Tag Archives: Government transparency

business-records-file-folders

Kansas not good on spending visibility

For more about this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

The results are in, and the news isn’t good: Kansas continues to plummet in state spending transparency rankings, and it barely squeaked by with a grade of D-minus, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

Could lower open records fees threaten Kansans’ safety?

business-records-file-foldersTravis Perry of Kansas Watchdog reports that governmental agencies fear that fulfilling records requests will cost too much and eliminate a necessary revenue stream. But there are solutions that may not be under consideration. For example, instead of supplying accident reports singly as they are requested, law enforcement agencies could simply make all such reports available. I can hear the objections, such as it will cost too much for each agency to maintain a website for the purposes of making reports available. But each agency doesn’t have to establish and maintain a website. The state (or someone else) could easily and inexpensively establish a website for the purpose of distributing such documents. Or, this sounds like a good project for the trade associations that officials join, and for which taxpayers pay membership dues and fees.

Lobbyist says lower open records fees could threaten Kansans’ safety

By , March 19, 2014

COST CONSCIOUS: Opponents of a bill targeted at reducing the cost of acquiring public documents say it will eliminate a necessary revenue stream for many Kansas government entities.

By Travis Perry | Kansas Watchdog

TOPEKA, Kan. — According to Kansas law enforcement lobbyist Ed Klumpp, too much government transparency could be a bad thing.

Firing a verbal warning shot Wednesday morning against legislation sponsored by Pittsburg Republican Sen. Jacob La Turner, Klumpp said Senate Bill 10, which would lower the cost of accessing government documents in the Sunflower State, has the potential to dramatically affect public safety.

In contention is a provision within La Turner’s bill that would require public entities to provide free of charge either the first hour of staff time or 25 copies, whichever comes first, to individuals requesting public documents.

Klumpp suggested that preventing law enforcement agencies from charging for the most commonly requested documents, such as accident reports, would eliminate a key source of revenue to avoid diverting resources from elsewhere.

“It’ll be fewer dollars to buy police equipment, fewer dollars to put into investigations,” Klumpp told members of the House Federal and State Affairs committee.

LaTurner called the assumption utterly ridiculous, and stated that document retrieval fees have been a veritable cash cow for public entities for years.

“They’ll say anything to hold onto their funding sources, no matter how unfair,” LaTurner said.

The 90 minutes of testimony offered to House lawmakers in the Old Supreme Court Room took on an adversarial flair, with media and private citizens facing off against county and local government officials.

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said he has seen time and again how public entities have used excessive fees to effectively close off public documents.

“If a private citizen cannot afford the record, it’s a closed record,” Anstaett said.

In that same vein, Albert Rukwaro, a journalist and Topeka resident formerly of Kenya, cautioned state lawmakers by pointing to widespread issues in his country of origin.

“One of the leading causes of runaway corruption in government and lack of accountability is when citizens don’t have access to information in the government sector,” Rukwaro said. “America’s democracy and transparency are a beacon of light to the world. Please don’t dim it.”

Elected officials from cash-strapped Kansas counties argue it’s a matter of fiscal feasibility.

Anna Morgan-Stanley, register of deeds for Jewell County, said the vast majority of requests she receives would fall under reduced fee requirements laid out in LaTurner’s bill. Last year, Stanley said she collected just over $2,000 in document retrieval fees, and that for Jewell County it’s about survival.

“When we are unable to recoup the costs of the copies and the staff time we’re providing them, that puts a burden on our already financially burdened general fund,” Stanley told lawmakers.

Republic County register of deeds Peggy Frint echoed similar sentiments. While proponents suggested the reduced cost measures would encourage governments to make more information available online, Frint said she simply doesn’t have the funds to accomplish such a feat.

“I realize that $1,200 in copy fees for a county is not much, but it’s better than nothing, and we need all the help we can get to put into our general fund,” Frint said.

Opponents stated that capping costs for individuals would simply impose the fees on the broader public.

“Somebody is going to pay. These costs don’t just go away,” Klumpp said. “Either it’s the people requesting the copy or the taxpayers across the community.”

Committee chair Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, closed the meeting by musing how it’s not too different from distributing the cost of public infrastructure.

“I understand there are certain roads in my city that I will never drive on, but my tax dollars will go to repair those roads,” Brunk said.

Senate Bill 10 was approved by the Kansas Senate 33-7 on Feb. 27. In addition to providing some open records free of charge, LaTurner’s bill would also limit the hourly fee a government could charge for various services, such as legal review by an attorney at no more than $60 per hour. See more details here.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city could improve several areas of providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere. Now, just this week the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing last year. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city. No harm, no foul.

But the City of Wichita used this incident and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

Here’s an example. The old city website had budgets going back a long way, back to the budget for 1960 — 1961. The oldest budget I can find on the present website is for 2006.

Looking for minutes of important boards such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, we find similar results. On the old website, minutes of MAPC were available back to 1999. The new version of the website seems to have minutes back to only 2012.

Also, something that had been very useful is missing, and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Wichita spending data.

Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Kansas Open Records Act reform possible

This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on SB 10, a bill which would make small but welcome reforms to the Kansas Open Records Act. Following is the testimony I plan to deliver. Citizens should be aware that cities, counties, and school districts will probably oppose these reforms.

Testimony to House Standing Committee on Federal and State Affairs as proponent of SB 10: Open meetings; minutes required; open records; charges limited.
Bob Weeks, March 19, 2014

Representative Brunk and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony on problems with the Kansas Open Records Act regarding high fees for the production of records. In 2008 I personally encountered this problem, as reported in the Wichita Eagle:

Open Records Requests Can Spell High Fees

(Wichita Eagle, March 9, 2008)

Want information from the governor’s office? Get ready to pay up. That’s what Wichita blogger Bob Weeks says he discovered when he requested four days’ worth of e-mails sent and received by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her staff.

To get the records , he was told he’d have to pay a lawyer in the governor’s office $27 an hour, for 50 hours, to read the e-mails to make sure they aren’t exempt from disclosure. That and 25 cents a page for copies or an unspecified extra charge to get the e-mails in electronic form. “Please make your check for the amount of $1,350 payable to the state of Kansas and reference your open records request,” said a letter Weeks received from JaLynn Copp, assistant general counsel to the governor.

State Sen. Timothy Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said he was aware of Weeks’ case. He said he thinks the fees are excessive. “It doesn’t mean much for it to be an open record if you can’t afford it,” he said. In addition, he said a sluggish response to the request from the governor’s office appears to have violated the state Open Records Act. Huelskamp said the law requires state agencies to fulfill records requests within three business days or provide a detailed reason why that can’t be done. Weeks mailed his request on Feb. 7 and got an initial response Feb. 13. His cost estimate didn’t come until Feb. 26, and neither letter explained the delay, Huelskamp said. “It’s really in violation of the letter and the spirit of the law and I’ve seen that happen more than once,” he said.

Based on this and other experience, I have found it is difficult to obtain email records at reasonable cost. If one makes a very narrowly-defined request that is affordable, there is a chance that the request will not produce the desired documents. If the request is broad enough to catch the records one needs, it is likely to be very expensive.

Kansas could use as a model the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552), which provides for a limit on fees in certain cases: “Fees shall be limited to reasonable standard charges for document duplication when records are not sought for commercial use and the request is made by an educational or noncommercial scientific institution, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research; or a representative of the news media.” (emphasis added)

Please do not be alarmed by government representatives making claims of abuses. Last year the Senate Committee that heard testimony on this bill was told that I made a request for 19,000 emails. My actual request was for emails to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. I had no way of knowing how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city.

Finally, I would ask that the committee note that government records belong to the people, not the government, and that the people paid for their creation. I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks
bob.weeks@gmail.com
wichitaliberty.org

In Wichita, citizens want more transparency in city government

Wichita city hall

In a videographed meeting that is part of a comprehensive planning process, Wichitans openly question the process, repeatedly asking for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.

As part of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan, the City of Wichita held a number of focus groups meetings. Their purpose, according to city documents, was to provide “information on the components of the Plan and provide input on a draft survey.”

(Some indication of the reverence given to the plan to city planners may be inferred by the city’s use of capitalization when referring to it.)

The community meetings were structured in a way reminiscent of the Delphi method, described in Wikipedia as “a structured communication technique, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts.” Others have a more skeptical view, believing that the Delphi technique leads citizens to believe they have participated in community democratic decision-making when in reality, that is not the goal of the process.

In October Americans for Prosperity-Kansas invited the city to hold a focus group meeting. Video from the meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Dave Barber, who is Advanced Plans Manager at Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, facilitated the meeting. Susan Estes of AFP was the meeting organizer and host. Mike Shatz is the videographer. His description of the meeting is “The City of Wichita is holding a series of meetings to gain input from the public on future spending plans. The meetings are based off a survey the city conducted, which, by all accounts, was full of loaded questions geared towards promoting the programs that city officials want to see. In this meeting, one of the first in the series, citizens openly question the process and repeatedly ask for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.”

