Tag Archives: Government transparency

Towards government transparency in Wichita: Legal notices

Kansas law requires publication of certain notices in newspapers, but cities like Wichita could also make them available in other ways that are easier to use.

Legal publications in the Wichita Eagle, occupying nearly the entire page.
Legal publications in the Wichita Eagle, occupying nearly the entire page.
Do you read the legal publications in your local newspaper? Often they are lengthy. Many pertain to just one person or company. All are supplied using ink expressed as fine print on the chemically processed flesh of dead trees.

But some legal publications are important and of interest to the general public.

Kansas law requires that many legal notices must be printed on a newspaper. That law needs to be changed. As you might imagine, newspapers resist this reform, as it might mean a loss of revenue for them. (That’s right. Newspapers don’t print these notices as a public service.)

Although the law requires publishing notices in a newspaper, it doesn’t prohibit publishing them in electronic form. If governmental agencies would make their legal publications available in ways other than the newspaper, citizens would be better served.

The City of Wichita does some posting of legal notices on its website. Under the City Clerk section, there is a page titled “Legal Notices” that holds notices of bidding opportunities. (Curiously, that page isn’t found when you search for “legal notices” on the city’s site.) So this is good, but the notices that are important to most people are not on the city’s website.

Posting all city legal notices on the city’s website would be easy to do. It would be quite inexpensive. The material is already in electronic form. The notices would become searchable through Google and other methods. Government transparency would increase. Interested parties could capture and store notices this material for their own use. Once people get used to this method of publication, it will make it easier to get state law changed.

So why doesn’t the City of Wichita post its legal notices on its website?

Wichita doesn’t have this

A small Kansas city provides an example of what Wichita should do.

For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.

The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.

It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)

The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.

Why is this information not available? Is the communications staff overwhelmed, with no time to provide this type of information?

During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Since then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director last spring.

Wichitans need to know that besides living in a city that doesn’t provide much information about its operations, the city believes it is doing a good job. Here is a Wichita city news release from 2013:

“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.”

When I’ve expressed frustration with the process of asking for information from the city, communications staff told me this: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”

Wichitans need to wonder:

  • Why can’t we have the same information about our city government that residents of Lawrence have?

  • Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax?

  • Is transparency really a governing principle of our city?

Sedgwick County economic development incentives status report for 2015

Sedgwick County has released its annual report on the performance and status of economic development incentives for 2015.

Section I, titled “Summary Totals for Loans & Grants Executed 2005 — 2015,” holds data that must be interpreted carefully. The report shows a total of $11,682,500 in loans and grants. Of that total, $5,000,000 was advanced to Cessna in 2008 to help with the Columbus jet program. But Cessna canceled that program and repaid the loan. It’s almost as though this activity never took place.

Of particular interest is Section III, titled “Individual Loan & Grant Incentive Results.” These programs are specifically designed to induce the creation of jobs, and in some cases capital investment. This section holds a number of evaluations that read “Not Meeting Commitment.” One example is NetApp. The county reports that “Company Commitment at Compliance Review” is 268 jobs, but the county found that “Company Performance at Compliance Review” is 124 jobs, which is 46 percent of the goal. NetApp is significant as it is one of the larger incentives offered, and the jobs have high salaries.

Another observation is the small amount of the incentives. The majority are for less than $50,000, with one being $10,000. Often these small amounts are promoted as responsible for — or at least enabling — investments of millions of dollars. These incentives come with large costs besides the cash value. Companies must apply for the incentive, county and other agency staff must evaluate the application, there is deliberation by commissioners and council members, and then effort spent producing the thoughtful and thorough report such as this produced by the Chief Financial Officer of Sedgwick County. (The City of Wichita produces no similar report, despite dangling its possibility if voters passed a sales tax. See Wichita can implement transparency, even though tax did not pass.)

Click here to access this report.

Kansas school districts compliance with transparency law

Some Kansas school districts are not complying with basic transparency, even though there is a law, finds Kansas Policy Institute.

School districts still not complying with transparency law

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

The Kansas Uniform Financial Accounting and Reporting Act — K.S.A. 72-8254 passed in 2013 requires every school district to publish specific budget information for the current school year and actual expenditures for the immediately preceding two school years, and stipulates that the report “shall be published with an easily identifiable link located on such district’s website homepage.” Unfortunately, some districts still fail to comply with this very simple transparency requirement.

This table shows the results of a random sample of 40 districts’ web sites. The five districts in column 1 were found to be in compliance; the required report appears by title on the home page and the link goes directly to the report. Column 2 lists twenty-three districts that don’t link the report as required but do provide a generic link (e.g., “Budget Information”) that goes to a page where the report can be accessed with another link. The twelve districts in column 3 have nothing visible on their home

This ongoing problem was brought to the attention of legislators and the Department of Education several times in 2014, and last year Senate Bill 188 was introduced to add a consequence for non-compliance; if not in compliance within 30 days of written notice, districts would be fined $1,000 per day until doing so. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 27-13 and was carried over to the House this year where it should be scheduled for a vote.

Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for increased transparency this year. It will be interesting to see how many are willing to hold school districts accountable to existing transparency law.

Empowering and engaging Wichitans, or not

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Manager says “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.” So what actually happens when you ask the city for data, including data that many governmental agencies make freely available? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 13, 2015.

WichitaLiberty.TV: What the Kansas Legislature should do, and eminent domain

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are things simple and noncontroversial that the Kansas Legislasture should do in its upcoming session, and some things that won’t be easy but are important. Also, a look at eminent domain. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 106, broadcast January 3, 2016.

Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

Since statistics were gathered and this article was written in February, several committees have used the commercial file-sharing service Dropbox to make testimony and documents available to everyone. This is a reasonable way to accomplish an important goal.

Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature
Despite having a website with the capability, only about one-third of standing committees in the Kansas Legislature are providing written testimony online.

On the Kansas Legislature website, each committee has its own page. On these committee pages there are links for “Committee Agenda,” “Committee Minutes,” and “Testimony.” But in most cases there is no data behind these links.

In particular, the written testimony and informational presentations provided to committees would be of interest and value to citizens. Most committees — perhaps all — require conferees to supply a pdf or Microsoft Word version of their testimony in advance of the hearing. These electronic documents could be placed online before the committee hearing. Then, anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone could have these documents available to them.

Having committee testimony online would be extremely useful for those who attend hearings. Often there is only a limited number of printed copies of testimony available, so not everyone gets a copy.
This would not be difficult to accomplish. It would cost very little, perhaps nothing.

Plus, citizens could access these documents. Of note, many organizations that regularly testify before the legislature make their testimony available on their own websites. Examples include Kansas Association of School Boards and Kansas Policy Institute.

Publishing testimony online would be an easy matter to accomplish and would be a great help to those following the legislature. It would cost very little or nothing.

Following is a list of all standing committees of the legislature and whether they have any testimony online for the 2015 session. A notation of “Yes” does not imply that all testimony is available online. It means that I found some testimony. Some committees are not listed as they do not meet for the purpose of receiving testimony. (Calendar and Printing in the House is an example.)

Of the 40 standing committees that I examined, 26 do not provide any testimony online.

Download (PDF, 30KB)

A simple step for transparency in Kansas government

There exists a simple and inexpensive way for the Kansas Legislature to make its proceedings more readily available.

Proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are broadcast on the internet. That’s good. But the broadcasts are carried only live. There is no archive of recordings. Citizens must listen live, or figure out some way to record the audio. It’s possible, but beyond what most people are willing to do. And given the unpredictable schedule of the legislature, you can’t simply set a timer to start at a certain time each day.

There is a desire by some for live video of the proceedings, which would be great. Even better is archived video, where a person doesn’t have to watch live. But these options are expensive. The expenditure would be worthwhile, but there doesn’t seem to be much desire to spend on this.

Audio, however, provides almost all the benefit of video of legislative proceedings. And it’s cheap. For eight dollars per month the legislature could make audio recordings of its proceedings available to listen to at any time.

For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That’s just what is needed 1. Since the audio of the proceedings is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure. The recording needs no editing. (In fact, any editing other than cutting away silence before the start and after the end of the session must be disallowed.)

But there’s a problem. Neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House.

Making audio archives or podcasts of legislative session would be so simple. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit. Interns could do the work, and it would be good experience for them.

But the Kansas Legislature doesn’t do this. We need to ask legislative leaders to make this happen.

  1. For $79 per month the same company offers a plan geared towards business, with features like multiple administrative users. This is probably more appropriate for the Legislature. But the eight dollar plan would work, too.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s attitude towards empowering citizens, tax credits, and school choice

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita’s attitude towards empowering citizens, government spending through tax credits, and school choice in Kansas. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 103, broadcast December 13, 2015.

Wichita checkbook register

A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data.

I asked the City of Wichita for checkbook spending records and received data for 2015 through September 25, as I asked. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. Click here to access the visualization. (A visual guide for using the visualization is at the end of this article.)

Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which then changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”

Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.

There are interesting entries. For example, the city usually sends a few hundred dollars per month to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. Then in July, the city paid $3.7 million to KTA. A quick search of city council agenda packets didn’t reveal any reason for this.

Of note, it looks like there were 474 checks issued in amounts $20 or less. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20.

The records request

Wichita spending data from 2013.
Wichita spending data from 2013.
The city supplied this data in an Excel spreadsheet, in an arrangement that can easily be analyzed in Excel or loaded into other programs. This is a step forward. Two years ago, Wichita could supply data of limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult to translate the image data into machine-readable text, and even more difficult to reorganize it to a useful arrangement or format for analysis.

