For Wichita city government, open records are not valued

As a condition of renewing its contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, I asked that the Wichita City Council require that the agency comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. As has been the case before, the city council and city staff say they are in favor of open records and government transparency, but their actions indicate that they are not.

After my remarks, which are presented below, City manager Bob Layton said that my attack on the city attorney was unfair, that it was not he who made this decision not to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Instead, he said the decision was made by the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s own attorney. John Rolfe, the Bureau’s president, said he believes that his organization has been open in their explanations of how they spend their funds, at least to the City.

Rolfe also repeated his mistaken belief that I’ve discussed with the Bureau’s attorney how I might gain access to the information that I’ve requested. These discussions have not happened. That’s not the way the Kansas Open Records Law works. Citizens do not negotiate with agencies to gain access to records. The law says that citizens make requests, and agencies comply.

Furthermore, the duty of the Bureau’s attorney is to protect and advance the interests of his client, not the interests of the public. The fact that the city council and the city manager are comfortable with this arrangement is disturbing.

Any member of the city council could have followed my suggestion to make a motion that the city ask that the Convention and Visitors Bureau to simply agree that they are in fact a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But none of them did.

Council member Jim Skelton asked questions several times seeking to find out how the agency spends its funds, but he did not give “how” a specific meaning. The city and most agencies would like to present simple and broad budgets or income statements to account for their spending. But this level of disclosure, which is what the Convention and Visitors Bureau provides to the public, is not sufficient.

Here’s an example why: Last year a trustee for Labette Community College noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. Three agencies — Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — have all refused to comply with requests like this. The city council members and staff have agreed with their positions.

This is not transparency. This is not accountability.

When citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I have done. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney has had my case since December 17 of last year. That office has been working on the case, and a decision is expected soon.

No matter which way the District Attorney decides, the City of Wichita, its quasi-governmental taxpayer-supported agencies, and their hostility to open records is a matter that the Kansas Legislature should notice. We need a better records law.

Following are remarks I delivered today to the Wichita City Council regarding the city’s compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act.

I’m recommending that the city not renew its contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau until that organization decides to follow Kansas law, specifically the Kansas Open Records Act.

I’ve requested records from this agency. Its response is that the agency is not a “public agency” and therefore is not subject to the open records law.

Here’s why the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau is a public agency subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.”

According to its 2008 annual report, 89% of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau’s revenue came from the transient guest tax. I suggest that this qualifies as supported “in whole or in part” by public funds.

The Kansas Open Records Act has an exception, but that does not apply to this agency. There’s no rational or reasonable basis for the this agency’s assertion that it is not a public agency subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Mr. Mayor and council members, look at the plain language of the Kansas Open Records Act, as I’ve explained. Look at the intent of the Kansas Legislature as embodied in the statute: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

The policy of the state is that records should be open. Governmental bodies shouldn’t be looking for excuses to avoid complying with the law, as has the City of Wichita and this agency, and has two other similar agencies. Especially when the reasons the city legal staff has used are wrong, both in terms of the letter of the law and its intent.

Now I realize that Mr. Gary Rebenstorf, the Wichita City Attorney, disagrees with my contention that this agency is in fact a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. Mr. Rebenstorf has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But with regard to my records requests, he’s advised this council to keep records closed when the law and the public policy of this state says they should be open.

He, or perhaps whoever is instructing him as to what opinions to write, is hostile towards towards open records and citizens’ right to know.

Mayor, you’ve spoken about “building public trust in government” and working to achieve greater transparency. Manager Layton has as a goal “Promoting transparency by providing timely, accurate and relevant information.”

This is a chance for the political leadership of this city to make a decision: does the city promote transparency by deciding itself what information to release, or does it agree to citizen-driven accountability, where citizens are in charge?

It’s not only this agency. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition are similarly situated.

As a condition of renewing the city’s contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, I ask that this council instruct the Bureau to follow the Kansas Open Records Act.


8 thoughts on “For Wichita city government, open records are not valued”

  1. Isn’t this desire for openness and transparency at odds with your support for confidential campaign donations?

  2. Bob,
    You have the right to file a complaint with the office of the Attorney General which may help expedite your case.

  3. Many have tried to get the records released for this company. Makes many of us wonder what they are trying to hide from citizens by refusing to open them.

    Obviously something very fishy here. Pay to play, maybe? Nepotism? Elitism?

    When the records are open, we will all breathe easier. As it is now there is only suspicion regarding their behavior. “

  4. Gee Chuck I think the difference is between public/governmental organizations and private organizations. The government takes our money and we have a right to know what they are doing with it. What a private individual or organization does with campaign contributions is not your or my business.

  5. Thank you to “Anonymous” for clearing that up for Chuck.

    The Raspberry Award to the Wichita City Council for being such fruits.

  6. Thank you, Bob, for doing the hard work here. I do appreciate your efforts. Not many people are willing to persevere, take the time and actually do the work to take on gov’t officials who make things difficult. Bravo to you.

  7. Obviously something to hide and it scares them. I for one am ready for ALL these bums in City Hall to be thrown or voted out.

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