WichitaLiberty.TV.20

WichitaLiberty.TV February 23, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are efforts to have the Kansas Legislature expand the open records law to include the spending records of several taxpayer-funded agencies, but the City of Wichita wants to keep the records secret. Then, did you know the Kansas teachers union has a media response team? Finally, Arthur Brooks makes the moral case for free enterprise. Episode 32, broadcast February 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘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 proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “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.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

business-records-file-folders

Open Records in Kansas

business-records-file-folders

Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is.

As citizen watchdogs, I and others need access to information and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: When I made a request for records, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes, and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He 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 political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation 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.

In Wichita, because of a loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act, a large amount of tax money is spent without this type of scrutiny. This year the Kansas Legislature is considering HB 2567, which will start to bring accountability for how all tax money is spent..

The Attorney General’s page on the Kansas Open Records Act is here. The Kansas Legislator Briefing Book chapter for the Kansas Open Records Act is here.

Wichita doesn’t value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret. Continue reading here.

Wichita could do better regarding open government, if it wants

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The renewal will provide another opportunity for the council to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records. Continue reading here.

Wichita government’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know is an issue

At a meeting of the Wichita City Council, Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert explained the problems in obtaining compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency

Despite receiving nearly all its funding from taxpayers, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau refuses to admit it is a “public agency” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. The city backs this agency and its interpretation of this law, which is in favor of government secrecy and in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

Additional information on open records is at:

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What type of watchdog are you?

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To help citizens become government watchdogs, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is providing a new resource. It’s the Watchdog Quiz, and it will help you discover what type of role you will want to fill as a government watchdog.

The quiz takes just a few moments to complete, and answering the questions will help you discover all the things that citizens can do to be involved in government, especially at the local level. My Watchdog type is “Content Creator.” What is yours?

Click here to take the quiz.

Following is some material from Watchful Citizens Follow Founders’ Vision For America.

“The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

This quote inscribed on the state capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska, has become our North Star here at Watchdog Wire. We believe that citizens can contribute to better and more efficient local government by staying involved in their communities and speaking up when something doesn’t add up.

But what does it mean to be “watchful?”

The answer is different for everyone, and has changed throughout American history. For Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin, staying watchful came in the form of pamphlets and newspaper columns. Later, being watchful was entrusted to elected representatives in Congress. Now, technology has made it easier than ever for citizens to stay informed and hold government accountable.

The medium used is ever-changing but the sentiment of keeping watch remains the same — to ensure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

So where do you fit into the American story? How do you keep watch on government and its expanding role in our lives? Take the Watchdog Quiz to find out.

Continue reading at Watchful Citizens Follow Founders’ Vision For America.

Voice for Liberty Radio: Kansas legislative reforms

Voice for Liberty logo with microphone 150

In this episode of WichitaLiberty Radio: Kansas Representative John Rubin has proposed two reforms to legislative procedure at the Kansas Capitol that, I believe, would improve the process. The first concerns granularity, that is, considering a group of bills (actually conference reports) with a single vote. The second simply asks that all non-trivial votes be recorded and made available to the public. Here’s Representative Rubin speaking in Topeka on January 16 at the Tenth Amendment Dinner.

This is podcast episode number 5, released on January 23, 2014.

Shownotes

John Rubin
The Rubin rule
The Rubin rule at Political Chips. This page tracks members’ positions on the Rubin rule.
Legislative procedure in Kansas

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

By Craig Andres, KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

WichitaLiberty.TV January 19, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: How much would you pay to visit the Wichita Art Museum? You might be surprised to learn how much each visit really costs. Then: A transparency agenda for Wichita city government and the Kansas Legislature. Finally, a look at public schools wasting money. Episode 28, broadcast January 19, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Two legislative reforms that would benefit Kansans

Kansas Legislature

Following is a letter to legislators from Kansas Representative John Rubin regarding two reforms to legislative procedure that, I believe, would improve the process. The first concerns granularity, that is, considering a group of bills (actually conference reports) with a single vote. The second simply asks that all non-trivial votes be recorded and made available to the public.

As many of you know, I have always been and remain an ardent advocate of full transparency and accountability to the voters who have elected us to serve in the Legislature and to all the citizens of Kansas. I believe our oath of office demands no less. In my view, effective and responsible governance demands that we always cast informed votes, and that we always disclose to our constituents and all Kansans how we vote on the public policies that so profoundly affect their lives.

In my mind, our longstanding legislative practices of bundling multiple bills in a single conference committee report for one vote under the Joint Rules, and of not recording our votes on bills, resolutions and amendments in the Committee of the Whole on General Orders under the House Rules, directly contravene our obligation to the people of Kansas to be fully informed on the matters on which we vote, and to be transparent in and accountable for our votes, factors critical to effective governance. Accordingly, I have drafted two resolutions amending the Joint Rules and House Rules, respectively, to correct these undemocratic legislative practices. I plan to prefile them the week before our 2014 session starts. I am asking for your support, and hopefully your co-sponsorship, of both.

The first initiative, Revisor draft 14rs2664, is a Concurrent Resolution amending the Joint Rules to provide that a conference committee report (CCR) may contain only the bill being conferenced and all or part of one other bill that has passed either Chamber during the current biennium. As you know, current practice allows for an unlimited number of additional bills or parts of bills that have been passed by either Chamber to be added to the bill being conferenced, and we members have one vote on the entire CCR package on the floor. It is not unusual for as many as four, six, eight or more bills to be added to a conferenced bill in a CCR. Unless a member serves on the committee from which the bills have emanated — and perhaps not even then — the member has little if any opportunity to fully inform himself or herself of the contents, consequences or effects of the additional bills, particularly if the added bills did not originate in and were not debated in our Chamber, and particularly under the pressing time constraints we experience late in session, when most of these CCRs are considered. Accordingly, the likelihood that most members are even marginally well informed on the votes we are asked to east on these multi-bundled CCRs is slim. Worse, even if we do inform ourselves on all aspects of all bundled bills in such CCRs, we may well be of two minds regarding how to cast our one vote on it. For example, a member may fully support four of the bundled bills in an eight-bundle CCR because they square with the member’s principles and are, in his or her view, good public policy for the member’s constituents and all Kansans, and he or she may oppose the other four because they are not. In short, current practice virtually ensures that members often cast uninformed or unprincipled votes on much of the public policy contained in multi-bundled CCRs. That is no way to govern. Concurrent Resolution 14rs2664 will correct these irresponsible and undemocratic legislative deficiencies.

If you support and wish to co-sponsor this anti-bundling Concurrent Resolution, please email Revisor Gordon Self at Gordon.Self@rs.ks.gov by January 6, 2014 and inform him of your intent to do so, referencing the Concurrent Resolution draft, 14rs2664. Your name will be added to the Concurrent Resolution as a co-sponsor prior to prefiling it the week of January 6, 2014.

The second initiative, Revisor draft 14rs2668, is a House Resolution amending the House Rules to require that all House floor votes, whether in the Committee of the Whole on General Orders or on Final Action, shall be recorded votes. The only exceptions are for procedural votes such as on motions to recess or adjourn, motions to rise and report, or resolutions pertaining to commendations or acknowledgments. As you know, current practice on General Orders is that all votes on bills, resolutions and amendments are voice votes, or, on a division call, unrecorded electronic votes, absent a show of 15 hands requiring a roll call vote. Make no mistake — those “unrecorded” electronic division votes are in fact being recorded outside our chamber and in the House Gallery, by handwritten notes, camera phones directed to the closed circuit television screen, and otherwise, by government officials, lobbyists, and other political insiders vested in the outcomes of these votes. I believe that the citizens who sent us to Topeka should have the same access to these vote results that political insiders do. Moreover, all Kansans are, in my view, entitled to know how we vote on every public policy question put to us — in bills, amendments and resolutions — not just on Final Action, but preliminarily on General Orders as well — and are entitled to know whether, and ask why, we changed our vote on a measure between the Committee of the Whole vote one day, and Final Action on the same measure the next. I believe that our oath of office and our responsibility to be transparent in our votes and accountable to the people of Kansas for them require no less.

If you support and wish to co-sponsor this House Resolution requiring that all substantive House floor votes be recorded, please email Revisor Gordon Self at Gordon.Self@rs.ks.gov by January 6, 2014 and inform him of your intent to do so, referencing the Concurrent Resolution draft, 14rs2668. Your name will be added to the Resolution as a co-sponsor prior to prefiling it the week of January 6, 2014.

Thank you for your serious consideration and possible support of these two important resolutions promoting accountability and transparency in our work in the Kansas Legislature on behalf of the citizens of Kansas.

A transparency agenda for Wichita

Wichita City Hall

Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Wichita logic open records
But when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. Below are a few areas in which the city could improve. Much more is available here: Open government in Kansas

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “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.

