Tag Archives: Open records

Wichita fails at open government and trustworthiness

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber not for Wichita, Wichita fails at transparency, and Wichita jobs

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber is an innovative transportation service, but is probably illegal in Wichita. Then, the City of Wichita fails again at basic government transparency. Finally, a look at job growth in Wichita compared to other cities. Episode 45, broadcast June 1, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

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, 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) and this incident:

“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.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

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. wichita-wins-transparency-award-2013For 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.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) 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 legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has 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.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “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 the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

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 these agencies to act as though they are public agencies 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.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies 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.

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. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater 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.

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

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.
Wichita City Hall.

The city of Wichita wants hotel guests to make a “marketing investment” in Wichita by paying a “City Tourism Fee.”

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent tax to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance that agency’s marketing efforts. The tax is estimated to raise $2.5 million per year.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

What the city calls a “marketing investment” will appear on hotel bills as the “City Tourism Fee,” according to city documents.

How to succeed in business by having others pay for your advertising

When most business firms want to increase their business through advertising, they pay for it themselves. They don’t tack on an additional “advertising fee” to customer’s bills.

But not so with Wichita hotels. Unlike most businesses, Wichita hotels propose to have someone else pay for their advertising.

On top of that, the city and the hotels don’t have the integrity to label the added tax to let customers know its true purpose. Instead, the tax will appear on customer bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” If hotel customers are angry at the fee, well, who is to blame? The hotel, which is merely collecting what city code says it must? Visitors to Wichita likely won’t know the real reason for the tax, which is to shift expenses to someone else through the mechanism of government.

Clever. I wonder if other industries will try something like this? Also: Will the Wichita hotels that currently engage in advertising reduce their spending on advertising, now that a government agency is in charge and taxpayers are footing the bill?

Who pays this tax

City leaders argue that taxes like hotel taxes are largely paid for by people from out of town. Whether that is a wise strategy is debatable. People and business firms notice these taxes. Wichita hotel owner Jim Korroch is an advocate of the new Wichita tax. But he told the Wichita Eagle recently “You know, I used to like to take my girls shopping at the Legends in Kansas City. I thought that was a great deal with the outlet malls, but for the first time I’ve looked at my receipts, and it isn’t. They charge almost 20 percent at the Legends with that district.” So he noticed — eventually — the high taxes charged.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)
Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

If the tourism fee is implemented, some hotels in Wichita that are located in community improvement districts (including one Korroch owns) will have taxes totaling 17.9 percent added to customer bills.

Here’s something else regarding the myth of shifting hotel taxes to people from out of town. Are there are any Wichita business firms that have employees who live in other cities, and those employees travel to Wichita on business and stay in hotels? Often these hotel bills are paid by the employee and then reimbursed by the Wichita company they work for. So as far as a hotel knows, and as far as any marketing analysis might show, someone from Fresno spends a few days in a Wichita hotel. This person might work for Cargill Beef’s Fresno facility and have traveled to Wichita to visit the headquarters of Cargill Meat Solutions. In the end, the hotel bill and taxes are paid by Cargill Meat Solutions, a Wichita company.

Do any Wichita business firms employ consultants who travel to Wichita and stay in hotels, and those hotels bills are part of the consultants’ billable expense? In the end, who pays those taxes? A Wichita business firm does.

So at the public hearing, I hope someone asks the question: How often are these taxes actually paid by Wichita companies? Does the city know the answer to this?

Further: Isn’t it a sham to call this tax a “City Tourism Fee” when hometown companies are paying hotel bills for their employees and consultants to come to Wichita for business?

More secret spending

It is the position of Go Wichita that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act. The City of Wichita backs this interpretation of the law. Thus, we will have more taxpayer funds spent in secret.

The bureaucrats profit

Writing in Public Choice — A Primer Eamonn Butler explains the motivations of bureaucrats:

In terms of what bureaucrats actually do pursue, Niskanen suggested that budget maximisation provided a fair measure. It is an approximation to the objective of profit in the market context. And it provides a simple proxy for all the other things that go with a large and growing budget — such as job security, promotion prospects, salary increases and so on.