Denver open checkbook.
Denver open checkbook.

I had to pay $24.00 to the city for this data. That’s a problem. It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. When I inquired, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.

While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data like that I paid for could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful, as I did. There is no reason why this should not be happening.

When I learned of the fee for these records, I asked for a waiver, sending this to the city’s records official:

I’d like to ask for a waiver of the requested fee. I ask this because check register data is an example of records that many governmental agencies make freely available on their websites. The Wichita Public School District and Sedgwick County are two local examples.

I’d like to also call attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “…fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”

I suggest that the records I am requesting will indeed “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” and that it is in the public interest of the people of Wichita that these records be freely available.

I received an answer:

Mr. Weeks,

Your request for waiver of fees is denied. KORA allows fees to be collected prior to finding and producing the document you seek. KSA 45-218(f). The extensive statute setting out how fees are to be determined, KSA 45-219, does not contain any provision for waiver in the manner you suggest.

The City will provide the document to you upon payment as invoiced.

Sincerely,
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney

Mr. Hinkel is absolutely correct. Governmental agencies in Kansas have the right to charge for records, and the Kansas statutes do not mention the waiving of fees as do the federal statutes. But the Kansas Open Records Act does not require cities to charge for providing records, especially for records that the city should already be providing. Especially when citizens are willing to take that data and make it better, at no charge to the city.

Hinkel provided a lawyer’s answer. Here, however, is the public policy the city promotes, from a Wichita city news release from 2013:

“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.”

The importance of transparency. The city wants to empower and engage citizens by providing information. Well. I offered to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” but had to pay to do so.

When I asked city officials for clarification of why I had to pay to receive these records, communications staff told me: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”

I must disagree. This is not “open and transparent.” This is not how to “empower and engage” the people of Wichita. Not even close.

Wichita checkbook register visualization instructions.
Wichita checkbook register visualization instructions.

For Wichita’s mayor, too many public hearings

Is the Wichita city council burdened with too many public hearings? Wichita’s mayor seems to think so.

Bob Weeks Facebook post 2015-10-20It’s not like the Wichita City Council is overburdened with citizens wanting to speak at public hearings. Sure, once in a while when the council is considering something really important like renaming the airport, many will want to speak.

But by and large, the routine business of the council is conducted with little input from the public. (This includes the dishing out of grants, tax abatements, and other favors worth millions to council members’ campaign contributors and cronies.) Many public hearings draw no speakers. For others, maybe one or two citizens will appear and offer an opinion.

Yet, it has become commonplace for the new mayor and council members to carp about the length of city council meetings.

City of Wichita Facebook post.
City of Wichita Facebook post.
This is in a city that just last week received an award for, in part, “community engagement.” Which tells us a lot about the worth and validity of these awards.

But for Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, too many public hearings means, well, too much community engagement. Or, maybe too much of his time wasted. He didn’t say which, but I think we know what he meant.

Oh, and the public hearing where the mayor brought up his concern about wasting time with too many public hearings? No one wanted to speak. Video below.

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV, I give some examples of how little information government actually shares with us, despite its proclamations. Click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Following, the script for this video excerpt.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s another example. The Wichita transit system is a matter of interest right now. Funding for the system has been a problem for some years, and money for the bus system was part of the sales tax last year that Wichita voters rejected. So what is the city and the transit system doing to make information available? The answer is: not much. Wichita Transit Advisory BoardSome of the fundamental documents of government agencies are agendas, agenda reports, and minutes of meetings. And there is such a thing as the Wichita transit advisory board. But good luck finding agendas and minutes for this board. They do not exist. Well, I’m sure they exist somewhere. But they’re not available on the city’s website, or on the transit system’s’ own website. I’m sure that if you call or write someone will send these documents to you. But that takes time, both for citizens and government workers.

It is not difficult to do this, making documents available. There are many city agencies that make documents available, like the city council and airport advisory board. Earlier this year a local activist mentioned the lack of agendas and minutes for the transit board, bemoaning that there was no part-time web person to post the documents. Well, you don’t need a web person to do it. It is so simple that anyone can do it for free.

Here’s an example. This summer as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Second: In August the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

Oh, and I can’t forget the federal government. In January I requested a document from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. Our congressman Mike Pompeo and his office have intervened on my half. But after nine months: nothing.

All these levels of government — city, county, school district, state, and federal — say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

WichitaLiberty.TV: Lack of information sharing by government, community improvement districts, and the last episode of “Love Gov”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do our governmental agencies really want to share data and documents with us? Community Improvement Districts and homeowners compared. And, the last episode of “Love Gov” from the Independent Institute. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 95, broadcast September 20, 2015.

Wichita can implement transparency, even though tax did not pass

Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only as an inducement to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city?

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.”

The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

Useful information from the city on Facebook.
Useful information from the city on Facebook.
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass.