In reality, Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

Attitude

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: In every year but one, its percent of revenue derived from taxes is well over 90 percent. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

There is one other course of action, however. That is, these agencies and the city could fulfill the records requests that I have made. These agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, but the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to, which goes back to the attitude of the city. For more, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He 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 political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation 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.

Website

The most important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. While the former website had its share of problems — such as a search feature that didn’t work very well — the new website has been a step backwards.

For example, it appears that for citizen review boards like the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Board, agendas and minutes prior to 2012 did not survive the conversion to the new website. Other documents that were previously available but appear to be missing after the conversion include the daily arrest reports. It appears that only a few years of past budgets are available, but the comprehensive annual financial reports are available for about ten years back. (If I missed any documents that are actually available, I apologize. But the fact that I couldn’t find them is its own problem.)

The prior website had a service called “MyWichita.” This was a very useful service. After registration, citizens could see a list of documents and check the types of documents for which they’d like to receive notification when newly available, such as meeting agenda and minutes. This email reminder service was very valuable. It didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing new to replace its function.

The search feature on the new website is better than on the old. But there is a curious twist to the new search: It gives different results depending on the starting page. This could be a potentially useful feature if users were made aware of it. For example, if the user is currently viewing the Finance Department web page and starts a search, the system could give the user a choice of search just the Finance Department, or all of the website. Presently, it appears that the search would be confined to just the Finance Department, and users could easily conclude that documents they searched for don’t exist, when in fact they do.

Most new websites in recent years will adapt so they are usable from mobile devices like smartphones. Not so with the new Wichita website.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

wichita-checkbook-register-example
Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

WichitaLiberty.TV January 5, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look back at a few problematic issues regarding ethical government in Wichita in 2013. Topics include: Campaign contributions, the timing of city and school board elections, Mayor Carl Brewer’s integrity and threats, the need for campaign finance reform, the firing of a television news reporter, the apparently non-transparent way the city formulates policy, and the useless feedback systems the city relies on. Episode 26, broadcast January 5, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Exchange data security breaches don’t require notification

The breach of consumer data at Target has brought the issue of data security in focus. Yesterday a senator called for more protection and accountability for consumers and retailers. The following story from Watchdog.org tells us that government does not want to hold itself to the standards it wants the private sector to observe. There has been legislation proposed. Rep. Diane Black [R-TN6] has introduced H.R. 3731: Federal Exchange Data Breach Notification Act of 2013, whose title is “To require an Exchange established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to notify individuals in the case that personal information of such individuals is known to have been acquired or accessed as a result of a breach of the security of any system maintained by the Exchange.”

Feds not required to report security breaches of Obamacare exchange website

By 

HACKED OFF: Hackers or careless bureaucrats could cause private information to be spilled across the Internet. But the federal government, unlike most states, don't have to tell users when they have been compromised.

HACKED OFF: Hackers or careless bureaucrats could cause private information to be spilled across the Internet. But the federal government, unlike most states, don’t have to tell users when they have been compromised.

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

Americans who buy health insurance through the federal Obamacare exchange website could have their personal information stolen by hackers and never even know it.

Most of the state-run health exchange websites will be covered by state laws that require notification when government databases are breached by hackers. But there is no law requiring notification when databases run by the federal government are breached, and even though the Department of Health and Human Services was asked to include a notification provision in the rules being drawn up for the new federal exchange, it declined to do so.

Other protections for individuals’ privacy, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, do not apply to the government-run exchange, only to health providers and insurance companies operating within the exchange.

Privacy advocates and cyber-security experts have had concerns about the lack of a federal notification law for years and hope the scrutiny of the Obamacare exchange will finally bringchange.

“The notification requirement is a very important part of overall security,” saidDeven McGraw, director of the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “People should be told when their information is at-risk.”

The lack of a notification requirement is particularly bad for the health insurance exchange website because of all the questions surrounding the site’s security. Poor security, coupled with the website’s high-profile problems, could make it a target for hackers either seeking to steal identities or embarrass the government.

Unfortunately, security is often an afterthought for the government, said David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSEC, an Ohio-based cyber-security firm. Kennedy has testified before Congress about security threats in the Obamacare exchange and the need for notification laws.

“All we need is something that says if the federal government is breached, all we have to do is alert the public,” he told Watchdog.org. “Healthcare.gov is just one website of hundreds that have had these issues going back through the years.”

Together it creates a possible nightmare scenario. Without strong security on the front end, the hastily built and not fully operational website could become a treasure trove for hackers looking to steal identities. But without any laws requiring that those victims be notified by the federal government users of the Federal health exchange will be in the dark about any potential security breaches of their private data.

When the federal Obamacare exchange was being developed by HHS prior to its troubled launch on Oct. 1, experts told the department that it should include a data-breach provision in its policies for the website even though one was not required under federal law.

The department flatly declined to do so.

The final rules for the exchanges were approved on March 27, 2012, meeting of HHS officials, according to the Federal Register.

At that meeting, two commenters asked HHS to ensure the exchanges would promptly notify affected enrollees in the event of a data breach or unauthorized access to the exchange’s databases. One suggested that a full investigation be launched each time such a breach occurred, with the goal of holding hackers legally and financially accountable for breaking into the website.

The department’s response: “We do not plan to include the specific notification procedures in the final rule. Consistent with this approach, we do not include specific policies for investigation of data breaches in this final rule.”

Since there is no federal notification requirement, breaches of any and all federal databases can occur without the public ever being informed.

The only way to find out a hack has occurred is when the government decides to disclose it — as several federal law enforcement agencies did last month in response to attacks from Anonymous, a group of super-hackers who threatened to take down the FBI website and others.

But hacks that happen behind the scenes —potentially stealing everything from Social Security numbers to Department of Homeland Security watch lists — never have to be reported.

“That’s alarming because there could be a number of federal databases that are compromised already and we don’t know about it,” Kennedy said. “The exchange is part of a bigger problem.”

Federal privacy protections contained in HIPAA also do not apply to the databases created by the federal exchange website, McGraw said, even though health insurers doing business through the exchange must be HIPAA compliant.

In other words, the health plan itself is covered by HIPAA and any breaches of security that affect a consumer who has purchased a specific plan would have to be reported. But the process of choosing and purchasing a plan through the federal exchange — along with any information entered into the federal exchange as part of that process — is not subject to HIPAA protections.

“The problem with the exchanges is that they are such new entities, and they are so unique that existing laws don’t really cover them,” McGraw said.

But 48 states have laws on the books requiring that they give notification to individuals who may have had personal information stolen or leaked from a government database. Many states require that government agencies and departments alert the state attorney general so investigations can be launched.

In states that opted to run their own health insurance exchanges, those laws generally cover security breaches of the exchanges, McGraw said, though it depends on the specific wording of each state law.

Those state laws are how data breaches of several state-level health insurance exchange websites have come to light.

In September, Watchdog.org reported on a data breech of the Minnesota health exchange — known as “MNsure” — that potentially affected as many as 2,400 people.

In Florida, concerns about data breaches of the state-run exchange website prompted Gov. Rick Scott to send a letter to Congress saying Floridians would not exchange privacy for insurance.

On the federal exchange, such breaches are possible, maybe even likely, since the site was launched without comprehensive testing of the security controls for the system.

A Sept. 27 memo to Medicare chief Marylin Tavernner said insufficient testing of the website before the Oct. 1 launch “exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed a high risk,” the Associated Press reported in October.

Even though the federal government does not have to report any breaches of security, at least a few already have occurred.

The most high-profile case so far is that of Thomas Dougall, a South Carolina lawyer who had his personal information accidentally leaked to another person after using the Obamacare exchange last month.

We logged on and compared some prices,” Dougall later told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “We came home last Friday night to have a young man from a completely different state calling to tell me that when he logged on … he got all my personal information in exchange.

Dougall only found out about that breach of security because the recipient was kind enough to give him a call.  Without a requirement that the exchanges report such problems — whether the result of nefarious hackers or glitches in the programming — it is impossible to tell how many other Americans have had their private information released by the federal exchange.

Kennedy said he would not recommend that anyone use the federal exchange until it is more secure and until breaches of security are reported.

“I would say think twice about it, at least until we get more details,” he said.

Kennedy says he supports universal health care and his criticisms of the website are not rooted in political motivations. But the former U.S. Marine whose firm provides computer security to several Fortune 100 companies says there have been “zero changes” to the security of the health insurance exchange website in the run-up to the much-touted Dec. 1 re-launch.

Congress has debated a federal notification law in each of the past three years, but one has never been passed.

In July, during a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, lawmakers heard testimony from a variety of experts who explained the need for a federal breach notification requirement.

David Thaw, a law professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes in cyber-security and the legal framework around it, said data breach notification laws, combined with comprehensive data security, are an essential part of protecting consumers and businesses.

I analogize the effects of breach notification alone to locking the bank or vault door while leaving a back window wide open,” he said.

With the federal health insurance exchange, there are questions about whether the vault door has been adequately locked.