In their pursuit of these benefits, bureaucrats are just as much players in the political process as any other interest group — and they have no free-rider problem because their group is so well defined that they can easily keep the benefits of their lobbying to themselves. …

Bureaucrats can also rely on the political support of the interest groups that depend on the grants and programmes that they administer, and which would almost certainly like to see those budgets increased; and they can rely on the support of the commercial businesses that supply goods and services to the programmes that the agencies administer.

We see these characteristics revealing themselves: A government agency seeking to expand its budget and power, at the expense of taxpayers.

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.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-smallThis week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

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:

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.

Kansas school efficiency on display

apple-wormWhen you hear that Kansas schools have “cut to the bone,” or are operating at maximum efficiency, or have nowhere else to cut, or there’s no need to audit school district efficiency, think of this.

When Kansas governmental agencies receive requests for records, they must respond to the requester within three business days. Most often this response does not contain the requested records. Instead, it’s either a statement of how much the records will cost, or a denial of the request.

Every agency I have dealt with — federal, state, city, county — has sent this response by email.

That is, except for USD 259, the Wichita public school district.

wichita-school-district-envelope-records-request-example

The Wichita public school district sends the response in the form of a printed letter, mailed using United States Postal Service Priority Mail at a cost of $5.05 for postage. That’s in addition to the cost of preparing a printed letter. This has happened to me several times.

Every governmental agency I have encountered, except for the Wichita Public School district, is content to use email to respond to records requests, at a very low cost.

Within a budget of over $600 million, five dollars isn’t much. Except: This pattern of wasting money on postage must be repeated many times each year.

So when you hear that Kansas schools are grossly underfunded, or that teachers have to spend their personal funds to buy classroom supplies, ask yourself this: “Why does the Wichita public school district spend $5.05 in postage to send something that everyone else sends by email?”

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.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-smallThis week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

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

Sedgwick County delinquent taxes, the useful version

The Wichita Eagle has devoted newsprint to deliver the data, and you can obtain it as pdf on your computer, too. Neither of these options for delivering the Sedgwick County delinquent tax list for 2012 is very useful.

I’ve created a Google Docs sheet that holds this data. You can access it below, but it’s probably best to open it in a new window by clicking here. There are three tabs: an introduction, the data, and a pivot table that summarizes the data. Have fun.

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:

Downtown Wichita issues not appreciated

Once again, the Wichita Eagle editorial board misses the point regarding downtown Wichita development.

There may be some that are opposed to downtown simply because it’s downtown, or for other silly reasons. That seems to be the focus of Rhonda Holman’s editorial today.

But speaking from a perspective of economic freedom and individual liberty, it’s government interventionism in downtown that I object to. This is what harms Wichita, not the fact that people are living and working downtown or anywhere else, for that matter.

The political cronyism involved in many projects in downtown Wichita is what harms our city. When government takes from one and gives to another, everyone is worse off — other than the recipients. I understand that it’s easy to look at a subsidized project — be it downtown or elsewhere — and see people working at jobs. It’s much more difficult, however, to see the harm that the government intervention causes: Prosperity and jobs are lost due to inefficient government allocation of capital through political, not market, mechanisms. In the whole, we are worse off, not better.

If you don’t believe this — if you insist that the city government can create jobs and prosperity through its interventions, and that these have no net cost — then you have to ask why the city is not involved in more development.

It is the principled objection to government involvement that many do not understand, including, I think, the Wichita Eagle editorial board. An example: In September 2011, after I and others started a campaign to overturn a city council decision to award a tax subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel, the hotel’s lead developer asked to meet with me. In the meeting I explained that I would oppose the city’s action if applied to any hotel, located anywhere in Wichita, owned by anyone. He said that he sensed my opposition was based on principle, and I agreed.

The curious thing is that this seemed to puzzle him — that people would actually apply principles to politics.

The political allocation of investment capital in Wichita leads to problems of the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety. There is a small group of people that repeatedly receive large amounts of taxpayer subsidy. These people and others associated with their companies regularly contribute to the campaign funds of city council members and candidates. These council members then vote to grant these people taxpayer-funded subsidy, year after year.

City council members also vote to award them with no-bid contracts. That’s terrible government policy. Especially when one recent contract was later put to competitive bid, and turned out to cost much less than the no-bid price. City council members, all except one, were willing to award their significant campaign contributors with an overpriced no-bid contract at taxpayer expense.

