bills to remind City Council members of the price paid by ballpark developers for 4.5 acres of city property in 2018. Save Century II held forums for City Council candidates before the last election.
Racette has also worked with city officials on projects. Last year, for instance, Save Century II members planted thousands of flowers and plants around the Joan of Arc statue at the old library and in A. Price Woodward Park. The statue is a favorite of Racette, whose father was a World War II fighter pilot and who, as mayor, gave a speech in Orleans, France, one of Wichita’s sister cities. Racette is treasurer of the Wichita Sister Cities organization.
“The city did give us mulch and cleaned up a rusted railing and Price Woodard park, and they turned on the irrigation,” Racette said.
Racette initially opposed turning over management of Century II to a private company, but has recently praised its work. Save Century II helped promote the sold-out Wichita Wurlitzer 50th anniversary concert at Century II.
Although active in the Democratic Party until recently, Racette worked with several local Republicans to get the Century II petition signatures.
“She’s battled a lot of the leadership of the local Democratic Party,” Billingham said. “She calls it like she sees it, and political alliances are not necessarily what she’s concerned about. She’s really concerned about her priorities.”
Racette, asked if she’s contemplating a run for office herself, replied: “Only thinking about it. I’ve had people ask me that.”
Racette said caring for mother while becoming an activist over the last three years keeps her plenty busy. She doesn’t want to be seen as solely a civic naysayer.
“I’m not opposed to business deals,” she said. “I want to see Wichita grow and advance. I’m just against sweetheart deals for developers.”