But there is no doubt that the back window is still wide open.

Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org. Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, 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. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He 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 Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

Wichita school district checkbook updated

writing check

Data now available through September 2013.

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, makes its monthly checkbook register available. I’ve gathered the monthly spreadsheets for the last three fiscal years and made it available for analysis through Tableau Public.

wichita-school-checkbook-screen-example

The workbook (click here to open it in a new window) has a number of tabs, each showing the same data organized and summarized in a different way.

There are some caveats. First, not all school district spending is in this database. For each year, the total of the checks is in the neighborhood of $350 million, while the total spending for USD 259 is over $600 million. So there’s spending that isn’t included in this checkbook data.

Second, there are suppliers such as “Commerce Bank Visa BusinessCard.” Payments made to this supplier are over $7 million per year. These payments from the district’s checkbook undoubtedly pay a credit card bill, and this alone doesn’t let us know what the $7 million was spent on.

wichita-school-checkbook-data-quality-exampleThere are some data quality issues, as seen nearby.

USD 259 supplies this advice with this data: “The information you find may cause you to ask more questions. If so, the person to contact is Wichita Public School’s Controller, Barbara Phillips. She can be reached at (316) 973-4628, or at bphillips@usd259.net.”

Wichita school district checkbook

School blackboardUSD 259, the Wichita public school district, makes its monthly checkbook register available. I’ve gathered the monthly spreadsheets for the last three fiscal years and made it available for analysis through Tableau Public.

wichita-school-checkbook-screen-example

The workbook (click here to open it in a new window) has a number of tabs, each showing the same data organized and summarized in a different way.

There are some caveats. First, not all school district spending is in this database. For each year, the total of the checks is in the neighborhood of $350 million, while the total spending for USD 259 is over $600 million. So there’s spending that isn’t included in this checkbook data.

Second, there are suppliers such as “Commerce Bank Visa BusinessCard.” Payments made to this supplier are over $7 million per year. These payments from the district’s checkbook undoubtedly pay a credit card bill, and this alone doesn’t let us know what the $7 million was spent on.

wichita-school-checkbook-data-quality-exampleThere are some data quality issues, as seen nearby.

USD 259 supplies this advice with this data: “The information you find may cause you to ask more questions. If so, the person to contact is Wichita Public School’s Controller, Barbara Phillips. She can be reached at (316) 973-4628, or at bphillips@usd259.net.”

Wichita’s new website missing useful service

Wichita, Kansas logo

With the redesign of the City of Wichita website, it appears that something is missing: MyWichita.

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could select to receive in your email press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and a variety of items. It was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

The missing MyWichita service is only part of the problems with the new wichita.gov.

Kansas Open Records Act needs improvement

File folder and documents

Testimony to Senate Standing Committee on Federal and State Affairs as proponent of SB 10: Open meetings; minutes required; open records; charges limited, by Bob Weeks, March 13, 2013.

Chairman Ostmeyer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony on problems with the Kansas Open Records Act regarding high fees for the production of records. In 2008 I personally encountered this problem, as reported in the Wichita Eagle:

Open Records Requests Can Spell High Fees (Wichita Eagle, March 9, 2008)

Want information from the governor’s office? Get ready to pay up. That’s what Wichita blogger Bob Weeks says he discovered when he requested four days’ worth of e-mails sent and received by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her staff.

To get the records, he was told he’d have to pay a lawyer in the governor’s office $27 an hour, for 50 hours, to read the e-mails to make sure they aren’t exempt from disclosure. That and 25 cents a page for copies or an unspecified extra charge to get the e-mails in electronic form. “Please make your check for the amount of $1,350 payable to the state of Kansas and reference your open records request,” said a letter Weeks received from JaLynn Copp, assistant general counsel to the governor.

State Sen. Timothy Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said he was aware of Weeks’ case. He said he thinks the fees are excessive. “It doesn’t mean much for it to be an open record if you can’t afford it,” he said. In addition, he said a sluggish response to the request from the governor’s office appears to have violated the state Open Records Act. Huelskamp said the law requires state agencies to fulfill records requests within three business days or provide a detailed reason why that can’t be done. Weeks mailed his request on Feb. 7 and got an initial response Feb. 13. His cost estimate didn’t come until Feb. 26, and neither letter explained the delay, Huelskamp said. “It’s really in violation of the letter and the spirit of the law and I’ve seen that happen more than once,” he said. (Full article available online at bit.ly/openrecordsks001)

Based on this and other experience, it is difficult to obtain email records at reasonable cost. If one makes a very narrowly-defined request that is affordable, there is a chance that the request will not produce the desired documents. If the request is broad enough to catch the records one needs, it is likely to be very expensive.

Kansas could use as a model the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552), which provides for a limit on fees in certain cases: “Fees shall be limited to reasonable standard charges for document duplication when records are not sought for commercial use and the request is made by an educational or noncommercial scientific institution, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research; or a representative of the news media.” (emphasis added)

There are other problems with the Kansas Open Records Act. Enforcement is weak. In my case, the Sedgwick County District Attorney took 14 months to produce a ruling that I believe is contrary to the intent of this Legislature. As the Kansas attorney General refers all cases to the local District Attorney, I have no other avenue for enforcement except for a private lawsuit at my expense.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may receive up to 98 percent of their revenue from taxation, have only government as clients, and perform functions that are governmental in nature, yet they are judged not to be a public agency for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “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.”

While the Kansas Open Records Act requires agencies to respond to the request within three business days, a response might be “This will take more time.” At that point, as far as I know, there is nothing to prevent an agency from stalling indefinitely in fulfilling the records request.

In some jurisdictions, if three or more records requests are received on the same topic, the agency must post the records. Kansas should go a step farther and require that governmental agencies post online all documents and records produced in response to records requests. In this way, the work done to fulfill requests could be leveraged and appreciated by a broader audience. An example of an agency doing this is Community Unit School District 300 in Illinois, at www.d300.org.

Elected officials and bureaucrats often are either misinformed regarding the Open Records Act, or have a poor attitude towards open government. This Wichita school district, for example, has told me that my records requests are a “burden” that interferes with the education of children. A Wichita city council member argued that if the city manager was satisfied with the level of service that an agency provided, there was no need for the agency to produce records.

The council member then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. He must not have been aware that the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law.

In 2007 the Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. In 2011 State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizens and journalists better access to records and documents. Reigning in the ability of agencies to erect a protective wall of high fees is a first step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

Open records in Kansas

Open Government

Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. Legislation has been introduced to correct some of the problems with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Here’s a portal of information on the problems I and others have had with the Kansas Open Records Act: Open records in Kansas.

business-records-file-folders

Open Records in Kansas

business-records-file-folders

Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is.

As citizen watchdogs, I and others need access to information and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: When I made a request for records, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes, and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He 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 political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation 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.

In Wichita, because of a loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act, a large amount of tax money is spent without this type of scrutiny. This year the Kansas Legislature is considering HB 2567, which will start to bring accountability for how all tax money is spent..

The Attorney General’s page on the Kansas Open Records Act is here. The Kansas Legislator Briefing Book chapter for the Kansas Open Records Act is here.

Wichita doesn’t value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret. Continue reading here.

Wichita could do better regarding open government, if it wants

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The renewal will provide another opportunity for the council to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records. Continue reading here.

Wichita government’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know is an issue

At a meeting of the Wichita City Council, Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert explained the problems in obtaining compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency

Despite receiving nearly all its funding from taxpayers, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau refuses to admit it is a “public agency” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. The city backs this agency and its interpretation of this law, which is in favor of government secrecy and in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act. Continue reading here.

Additional information on open records is at:

Kansas local office campaign finance reports

Kansas local office campaign finance report example

It’s hard to obtain and use local office campaign finance reports in Kansas. In Sedgwick County, for example, candidates for local offices file reports on paper with the county election office. These reports are scanned and made available online.

That sounds good. But the online system is very difficult to use. It’s hard to find the reports you want to view.

Until recently the system didn’t support modern browser programs like Firefox and Chrome. I kept a Windows virtual PC on hand and maintained with an old version of Windows and Internet Explorer for the sole purpose of using the document system at Sedgwick County.

It’s better now. You can use modern browser programs. But how many people will make the effort of creating a virtual PC so to obtain campaign finance data?

Then, the data you download or print is not machine readable. It’s images of text. It’s not searchable. It can’t be loaded into a spreadsheet or database, except by hand, or in some limited cases, through optical character recognition.

The campaign finance reports can’t be linked to like other documents that are online, like you can link to an agenda or the minutes of meetings.

The Johnson County election office didn’t do any better. There, the finance reports I looked at were available as multi-page TIFF files. These are difficult to work with. The software that most people have on their computers will show just the first page, probably.

We can do better.

As a start, I’ve created a collection of campaign finance reports from Sedgwick County. It’s not comprehensive. The documents are images as provided by the election office, meaning they’re not searchable and can’t be loaded into a spreadsheet or database.