The company that won the no-bid contract was Key Construction. Its owners and executives were the sole contributors to the campaign fund of Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), also running for reelection this spring, and also having voted for the no-bid contract for Key, also received many contributions from Key and its executives in 2012. That company, along with person associated with one other company, were the sole source of Clendenin’s campaign funding that year.

Doesn’t the Wichita Eagle editorial board see a problem here? Doesn’t the newsroom?

There was a time when newspaper opinion editors crusaded against this type of behavior.

Newspaper editorial writers ought also to be concerned about how taxpayer funds are spent. The City of Wichita, however, has established non-profit organizations to spend taxpayer funds. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, for example, is funded almost exclusively through taxes. Yet, it claims that it is not a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act, and therefore need not fulfill records requests seeking to bring transparency as to how the agency spends its taxpayer funds. The city, inexplicably, backs WDDC in this interpretation of law that is contrary to the interests of citizens.

Secrecy of this type regarding taxpayer funds is not good public policy. There was a time when newspaper editors railed against government secrecy like this.

We need a newspaper editorial board that understands principle vs. political expediency. As a first step, let’s ask for an editorial board that recognizes these abuses of citizens and is willing to talk about them.

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.

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.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “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.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

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.

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 all council members except Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) 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 soon 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 his “State of the City” address last year, 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.

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

Here’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, last year

Last year 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.

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

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 no requests this 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 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 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.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell 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.

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 — except for Michael O’Donnell — 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 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:

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: Monday December 19, 2011

Boeing tanker and Wichita. News reports from this morning’s press conference held by U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita indicate that Boeing will not use Wichita as the finishing plant for work on the new air refueling tanker project. It was thought that this work would require 7,500 jobs in Wichita. Political and union leaders speak of holding Boeing accountable to what they believe was a promise Boeing made to Wichita, but I don’t know how they can do that. … Pompeo’s press release states: “… the work will be done in Washington state. Until very recently, it had been my expectation based on representations made to all Kansans, personally to me and my office, and to the United States Air Force, that Boeing would create 7,500 aviation jobs in our great state should Boeing prevail in the tanker bid. We now know that Boeing intends to walk away from that promise, which severely jeopardizes the future of the over 2000 aviation jobs currently held by Boeing employees in Kansas. … Boeing fought a long and fierce battle to build the KC-46A Tanker and secured the largest defense contract in the history of the world. Over a decade Boeing won, then lost and then once again emerged victorious over its competitor EADS. Kansas aviation workers were at the very core of Boeing’s effort that entire time. During that competition, Boeing stressed — both publicly and in its formal final bid proposal submitted to the United States Air Force — that its Wichita, Kansas facility would be critical to building the next generation tanker. For years, Kansas’ elected political leadership worked diligently to secure a contract award for Boeing. In short, Kansas workers and Kansas political leaders were central to the Air Force’s decision to select Boeing over EADS. To remove Kansas from the tanker project not only violates a public trust, but it creates risk to taxpayers and to our fighting forces. … I urge the company’s leaders to do all that they can to honor the Boeing name and to take all steps available to do right by the hard-working, talented people who build the world’s greatest airplanes here in Kansas.”

Wichita school dress code. The Wichita Eagle reports on a new dress code for teachers at USD 259, the Wichita public school district: “Mark Jolliffe, principal at Wilbur Middle School and president of the local administrators group, said the guidelines are intended to ‘enhance our professional position, and model for our students, staff and community’ the importance of professional dress.” Teachers continually complain that they are, in fact, professionals, but are not treated as such. I wonder: What does it say when you have to be told how to dress at work? What the community ought to be worried about is a school district that spends time on issues like this while students continue to receive a substandard education. … Furthermore, the mode of dress of schoolteachers ought to be something that parents decide through a market-based selection process. Those parents who believe that their children are best served by schools where the teachers dress nicely (and perhaps the students are in uniform) could choose schools like this, if we had school choice. Also, parents who believe their children would thrive in a more casual environment could select schools with this characteristic, but again, only if we had school choice.

Kansas legislator briefing book. A very useful publication produced by Kansas Legislative Research Department is now available in a 2012 edition. Its target is legislators, but anyone who is interested in understanding state government will find the 2012 Legislator Briefing Book useful. The section on education, for example, has an explanation of the Kansas school funding formula, complete with descriptions and values for the weightings that determine how much state funding districts receive.