We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Then, there are posts like this. Is this preventing staff from providing useful information like the city promised if the sales tax passed?
Then, there are posts like this. Is this preventing staff from providing useful information like the city promised if the sales tax passed?
Since then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city?

Having raised taxes, could you give us a little access?

The Wichita public school district has raised taxes substantially, but it’s still difficult to view the board meetings. Could we work out a deal?

In August the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000.

That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. It’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible.

If you — a taxpayer to USD 259, and whose taxes you must pay to the school district have just been raised by five percent — would like to watch a meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, your options are few. You can attend the meetings in person. Or, if you subscribe to certain cable television systems, you can view delayed repeats of the meetings. But that’s it.

Live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace, except for the Wichita public schools. Citizens must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV.

There’s a simple way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Sometimes citizens have taken it upon themselves to post Wichita school board video on YouTube so that citizens and taxpayers may view meetings. Click for an example.
Sometimes citizens have taken it upon themselves to post Wichita school board video on YouTube so that citizens and taxpayers may view meetings. Click for an example.
The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t have Cox or AT*T U-verse? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

Throw the taxpayers a bone, please.

Wichita schools could increase engagement at no cost

The Wichita public school district could boost its engagement with citizens with a simple step that would add no cost.

If you’d like to watch a meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, your options are few. You can attend the meetings in person. Or, if you subscribe to certain cable television systems, you can view delayed repeats of the meetings. But that’s it.

Live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace, except for the Wichita public schools. Citizens must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV.

There’s a simple way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploads video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

I was also told “The district does not archive complete Board meetings on the Web site because of file size and bandwidth.” YouTube takes care of that problem at no cost. As it turns out, the district does have some material from board meetings available on its website. This is welcome. But not complete meetings, and what’s there is supplied in a non-streaming format.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is good. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the schedule after a week? What if you don’t have Cox or AT&T U-verse? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

It’s just an idea.

Discussion of open government in Wichita and Kansas

Perspectives may differ, but the point is the same — more government transparency leads to more citizen engagement and better outcomes in communities, states, and nations.

In this podcast, Kansas Policy Institute Vice President James Franko discusses government transparency with Seth Etter and Bob Weeks. Etter is the organizer of Open Wichita, an initiative to bring the benefits of open data and civic hacking to Wichita. Weeks blogs at Voice for Liberty in Wichita where he advocates for government transparency and accountability and uses open records requests to access, analyze and publish state and local government data. KPI maintains KansasOpenGov.org, an online data portal for state and local government data.

Listen below, or click here for this and other Kansas Policy Institute podcasts.

Wichita tourism plan should include spending disclosure

As part of a plan for spending a dedicated tax revenue stream, the Wichita city council should include disclosure of spending. It would fulfill a campaign promise.

When the City of Wichita collects money through taxation, citizens have the right to know how it is spent. For the city, it is possible to view every check that is written, although the city is not able to supply this information in machine-readable form. But it is available.

But when the city establishes non-profit corporations that are funded totally, or nearly totally, with taxes, different rules apply, says the city: Spending does not have to be disclosed.

This is contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act, which opens with the preamble “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.”

For some time citizens have asked that the spending records of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau (now known as Visit Wichita) be made available. But it is the position of each of these agencies that despite being funded almost totally by taxes, they do not need to reveal their spending records. The City of Wichita has backed this position.

This week the city council will consider a scope of services and budget agreement with its convention and visitors bureau. This year that agency is receiving the proceeds of a new 2.75 percent tax on hotel bills. City documents indicate this tax is expected to raise $2.7 million annually. When added to other tax funds the convention and visitors bureau receives, its budget is some $5 million per year.

But none of this money is subject to the same disclosure as regular city spending.

During the recent mayoral campaign, candidate Jeff Longwell wrote this in response to a question for the Wichita Eagle voter guide: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

Now Wichita mayor, Longwell has an opportunity to implement a campaign promise. It would be simple to do. All the council needs to do is insist that the convention and visitors bureau agree that it is what the law says it is: An agency funded nearly totally by taxes, which means it is a public agency that falls under the scope of the Kansas Open Records Act.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Sin taxes, and what the Kansas Legislature doesn’t want you to know

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Sin taxes, and what the Kansas Legislature doesn’t want you to know. Originally broadcast February 8, 2015. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on these issues, see:

Sin-tax or vice-tax?
This is how much the Kansas Legislature wants Kansans to know
Availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature

WichitaLiberty.TV: Flipping in Wichita, price of sin going up, and what your legislature wants you to know

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: In Wichita, historic value is gone in a flash, a flip-flop on drivers permits, and does the city really believe in transparency or was it just a way to get votes? Then, let’s stop calling a vice a sin, and what does the Kansas Legislature really want you to know? View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 74, broadcast February 8, 2015.