But it’s something more than the government provides. Click here to see.

Who is Richard Windsor?

Kyle Smith in the New York Post:

Richard Windsor was the nom de plume of EPA chief Lisa Jackson, who announced her resignation last month. Why, you may ask, would a federal bureaucrat need an alias? Did she need cover in order to work on her own version of “50 Shades of Grey”? Does a secret identity liberate her to fight General Zod and Lex Luthor?

Or is she, like most users of aliases, trying to hide from the law?

The latter seems closest to the truth. Jackson has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but she has apparently been using unofficial e-mail accounts to discuss government affairs. As a side benefit, such exchanges might have been expected to escape discovery via the Freedom of Information Act. It is against federal law to use private e-mail addresses to discuss the people’s business.

Using secret anonymous email accounts to conduct government business is a serious matter. As Kansas seeks to beef up its open records law, we ought to include language to cover this type of abuse.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is at the forefront of this breaking issue. Their hub of information is at The EPA’s “Richard Windsor” Email Scandal.

In Wichita, failure to value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

More Kansas spending data online

Kansas Policy Institute has added more data to KansasOpenGov, its government transparency portal.

The newest data is from Kansas school districts, according to KPI’s press release.

KPI highlighted some noteworthy expenses, such as $7,148.53 on retirement clocks by the Andover school district, $232,894.00 in early retirement incentives by the Haysville school district, $24,755.47 at a Holiday Inn in San Clemente by the Topeka school district, and $2,616.60 to a Hyatt Hotel in Boston by the Coffeyville school district.

The data at KansasOpenGov is particularly welcome as it can be downloaded as csv or Excel files, which means it can be analyzed, sorted, printed, and archived in various ways. Some governmental agencies provide this data only in pdf files, which are difficult to convert to a format that can be analyzed.

While it’s good that school districts are releasing their expenditure data, there are still some transparency roadblocks. For example, in August the Wichita school district made a payment to “Commerce Bank Visa Businesscard” in the amount of $903,725.68, described as being for “Supplies.” That’s a lot of money spent under a vague and generic description.

Wichita government’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know is an issue

At a meeting of the Wichita City Council, Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert explained the problems in obtaining compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act.

The target of Trabert’s record request was Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. This agency — contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the law — believes it is not subject to KORA, even though it receives nearly all its funding from taxes.

It’s important to remember that while the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records, agencies may release the records if they want.

The city hides behind a narrow and tortured legal interpretation of the Kansas Open Records Act. Today, not one city council member spoke in support of government transparency. It would be a simple matter for the council to ask that WDDC satisfy records requests. There are many exclusions that cover records WDDC may not want to release.

Last year I made a similar argument to the council regarding a different quasi-public agency. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.” WDDC fits in this category, too.

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

For more on this issue in Kansas, see Open records again an issue in Kansas.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.’”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “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.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the 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.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, 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 did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted

Governmental bodies use consent agendas for two reasons. One is to speed up the handling of issues considered to be non-controversial. Today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council had a consent agenda with 31 items. The plan was for all to be passed with a single vote. Therefore, speedy meetings.

But sometimes we see items placed on consent agendas that are of such significance that they should be placed on the regular agenda, where there is the potential of discussion. Council members will also be on record as having voted on the item independently of others.

So sometimes we see items placed on consent agendas because elected officials don’t want discussion, they don’t want their vote to be on record, and they hope the public won’t notice.

If a council member feels a consent agenda item should be discussed or debated and be voted on separately from the other items, the member can ask that the item be “pulled.” That happened today at the request of Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita). But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist, and that no time should be spent receiving information on the item.

The consent agenda item and its importance is explained at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor and city council and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita):

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

“This is the second time in recent weeks that Mr. Clendenin has done something that I am utterly appalled by.”

“The treatment of Councilman O’Donnell by the majority is childish, unnecessary and unproductive.”

Steve Rose defends Kansas school spending

Attitudes toward Kansas public schools, or facts about them: Which is most important? For boosters of the Kansas school spending establishment, attitude is all that matters. The actual facts about Kansas schools — if we were honest enough to recognize and confront them — need not be considered.

Kansas City Star columnist Steve Rose is a case in point. His recent op-ed Negative attitude toward public schools is scary is scary itself for its vigorous and misinformed defense of a system that isn’t working very well for Kansas schoolchildren.

Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert left this comment to Rose’s article:

It’s quite telling that your basis for saying schools operate very efficiently and spending has only kept up with inflation is a lobbying group that advocates for more spending rather that actual figures from the Dept. of Education of the state budget office.

Here are the facts according to official government data for the period 2001 to 2011:

  • Inflation was 24.2% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Midwest Urban Cities)
  • FTE enrollment increased 1.8% (KSDE)
  • Taxpayer support of public education increased 55.8%; state aid +37.6%, federal +155.4% and local +67%. (KSDE)
  • 2012 is expected to be a record-setting year for taxpayer support of public education, at $5.672 billion (KSDE)

Here are a few more facts that, like those listed above, are not generally known to the public and are routinely denied by education officials.

  • $402 million more in state and local aid was not spent between 2005 and 2011 but was used to increase operating cash reserves (KSDE)
  • Instruction spending per-pupil increased 84% between 1999 and 2011 (KSDE) while inflation was up only 32% (BLS)
  • Taxpayer support of public education in Kansas increased from $3.1 billion in 1998 to $5.6 billion in 2011 (KSDE) yet student proficiency levels are well below 50% (US Dept. of Ed.)

Telling parents the inconvenient truth is not attacking schools, teachers or anyone else. It is giving them the facts they need to make fully informed decisions about what needs to be done to improve public education.

Kansas Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook was mentioned in the Rose op-ed and offered this response:

In his commentary on my response to a candidate survey from Americans for Prosperity at www.afpks.org, Steve Rose used the term “hogwash” to describe this statement, with which I agreed: “Parents, teachers, and taxpayers should have a transparent system so they know how much money is being spent in each school and school district.” He stressed that I had put the statement in bold-face type.

It’s a bold-faced belief. Repeatedly, I have heard frustration from parents, teachers and taxpayers who say they do not know how tax money is being spent. This is especially true in education, which represents a huge investment by the taxpayers of Kansas. I agree with Mr. Rose that “how much” is being spent at the school district level is a matter of public record. However, what is not known is how much is being spent at “each school,” and more precisely, “how it is being spent” at each school. Individual schools have substantial budgets. How much ends up in the classroom? How much goes to fund lobbying for more money by the school administration? How much goes to fund activities and programs that are more properly described as something other than education?

It is important to remember that school based budgeting not only exposes inefficiencies and problems but it also highlights positive areas, as well. However, without the information, we are not fully equipped to make informed decisions regarding our schools. Parents, teachers, and taxpayers should have a transparent system so they can have more input over local school decisions. Mr. Rose thinks that kind of information is “hogwash.” This will come as a surprise to many of his readers, no doubt.

On the bright side, it is amusing that Mr. Rose quotes “facts” from the Kansas Association of School Boards, a lobbyist group that continually insists on tax increases and demands more funding without any accountability for public education, while at the same time saying that my figures “came right out of the conservative propaganda.” Actually, the data I used came from the Kansas State Department of Education.

Maybe Mr. Rose forgot that just a few years ago the Shawnee Mission School District dropped its membership with the KASB because the KASB uses taxpayers’ money to continually lobby against local control, something many taxpayers think is urgently needed for schools in Johnson County.

Mr. Rose’s bogeymen-of-the-moment, “ultra-conservatives Charles and David Koch of Wichita,” have never lobbied the state of Kansas for any special interest money that would benefit only themselves, their companies or their industry. In my experience, their interest is advocating tax policies that would be beneficial to every Kansas citizen.

I typically bold-face responses in questionnaires and surveys to help distinguish between my response and the questions offered. It’s a formatting choice, not a rhetorical weapon. But in this case, let me use boldface to reiterate a very simple point: I believe parents, teachers, and taxpayers should have a transparent system so they know how much money is being spent in each school and school district.

If Mr. Rose believes otherwise, he can boldface his “hogwash” as much as he likes. After all, it’s his ink — and his hogwash.

Kansas reasonable: Judicial selection

Kansas Republicans who promote themselves as the “reasonable” candidates — “traditional” Republicans, they like to say — support a method of judicial selection in Kansas that is not democratic. In fact, Kansas is at the undemocratic extreme in judicial selection.

Kansas University law professor Stephen J. Ware has extensively researched and written on the method of judicial selection in the United States. His paper The Bar’s Extraordinarily Powerful Role in Selecting the Kansas Supreme Court reports that in Kansas, a select group of lawyers has tremendous control over the nominating process for the Kansas Court of Appeals and Kansas Supreme Court. It’s a process that desperately needs reform, despite the effort that Kansas lawyers spend defending their elite privileges and powers in this regard. “Reasonable” Republicans enable them.