Velvet Revolution voice has died. “Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in Czechoslovakia, has died at 75. … Vaclav Havel helped Czechoslovakia make the transition from one of the most repressive Communist regimes to one of the most successful post-Communist countries.” More from David Boaz at Vaclav Havel, RIP.

Open records in Wichita. “The Wichita City Council approved a $2 million payment to the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, GO Wichita, despite objections to the lack of transparency in how GO Wichita handles taxpayer money. The Kansas Open Records Act requires that entities receiving public money be subject to the law’s transparency provisions, but one of these provisions states that if such an organization files an annual financial statement, it has complied with the law. At issue is whether a one- or two-page financial report listing total revenues and expenditures can substitute for public access to more detailed records regarding specific expenditures of public funds.” More from Paul Sourtar of Kansas Watchdog at City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request.

Cellulosic ethanol. The Wall Street Journal notes the debacle of cellulosic ethanol production and government involvement. This is ethanol produced from “wood chips and stalks or switch grass,” said President George W. Bush in 2006, also stating that “Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.” So what has happened? “When these mandates were established, no companies produced commercially viable cellulosic fuel. But the dream was: If you mandate and subsidize it, someone will build it. Guess what? Nobody has. Despite the taxpayer enticements, this year cellulosic fuel production won’t be 250 million or even 25 million gallons. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the authority to revise the mandates, quietly reduced the 2011 requirement by 243.4 million gallons to a mere 6.6 million. Some critics suggest that even much of that 6.6 million isn’t true cellulosic fuel.” … the Journal cites a recent report by National Academy of Sciences that states “currently, no commercially viable biorefineries exist for converting cellulosic biomass to fuel.” The $132.4 million loan guarantee for a cellulosic plant near Hugoton in southwest Kansas is noted. (More about that at Kansas and its own Solyndra.) … Concluding, the Journal writes: “To recap: Congress subsidized a product that didn’t exist, mandated its purchase though it still didn’t exist, is punishing oil companies for not buying the product that doesn’t exist, and is now doubling down on the subsidies in the hope that someday it might exist. We’d call this the march of folly, but that’s unfair to fools.” See The Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle.

Overcriminilization. A new paper from Paul Larkin of of Heritage Foundation reports on the difficulties facing legislative solutions to the problem of overcriminilization. The abstract of the paper Overcriminalization: The Legislative Side of the Problem reads: “The past 75 years in America have witnessed an avalanche of new criminal laws, the result of which is a problem known as “overcriminalization.” This phenomenon is likely to lead to a variety of problems for a public trying to comply with the law in good faith. While many of these issues have already been discussed, one problem created by the overcriminalization of American life has not been given the same prominence as others: the fact that overcriminalization is a cause for (and a symptom of) some of the collective action problems that beset Congress today. Indeed, Congress, for a variety of reasons discussed in this paper, is unlikely to serve as a brake on new, unwarranted criminal laws, let alone to jettison broad readings of those laws by the courts. Therefore, the key to curbing overcriminalization is the American public: It is the people who, if made aware of the legislative issues that enable overcriminalization, could begin to head off such laws before the momentum for their passage becomes overwhelming.” … The conclusion to the report emphasizes the role of the people: “The legislative dynamic is not likely to serve as a brake on new, unwarranted criminal laws, let alone to jettison broad readings of those laws by the courts. The public needs to head off such laws before the momentum for their passage becomes overwhelming. And that can happen only if the public is aware of the legislative side of this problem.”

No Wichita Pachyderm. This week and next week (December 23rd and 30th) the Wichita Pachyderm club will not meet due to the holidays. Upcoming speakers: On January 6th: David Kensinger, Chief of Staff to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. … On January 13th: Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal, speaking on “The untold school finance story.” … On January 20th: Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

