At Tuesday’s meeting Wichita City Council, the city may take action that appears to advance the goal of making more information about government available to citizens. The proposed action, however, simply acknowledges intent to comply with one provision of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA). The city still avoids full compliance with this law.
The issue at hand is renewal of the city’s contract with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. This agency, while structured as a non-profit corporation, is in effect a branch of Wichita city government. Its sole source of funds is property tax, except for some private fund-raising done last year for a specific purpose.
It’s important that citizens and journalists have complete access to all records that are considered open under the Kansas Open Records Act. An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons.
As reported in the Kansas Watchdog story Labette Community College President reimbursed with tax dollars for political donation, Howerter noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Upon his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a contribution to the campaign fund for Kansas Treasurer Dennis McKinney.
While 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.
The action the City of Wichita may take on Tuesday proposes that the WDDC make available a report that will not give citizens and journalists the information they need to do what Howerter did at Labette Community College. But the city will undoubtedly use this report to claim that it and the WDDC are in full compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act, thereby deflecting further records requests and scrutiny.
It’s a smokescreen, in other words.
Last fall I asked the WDDC and two other agencies with similar finances and relationships to the city for their check registers and employment contract for their chief executive. All three declined to comply with my request. Their reason was not that their check registers are not considered to be records that are open, but that the agencies are not public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. See Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and City of Wichita refuse to follow Kansas Open Records Act for details.
I have asked the Sedgwick County District Attorney to investigate the refusal of these agencies to comply with what I believe the Kansas Open Records Act says they must do. That office is still working on this case.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, I will ask that the city include language in the contract acknowledging that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.
The language in the agenda report for Tuesday’s meeting is: “The WDDC contract amendment also provides the procedure for the WDDC to comply with new Kansas Open Records Act reporting requirements for not-for-profit entities receiving public funds.”
The language in the proposed ordinance relating to the open records act is as follows: “3. KORA. Annually, on or before June 1, the Corporation will file with the City a written financial report for the preceding calendar year, detailing the receipt of public funds and the expenditure of such funds, in a form and format as the City and Corporation may reasonably agree and in the absence of a specified form, in the same format as the SSMID budget. It is the intention of the parties that this filing shall serve to make such report an open public record and to fill the requirements of K.S.A. 40-240.”
I believe the statute number referred to in this proposed ordinance is a mistake, as K.S.A. 40-240 concerns insurance law. Instead, K.S.A. 45-240 is titled “Recordkeeping requirements for certain not-for-profit entities” and is, I believe, the correct statutory reference.