Ware wrote this in a Lawrence Journal-World editorial:

What makes the Kansas Supreme Court selection process unusual is not that it’s political, but that it gives so much political power to the bar (the state’s lawyers). Kansas is the only state that gives its bar majority control over the commission that nominates Supreme Court justices. It’s no surprise that members of the Kansas bar are happy with the current system because it gives them more power than the bar has in any of the other 49 states and allows them to exercise that power in secret, without any accountability to the public.

In the conclusion to his paper, he summarized: “In supreme court selection, the bar has more power in Kansas than in any other state. This extraordinary bar power gives Kansas the most elitist and least democratic supreme court selection system in the country.”

Defenders of the present system say it keeps politics out of judicial selection. But Ware has noted that nine of the last 11 people appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court belonged to the same political party as the governor who appointed them. It reminds me of a quote from William “Boss” Tweed, political boss of Tammany Hall, that summarizes our problem accurately and concisely: “I don’t care who does the electing so long as I do the nominating.”

In February the Kansas Senate took a vote on agreeing to amendments to a bill that, if accepted and passed, would implement a system where the governor would appoint judges to the Court of Appeals, and then the Senate would confirm or reject the nominee. This is a system like the United States and many states use. A “Yea” vote was a vote in favor of this system. Here are the votes: Yeas: Abrams, Apple, Bruce, Donovan, Kelsey, Longbine, Love, Lynn, Masterson, Merrick, Olson, Ostmeyer, Petersen, Pilcher-Cook, Pyle, Taddiken, Wagle. Nays: Brungardt, Emler, Faust-Goudeau, Francisco, Haley, Hensley, Holland, Huntington, Kelly, King, Kultala, Marshall, McGinn, Morris, Owens, Reitz, A. Schmidt, V. Schmidt, Schodorf, Teichman, Umbarger, Vratil. Present and Passing: Steineger.

Voters in Kansas ought to ask the “reasonable” Republicans who voted against a democratic method of judicial selection why they defend the self-serving position of a special interest group.

Judicial selection among the statesJudicial selection among the states. Kansas is alone in giving the bar extreme power. From Kansas University School of Law Professor Stephen J. Ware.

Kansas rates low in access to records

The organization State Integrity Investigation has conducted an investigation of how states rank regarding integrity and protection against corruption. According to SII, “The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of each state’s laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and openness.”

Overall, on the “Corruption Risk Report Card,” Kansas received a letter grade of “C,” ranking it ninth among the states. Journalist Peter Hancock wrote the story for Kansas, opening with “Kansas has a history of enacting major reforms in the wake of scandals. But in the absence of any major uproar, the state is often inclined to leave things as they are, even though there may be significant weaknesses in laws meant to ensure transparency and accountability.”

One area in which Kansas rated low is in “Public Access to Information.” Kansas received a letter grade of “C” in this area. Hancock wrote: “On paper, Kansas has a fairly extensive law, known as the Kansas Open Records Act, or KORA, that is meant to ensure public access to official government records. But enforcement of the measure is left largely to the discretion of the state attorney general and local prosecutors who, according to interviews with researchers and media professionals, may be reluctant to take action. The only other option for citizens seeking records is to file civil lawsuits at their own expense.”

Drilling down to more detail illustrates the discrepancy between what Kansas law says, and what actually happens in practice. On the question “Do citizens have a legal right of access to information?” Kansas received a score of 100 percent.

But on the important question “Is the right of access to information effective?” investigators gave Kansas a grade of 47 percent. Averaging these two scores might produce a letter grade of “C.” But looking at more detail reveals why Kansas is often ranked very low in the more important measure of actual access to records.

Drilling down farther, Kansas rated very low on these measures: “In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to access to information requests within a reasonable time period,” “In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to information requests at a reasonable cost,” “In practice, when necessary, the agency that monitors the application of access to information laws and regulations independently initiates investigations,” and “In practice, when necessary, the agency that monitors the application of access to information laws and regulations imposes penalties on offenders.” The last measure received a score of zero percent.

Those who have followed the struggle to have Wichita quasi-public agencies follow the Kansas Open Records Act shouldn’t be surprised by Kansas’ low score on the actual application of this important law.

In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency

Despite receiving nearly all its funding from taxpayers, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau refuses to admit it is a “public agency” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. The city backs this agency and its interpretation of this law, which is in favor of government secrecy and in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act.

In the following excerpt from the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas, this issue was discussed. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle appeared along with myself and host Tim Brown.

Brown said this episode was “one of the silliest things I have ever seen. Clearly, Go Wichita fits under the definition of a public agency.”

He also said “The idea that an agency like this that gets millions of dollars from the city would not agree — willingly and happily — to comply with the Open Records Act is really some of the greatest governmental foolishness that I have ran across.”

Brown also said that the level of understanding of the Kansas Open Records Act evidenced by the Wichita City Council is “appalling.”

Offering advice to the council, Brown said that transparency is good for government, as it creates public trust. When agencies go to great lengths to avoid complying, it looks like they’re doing something wrong, even though there probably is no wrongdoing.

Although he did not mention him by name, Brown addressed a concern expressed by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). He accurately summarized Meitzner’s revealed attitude towards government transparency and open records as “democracy is just too much trouble to deal with.”

Tim Brown is the host of This Week in Kansas. The show airs at 9:00 am Sundays on KAKE channel 10, and complete episodes may be viewed at KAKE Television This Week in Kansas.

More information on this matter may be found at

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday December 16, 2011

Kansas school finance. Reactions to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s school finance plan are coming in. Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute gives it a grade of “incomplete.” “It’s good to give districts more flexibility in deciding how to spend aid dollars and the formula may be easier to understand, but there is nothing in this plan to substantively address his laudable goals of raising student achievement. Excellence in Education requires laser-like focus on outcomes and those elements are missing from this plan. … Funding is important but that’s not what drives achievement. Total aid to Kansas schools increased from $3.1 billion in 1998 to $5.6 billion in 2011. Yet reading proficiency levels according to the U.S. Department of Education remain relatively unchanged at about 35%.” … Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), the teachers union, notes the good points: It anticipates no further cuts to K-12 Education funding. It allows maximum flexibility in addressing student needs by removing restrictions on spending on at-risk or bilingual students. It counts kindergartners as full time students. But, the bad, according to the union: It has a TABOR-like effect that permanently locks in school funding at the current inadequate level. TABOR refers to taxpayer bill of rights, plans that some states have to limit the rate of growth of government. … While the Brownback administration believes the plan should settle lawsuits aimed at forcing more spending on education, lawyers suing the state say “Without addressing the costs of what schools need to spend in order to get the kind of performance the 21st Century demands, it is a system doomed to failure. It doesn’t do what the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Constitution requires and that is fund education based on its costs.”

No school choice for Kansas. The Brownback plan contains no mention of school choice programs of any kind, not even charter schools. The latter are possible in Kansas, but the law is stacked against their formation. School choice programs are increasing in popularity in many states, because they hold the strong possibility of better results for students and parents. Plus, as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has found in its study Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006, school choice programs save money: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.” Governor Brownback could have integrated a small school choice program into the school financing plan as a way to save money and provide greater freedom for students and parents. … In what the Wall Street Journal dubbed the The Year of School Choice, Republican governors across the nation have founded or expanded school choice programs. Wrote the Journal: “But choice is essential to driving reform because it erodes the union-dominated monopoly that assigns children to schools based on where they live. Unions defend the monopoly to protect jobs for their members, but education should above all serve students and the larger goal of a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper. This year’s choice gains are a major step forward, and they are due in large part to Republican gains in last fall’s elections combined with growing recognition by many Democrats that the unions are a reactionary force that is denying opportunity to millions. The ultimate goal should be to let the money follow the children to whatever school their parents want them to attend.” … But under governor Brownback’s leadership, this is not happening in Kansas.

Federal budget transparency. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who is in his first term representing the Kansas first district, this week expressed frustration with transparency involving the federal budget. “I appreciate the Congressman from Utah talking about transparency. The idea that just because we’re only shining some light on a particular aspect — on not on the whole process — to me that’s an argument we need more transparency on the whole process. I totally agree with that. The experience in my office in the last three days has been to make an attempt to find out what is in this Conference Committee report. It’s been three days, and at 12:37 am this morning that was posted online — 1,219 pages, not quite 11 hours ago. I’m a Member of Congress and I’m going to be expected to vote on that very quickly. There was an interesting quote in The Hill this morning. I don’t know who said it, but it quoted: ‘… [A]ppropriators are worried that the tactic could leave the omnibus text out in the public for too long, giving time for K Street lobbyists to attack it before it gets approved.’ I don’t care about the lobbyists. It’s my job. It’s a responsibility to my constituents. We need more transparency not less. We need more discussions of the tyranny of debt, not less. This type of legislation gives us that opportunity. It gives the American people more appropriately the opportunity to see what we are doing.” There is video of Huelskamp’s remarks.