Stevens, Pachyderm President, honored. At last week’s meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club, President John Stevens received the “Tough Tusk Award.” In presenting the award, club Vice President John Todd remarked: “Once in awhile a local leader comes along who deserves recognition. From time to time The Wichita Pachyderm Club recognizes these special people. Today it is my pleasure to recognize one of our own who deserves special recognition. The Wichita Pachyderm Club awards committee would like to recognize our club President John Stevens as the recipient of our club’s ‘Tough Tusk Award’ as sponsored by the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs. … He is a retired business owner who now spends his time volunteering with SCORE counseling small business owners and entrepreneurs. John also works as a community activist through his participation in city and neighborhood organizations. He is a past Wichita Park Board Commissioner and serves on boards and committees for Wichita Independent Neighborhoods. … In 2008 John was elected the precinct committeeman for the 101st precinct in Wichita. He has worked as a volunteer in local campaigns and has run as the Republican candidate for the 86th Kansas House of Representatives seat, concerned that Republican values, attitudes, and principles are not being represented in the 86th District. He continues to work toward having a Republican in the 86th House seat. … John has served as President of the Wichita Pachyderm Club for the past three years. Through the Pachyderm Club he is able to facilitate educating citizens about our government, our leaders and the Republican Party. … John says he is addicted to progress, and I can tell you that he works tirelessly for the betterment of The Wichita Pachyderm Club.” … I will add: Thank you, John Stevens, for a job well done.

Occupiers and crony capitalism. “They’re rightfully angry at what’s happening in the United States today. But unfortunately they have confused capitalism and crony capitalism, and they’ve misdiagnosed the cause of their frustration.” That’s Chris Coyne of George Mason University speaking of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. He explains in more detail in the following short video. This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

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.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday December 14, 2011

Property rights in Wichita. At yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, the city approved its legislative agenda. The city incorporates the agenda of the League of Kansas Municipalities. One plank: “We support increased flexibility for local governments to use eminent domain for economic development purposes, including blight remediation, without seeking legislative approval.” Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity appeared before the council, asking members to strike this provision, as the taking of property by eminent domain for the purposes of giving it to someone else is one of the worse violations of property rights and freedom. No council member was moved to make such a motion.

Importance of open records. In a press release from 2008, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government noted the problems with open and transparent government in Kansas: “Kansas recently failed an open government test by the Better Government Association, an independent non-partisan government watchdog group based in Chicago. Among other things, the BGA researches solutions that promote transparency and accountability in government. ‘The threat today is real,’ said Randy Brown, executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. ‘We are seeing closed government problems popping up around the state. Some local governments are doing well. But for Kansans who understand that open government at all levels is essential to democracy, things are getting worse, not better.’” … Yesterday the Wichita City Council provided another example in how open and transparent government is not valued.

Wichita city news. The communications staff of the City of Wichita maintains a city news and announcements page. Staff has ample time (and a half-million dollar budget) to write articles covering — in detail — when carolers will be at the airport. But substantive news that the city is opposed to — say the successful filing of a petition challenging a Wichita city ordinance — doesn’t make it on this page.

Cronyism in America. The harm of crony capitalism is explained in a short video from Economic Freedom Project. Susan Dudley says this in the video: “Crony capitalism means that your success as an entrepreneur depends less on how well you meet your customers’, and more on how well you curry favor from the government. It’s a problem because it means that valuable resources — including the best and brightest minds — are diverted from productive uses towards unproductive seeking government favors.” … In its conclusion, the video sates: “Without special protections that can only be provided by an increasingly powerful government, big businesses would have to compete to earn their profits, instead of taking them straight from taxpayers. We all agree: Businesses should succeed or fail based on the value they provide to their consumers, not based on their ability to influence the political system. And that’s what happens in a free market.” … It should be noted that the economic development policies of Wichita are firmly rooted in crony capitalism.

Open records, rights of Kansans disrespected at Wichita City Council

Yesterday the Wichita City Council decided to issue another contract to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I appeared to recommend that the council not issue this contract until an issue regarding the Kansas Open Records Act is resolved. Explanation of why Go Wichita should be considered a “public agency” and comply with records requests is found in Wichita open records issue buried.

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.

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast 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?

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 no requests this 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 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 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.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell 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.

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 — except for Michael O’Donnell — 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 Carl 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.

Suing your government is costly. Citizens will realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita open records issue buried

Update: This agenda item has been moved from the consent agenda to a regular agenda.

This week the Wichita City Council will decide whether to issue another contract to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city should not issue this contract until an issue regarding the Kansas Open Records Act is resolved.

I have asked for records from Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. It refused to comply. Its reason was that it believes it is not a “public agency” as defined in the KORA. When citizens have problems with agencies refusing to comply with the law, one avenue citizens may take is to ask the local district attorney to look into the matter. When I did this, the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office decided in favor of Go Wichita, using some contorted legal reasoning that few believe would survive judicial scrutiny. It would cost thousands of dollars for the next step.

Why Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau should be subject to the Kansas Open Records Act

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

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

Now, apply these guidelines to Go Wichita: The most recent IRS Form 990 that is available (for the year 2009) states that the agency had total revenue of $2,651,600, with $2,266,300 coming from “fees from government agencies.” This is government, through taxation, providing 85 percent of its total income.

If we consider only “program service revenue,” which was $2,467,764, the government-funded portion of its income is 92 percent.

Does this count as being supported “in part” by public funds? Absolutely.

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

We should also look at the plain language of the Kansas Open Records Act, observing the intent of the Kansas Legislature as embodied in the statute: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

Wichita claims transparency

In his “State of the City” address this year, Wichita Mayor Carl 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.

I submit that in order to actually provide the level of transparency that Mayor Brewer proclaims the city should be providing, quasi-governmental agencies that are supported almost totally by tax revenue — like Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition — need to be subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Until this happens, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is handled on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

Here’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.

Issue is buried in consent agenda

Twice last year I appeared before the city council when the city was considering renewal of its contract with Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked the mayor and council that as a condition of renewing the contracts, the city ask that these agencies agree that they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

For the December 13th meeting of the Wichita City Council, the contract for Go Wichita is up for renewal again. But instead of being on a regular agenda — where it is customary for citizens to have a chance to give input to the council — the item is on a consent agenda.

A consent agenda is a group of items that are voted on with a single vote. Usually there is no discussion of the individual items on a consent agenda, unless a council member requests to “pull” an item for discussion and perhaps a vote specific to that item. Usually the items placed on consent agendas are through to be routine and non-controversial.

But a city contract for over $2 million, especially one that has been handled as a regular agenda item in years past, does not qualify as routine and non-controversial. It seems that the city wants to avoid discussion of the open records issue.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday March 25, 2011

Elections coming up. On Tuesday April 5 voters across Kansas will vote in city and school board elections. Voting has been underway for about a week through the advance voting process. For those who haven’t yet decided, here’s the Wichita Eagle voter guide. You can get a list of the candidates, along with their responses to questions, customized for your address.

Campaign signs. The placement of political campaign signs can be an issue. Here is a City of Wichita letter describing placement rules, and a diagram. … If you live in a neighborhood with covenants prohibiting campaign signs, the covenants don’t apply at election time. See In Kansas, political signs are okay, despite covenants.

In Kansas, cutting unnecessary spending can avoid service cuts. Following up on Kansas state agency spending, Kansas Policy Institute finds examples of spending on overtime, advertising, cell phones, and dues, memberships and subscriptions totaling $50 million. KPI president Dave Trabert remarked: “Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see some group or state agency saying they will have to cut necessary services if their funding is reduced, but it’s pretty clear that there are lots of other ways to reduce spending. Some degree of spending in these categories is understandable, but the data clearly show that large amounts of taxpayer money are being spent unnecessarily.” Other examples uncovered by KPI: “The Legislature spent $144,408 to join the National Council of State Legislators and also spent $107,022 to join the Council of State Governments. The Governor’s office bought memberships in three governors’ associations: the National Governor’s Association ($83,800), the Western Governors’ Association ($36,000) and the Midwestern Governors’ Association ($10,000).” More is in the KPI press release K-State #1 in Cell Phone Spending: Cutting unnecessary spending can avoid service cuts.

March to Economic Growth stalled. The Kansas House of Representatives has passed a bill that would gradually reduce Kansas personal and corporate income tax rates. The so-called MEGA bill wold create a mechanism where if revenue flowing to the state increases, income tax rates would be reduced proportionally, after adjusting for inflation. Besides lowering these tax rates, which would make Kansas more attractive to business and jobs, the bill would also decrease the rate of growth of spending. But Senate leadership, namely its president, doesn’t care for the bill, so it appears it is dead this year. Last year Senate President Stephen Morris was strongly in favor of the statewide sales tax increase. Despite being a member of the Republican Party, he is part of the Senate’s liberal wing, according to the Kansas Economic Freedom Index and other legislative ratings.