Open records in Wichita. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to A Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” That’s James Madison, framer of the First Amendment, 1822. Six of seven Wichita City Council members seem not to agree with Madison, and we have a city attorney who goes out of his way to block access to information that the public has a right to know. The City of Wichita’s attitude towards open records and government transparency will be a topic of discussion on this week’s edition of the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas. That program airs in Wichita and western Kansas at 9:00 am Sundays on KAKE channel 10, and at 5:00 am Saturdays on WIBW channel 13 in Topeka.

Cell phone ban while driving. Sometimes regulating a behavior, even though it is dangerous, makes things even worse. “A news release from the Highway Loss Data Institute summarizes the finding of a new study: “It’s illegal to text while driving in most US states. Yet a new study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) finds no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. This finding is based on comparisons of claims in 4 states before and after texting ban, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.” More at Texting bans haven’t worked.

Myths of the Great Depression. “Historian Stephen Davies names three persistent myths about the Great Depression. Myth #1: Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire president, and it was his lack of action that lead to an economic collapse. Davies argues that in fact, Hoover was a very interventionist president, and it was his intervening in the economy that made matters worse. Myth #2: The New Deal ended the Great Depression. Davies argues that the New Deal actually made matters worse. In other countries, the Great Depression ended much sooner and more quickly than it did in the United States. Myth #3: World War II ended the Great Depression. Davies explains that military production is not real wealth; wars destroy wealth, they do not create wealth. In fact, examination of the historical data reveals that the U.S. economy did not really start to recover until after WWII was over.” This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

Pay-to-play laws are needed in Wichita and Kansas

In the wake of scandals, some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws often prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.

And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. Then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its New Jersey Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. In a nutshell, the law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500. The law affects contracts awarded by other than a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding. For other contracts, here is the summary of the law:

A municipal or county government agency cannot award a contract without using a fair and open process if the contractor …

  • is a contributor to a candidate committee or a political party committee where a member of the party is serving in an elective public office of that municipality or county, and, either …
  • made “reportable” contributions (those in excess of $300) during the year prior to the award, and/or …
  • makes contributions during the life of the contract.

The New Jersey law requires that businesses seeking government contracts certify they have not made contributions that would bar them from eligibility. It also contains provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. For corporations, the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the corporation itself for purposes of the law.

Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, and South Dakota are other states with some form of pay-to-play laws. Some of these are being challenged in the courts.

It’s not only states that have such laws. Cities, too, are passing them.

In 2009 Dallas passed a law, as described in a post on the Pay to Play Law Blog: “The ethics package contains numerous changes to existing lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements, City Council zoning powers and the disclosure of gifts to Council members. Most relevant to the pay-to-play space is that anyone bidding on a city contract is now prohibited from making donations during the bid period. Additionally, ‘major’ zoning applicants can no longer make contributions to Council members during the window which begins on the date of public notice of the zoning case, and which ends 60 days after the zoning case is resolved. Such changes are not too surprising in this instance, given that the scandal involving Hill revolved around favorable treatment for developers.”

Notably, the Dallas law was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers.

Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.” The population of Santa Ana is 324,528, which is just a little smaller than Wichita.

But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life. Those who want money from the council see it that way.

And citizens may remember the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public school district. In my reporting of the campaign contributions made in support of the bond spending, I wrote: “One analysis finds that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction.”

The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was a standout contributor to the bond effort, both in terms of cash contributions and in-kind contributions. Not surprisingly, that firm was awarded a contract for plan management services for the bond issue. The value of this contract is one percent of the value of the bond issue, or $3.7 million, and the firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens, although some have problems with the timing of the filings. But many politicians don’t want these contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract, paid for with city funds, without an open bidding process. The contract is likely to go to Key Construction, a firm whose principals — and spouses — regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates.

For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many other council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer. Video of the mayor’s remarks may be viewed at Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer addresses critics.

I can understand how council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to give money to. It stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow. It leads to more government planning of our lives, as is happening in Wichita. Pay-to-play laws can help.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to critics: stop grandstanding

Last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a window into the attitude of Wichita elected officials, particularly Mayor Carl Brewer. Through their actions, and by their words, we see a government that cares little for the rule of law and good government, and one that is disrespectful to citizens who call attention to this.

At issue was the circumvention of a statutorily required public hearing. In order to grant subsidies to a development team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties, the city is required to hold a public hearing, which it scheduled for September 13th. That schedule wasn’t fast enough for Burk, so at its August 9th meeting the council approved a letter of intent which formalizes the city’s desire to do the things that were to be the subject of the public hearing.

I, along with others, contend that this action — issuing the letter of intent — reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. It’s true that several times city bureaucrats and elected officials assured citizens that the letter is non-binding and doesn’t mean the city will go through with the desires expressed in the letter. But I don’t think they believe that themselves, and the language of City Manager Bob Layton reveals so. In the end, the public hearing is reduced to — as the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman aptly noted — “a pointless afterthought.” See Wichita City Council bows to special interests.

This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, which holds that our laws and orderly procedures are more important than any single person.

Almost as troubling is the attitude of Mayor Brewer and others in city hall towards citizens who oppose their plans. Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — does not mention the names of those he criticizes. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people, and the public, for the things he says.

John Todd, an activist and ally of mine who speaks at council meetings frequently — which means, in his case, about once or maybe twice a month — told me of his concerns: “It appears disingenuous to me for the mayor to unilaterally dress down citizens who address the council, with no opportunity for citizen rebuttal. The veiled message that comes through this process is this: ‘If you don’t agree with the mayor and council’s position on any issue, please shut up.’”

Todd is referring to the common practice of the mayor and some council members, notably Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), to criticize opponents after they’ve completed their testimony and returned to the audience, when there is no opportunity for citizens to respond.

At the August 9th meeting, the mayor criticized his political opponents for making use of the opportunity to address the council, and by extension, the people who may be watching on television or the internet: “I hope that today, all of this grandstanding that I saw coming from some of the public and I saw from some of the council members, and questioning council members, elected officials’ integrity — unless you have proof, just because you have a camera here, that there is something you shouldn’t be doing. … This whole thing that I saw going on here today remind me so much of a previous administration where individuals were standing up and thank God we have the cameras here. The media’s here every single meeting.”

What’s particularly deplorable about the mayor’s remarks is that he’s criticizing people for speaking at a public hearing. Yes, city officials say the agenda item was only to consider a letter of intent that does not bind the city council. But that legalistic interpretation ignores the practical political reality that this meeting was, de facto, the public hearing for this project.

This is not the first time the mayor has complained about his critics. In the past, the mayor has said: “We need every person’s ideas, recommendations, and their opinion. … Being quiet and then complaining about it later isn’t going to be good for you or the community.”

But when citizens take the mayor’s advice — showing initiative, not being quiet, and stating opinions beforehand — now the mayor calls that grandstanding.

The mayor has also called his critics “naysayers” and complained that they have received too much media attention.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In his remarks to me, John Todd wrote: “Diversity of opinion and the open discussion of divergent opinions are important parts of good government.” But citizens who observe the actions of the Wichita City Council — the issuance of this letter of intent being only the most recent example — and who sense the attitude of the mayor and some council members towards those who express opinions outside the orthodoxy — are likely to conclude, as many do, that it’s just not worth the effort to get involved.

Wichita City Council procedure: A citizen’s perspective

By Shirley Koehn

Remarks by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer at the August 9, 2011 meeting of the Wichita City Council referenced the discussion and testimony just prior, dealing with an agenda item scheduled for a vote (Letter of Intent to Douglas Place LLC). Mayor Brewer’s remarks were disconcerting and seemed aimed at scolding both members of the public and one council member for voicing opinions differing from the council majority.

Members of the public speaking about the issuing of a letter of intent to Douglas Place LLC raised legitimate questions as to the procedures. Logical procedure would be first the required public hearing (with published notice to allow time for public participation), followed by council vote at its next meeting. Reversal of this order lends itself to doubts by the public as to whether this was actually an open procedure. The question raised by one council member as to whether the construction contracts (building of the parking garage) should be open to bid seems a legitimate question, not one intended to malign anyone’s integrity. It was also noted that the developer in question made a $500 contribution to each council member’s last campaign, except to the council member speaking (who is usually the dissenting voice on public private partnerships). The campaign contribution relation to the frequency of the developer’s seeking public subsidies is probably a factor any good investigative reporter or member of the public might question. In the interest of transparency, relevant contribution(s) should accompany public documents coming before the council. (It is a common for such statements regarding financial interest, ownership, etc to be made in the interest of transparency). Judging by the mayor’s remarks, it appears that once elected, each council member is to forget his core values and acquiesce to the majority of the council.

It is the responsibility of council members to protect public interests, not to protect interests of a select group. I think Mayor Brewer is confusing legitimate public inquiry with attacking the Mayor and members of the council. Have we reached the point where a council member cannot question the majority or when a member of the public cannot challenge the procedures and conclusions of the council?

I have spoken several times before the council. The first time, I received what might be called a reprimand for essentially being uninformed. The comment from Mayor Brewer was to the effect that the mayor and council were elected to do the city’s business and they know best. Since that time I have seen the same sentiment voiced to newcomers.

In spite of this, I and others continue to make our voices heard. We work hard to research, to operate on as much fact as we can find and be respectful of the positions the Mayor and Council members hold. At the same time, I believe members of the public, from various socioeconomic levels deserve to be heard, with respect, by the mayor and council.

“A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that … it gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” — Milton Friedman

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday March 9, 2011

Kansas legislature website. It’s getting better, and now has — by my recollection — all the functionality of the site it replaced. But there are still some issues. The search feature uses a Google site-specific search, which is good in many ways. But trying to find if there’s any legislation this year concerning sales tax? Not so easy. … The rosters of members are displayed in panels of 12 members of a time. For the House there are 11 such panels. I wonder on which panel I’ll find the member I’m looking for? … Too many documents are still being delivered in OpenOffice doc format, which many people will not be able to use.

Kansas smoking ban. The Hutchinson News has reported and editorialized on the statewide smoking ban. In Hutch club owner wants to see measure repealed, Sheila Martin expresses her concern for the small business owners who are being harmed by the smoking ban. The booklet Martin created that the article refers to may be read here Kansas Smoking Ban Booklet. Then the newspaper editorialized against the smoking ban, writing “Eight months since it took effect, the local jury is in on Kansas’ statewide smoking law. It has hurt sales at some drinking establishments — no doubt, in turn, hurting state and local sales tax receipts — and it was doubtful that it stopped anyone from smoking or saved many from exposure to secondhand smoke.”

Fighting government secrecy. Announcing a television show regarding government transparency, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government writes: “Open government is essential to a democracy. But it’s often hard to find that vital government transparency — and to get public access to public records, even when the law is on your side. “What is your government hiding?” is the focus of a town hall panel set at 4:00 to 5:00 pm Saturday, March 12, at the First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway, in downtown Wichita. The event will be taped and shown on KAKE-TV and affiliated stations around the state at 10 am Sunday, March 13, as part of the national celebration of Sunshine Week (March 13-19). … ‘The Mike and Mike Show’ will headline the meeting. Media attorney Mike Merriam of Topeka will join University of Kansas law professor Mike Kautsch in a interactive presentation on media law, as well as how citizens can use the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Open Meetings Act. … The show also will feature a panel on the importance of open government led by the League of Women Voters of Wichita. The audience is invited to ask questions. Refreshments will be available at a reception afterward. …KPTS-TV, Channel 8 in Wichita, will rebroadcast the show at 7 pm, Thursday, March 24. Those interested are asked to arrive in time to be seated by 3:45 pm. The event is sponsored by the Kansas Sunshine Coalition, the LWV and the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.

Kansas judicial selection. The Wall Street Journal takes notice of the need for judicial selection reform in Kansas, writing “Kansas is the only state that gives the members of its bar a majority on the judicial nominating commission. That commission also handles the nominations for state Supreme Court justices, and changing that would require a state constitutional amendment. The Sunflower State is nonetheless off to a good start at making judicial appointments more than a preserve of the lawyers guild.” … Kansas University Law Professor Stephen J. Ware is the foremost authority on the method of judicial selection in Kansas and the need for reform. His paper on this topic is Selection to the Kansas Supreme Court, which is published by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. Further reporting by me is at Kansas judicial selection needs reform, says law professor.

Kansas Education Liberty Act. A strong school choice measure has been introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives. The bill is HB 2367 and may be read at the Kansas Legislature website. The measure’s supporters have a website at supportkela.com. From the bill’s supporters: “This bill authorizes specific non-profit organizations to grant scholarships to students to attend a qualified private or public school of their parents’ choice. These scholarships are funded through tax-credit eligible contributions from individual Kansans and corporations. State taxpayers will spend significantly less on each scholarship than they currently spend per pupil in public schools. This bill reduces education related spending from the state’s general fund and reduces the budget deficit. In addition, public schools will still have access to the majority of the federal and local taxpayer funding; so with each student who chooses another educational setting, public schools will have more funding per remaining student. Perhaps even more significant, our children will enjoy improved education outcomes in both public and private education in the state of Kansas with increased parental and community involvement.” … While the Kansas education establishment fiddles with “reforms” such as whether to grant tenure in three or five years, actual reform measures like this are what is needed.

What … it’s not about the whales? “Environmental policy is not driven by tree-hugging activists, earnest liberal bloggers, or ecologically minded citizens. Instead, it flows from the lobbyists and executives of well-connected multinational corporations and built-for-subsidy startups that see profit in the loan guarantees, handouts, mandates, and tax credits Congress creates in the name of saving the planet.” Timothy P. Carney explains more in Meet the lobbyist who turns ‘green’ into greenbacks.

Wichita council candidates. Now that the city primary election is over and each district has two candidates for the April 5 general election, this week’s meeting (March 11) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Wichita City Council candidates. Invited are from district 2: Pete Meitzner and Charlie Stevens. From district 4: Joshua Blick and Michael O’Donnell. From district 5: Jeff Longwell and Lynda Tyler. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Common Sense — Revisited author in Wichita. Clyde Cleveland will visit Wichita to speak at the Holiday Inn at 549 S. Rock Road on Wednesday, March 16th at 7:00 pm. The event’s promotional poster reads: “Join Clyde Cleveland, the author of Common Sense — Revisited and 2002 libertarian candidate for Iowa Governor for an eye-opening presentation on our Government and how we can restore it to the Republic in its original form. Learn about Indigenous and Surrogate Powers, and how Americans have surrendered their ‘Sentient Power’. The good news is, we can peacefully, and lawfully, re-inhabit our Sovereign status and reclaim a bottom-up, ‘By, of, and For the People,’ Republic form of Government. … This is what was intended by our founding fathers, and for which many others have given their lives to protect. Following the presentation Clyde will discuss how we can participate in rebuilding our State and National Republics.” Cleveland’s website is Common Sense Revisited. He will also speak in Overland Park on March 17th.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday February 9, 2011

ACLU leader to speak in Wichita. On Friday (February 11) the speaker at the meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club will be Doug Bonney, who is Chief Council and Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. His topic will be “150 Years of Kansas Liberty.” This speaking invitation has caused a bit of controversy, with some Pachyderm Club members — and non-members — criticizing the selection of a speaker whose group is associated with liberal political causes. But the invitation is in line with the club’s mission of political education, as stated on the national Pachyderm website: “To promote practical political education and the dissemination of information on our political system.” Previous speakers who don’t fit the club’s Republican Party affinity have included Democrats WSU political science professor Dr. Mel Kahn and Kansas school board member Dr. Walt Chappell, and Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose mission is to end the war on drugs. All these speakers provided valuable information and education. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Information added to KansasOpenGov.org. KansasOpenGov.org, a government transparency initiative provided by the Kansas Policy Institute, has added new sections of data to its offerings. Added this week are checkbook and payroll registers for school districts in Topeka, Wichita, Great Bend, Colby, and Pittsburg. An interesting observation: Wichita has two union stewards on the payroll. The Wichita school district says the cost of compensation, benefits, etc. are reimbursed by the union, but while serving as union employees, they continue to build up seniority and earn credit towards their taxpayer-funded pensions. More information from KPI is at More districts added — taxpayers have new tools.

“The Citizen” launches. This week a new print newspaper launched covering Kansas City and the states of Kansas and Missouri. It’s available in an online version, too. Named the citizen, it describes itself as “We’re a new monthly newspaper for the Kansas City metro area. Our first issue is available right now. Are we biased? Yes — just like every other newspaper and magazine. Are we different? Yes — because we’re not afraid to admit that things like a love of freedom and a belief in personal responsibility matter, and they inform what we choose to cover. We’re free to readers and ad-supported.”

Economic development in Wichita explained. Maybe. You be the judge, as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and city council member Janet Miller explain. Video here.

Limits on state agency advertising proposed. Kansas state treasurer Ron Estes has proposed a ban on appearances by elected officials in public service announcements using state resources 60 days before an election. This was an issue before last year’s election in November, mostly for the treasurer and secretary of state contests. Said Estes: “These public service announcements are intended to educate the citizens of Kansas on the programs available by the state to help serve their best interests. They are not intended to serve as a free campaign commercial for an incumbent before an election.” More information is here. After this issue is handled, I propose a next step: reigning in the agency websites, which functioned as campaign billboards for most elected state agency heads.

Wichita lame ducks to take junket. As The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman explains, Wichita city council members with less than a month left to serve should not be traveling to conferences whose nominal mission is to help them be better council members. But Paul Gray, Sue Schlapp and Roger Smith will do just that, based on action taken in yesterday’s council meeting. As Holman writes: “All governing boards should curb junkets for members approaching the exits. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize the air travel, hotel rooms and networking and schmoozing of elected officials whose service is all but over.”