Open records under attack. CommonSense with Paul Jacob reports on efforts underway in Utah to reduce citizens’ ability to learn about their government: “House Bill 477 changes the core of the GRAMA law, mandating that citizens must prove they deserve access to records, rather than the previous rule requiring government officials to show cause for why a document should not be released. The legislation also exempts text messages, emails and voicemails from being disclosed, the better to keep lobbyists and special interests out of the limelight.” The Daily Herald wrote: “The principle of open government now would apply only when ‘the public interest favoring access to the record outweighs the interest favoring restriction of access to the record,’ in the opinion of the government.” … This bill actually became law, but so much public opinion was roused that it is likely the Utah legislature will overturn the act, according to reports. … Jacob’s email on this matter was subtitled “Paul Jacob notices nearly absolute power corrupting GOP legislators in Utah.”

Ignorant or just ill-informed? L. Brent Bozell in Investor’s Business Daily: “Anyone who’s ever seen Jay Leno do one of his ‘Jaywalking’ segments on NBC, locating average Americans and asking them factual questions on street corners, knows there are far too many Americans who know next to nothing about just about everything. They can’t name our first president or don’t know what the phrase ‘Founding Fathers’ means. Ask them to name our current vice president and watch the brain waves flat line. Newsweek magazine recently announced its disgust after it offered the government’s official citizenship test (the one we require immigrants to pass before being naturalized) to 1,000 Americans. Thirty-eight percent of the sample failed. Newsweek worried in its headline: ‘The country’s future is imperiled by our ignorance.’” Locally, I am reminded of the Kansas Policy Institute and its survey of Kansans and their knowledge of school spending. Regarding that, I reported: “When talking about Kansas school spending, few Kansans have accurate information. Those with children in the public school system are even more likely to be uninformed regarding accurate figures.”

Government spending overrides privates spending. The last two days have featured readings from Robert P. Murphy’s book Lessons for the Young Economist on the importance of profits and loses in guiding investment, and how government is unable to calculate its profit or loss. Today, Murphy explains government spending and the political process: For example, suppose the government decides to build a public library in order to make books and internet access free to the community. Because the government only has a limited budget, it won’t do something ridiculously wasteful such as coating the library with gold, or stocking the shelves with extremely rare first editions of Steinbeck and Hemingway novels. Suppose the government tries to be conscientious, puts out bids to several reputable contractors, and has a modest library constructed for $400,000. Yet even if outside auditors or investigative journalists could find nothing corrupt or shocking about the process, the question would still remain: Was it worth it to spend $400,000 on building this particular library, in this particular location? The crucial point is that we know one thing for certain: No entrepreneur thought that he could earn enough revenues from charging for book borrowing to make such an enterprise worthwhile. We know this because the library didn’t exist until the government used its own funds to build it! One way to think about government expenditures is that they necessarily call forth the creation of goods and services that people in the private sector did not deem worth producing. When the government spends money, it directs resources away from where private spending decisions would have steered them, and into projects that would not be profitable if private entrepreneurs had produced them relying on voluntary funding. Thus the political authorities in an interventionist economy face one-half of the socialist calculation problem. … The government in essence is a giant distributor of charitable donations. Even those citizens who welcome the concept should ask themselves: Why do we need to route our donations through the political process? Why not decentralize the decisions and allow each person to donate his or her funds to the various charities that seem most worthy? … Regardless of its possible benefits, government spending suffers from the calculation problem afflicting socialism. The system allows a select group of political authorities to override the input of private individuals in how (some of) their property should be used to steer resources into various projects. This is a very serious drawback for anyone who favors interventionism as a way to increase the “general welfare,” however defined.

Kansas income is growing. While still lower than its peak in 2008, wage and salary income in Kansas is on the way up, and has been throughout 2010.

iPhone screen

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday March 23, 2011

Health information campaign. What happened to an all-star group that was to promote President Obama’s health care plan? Politico reports: “Democrats are under siege as they mark the first anniversary of health care reform Wednesday — and they won’t get much help from the star-studded, $125 million support group they were once promised. Wal-Mart Watch founder Andrew Grossman unveiled the Health Information Campaign with great fanfare last June. … But nine months later, the Health Information Campaign has all but disappeared.”

Eisenhower book author to speak in Wichita. At this Friday’s meeting (March 25) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club, David A. Nichols, Ph.D. will speak on his new book Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis — Suez and the Brink of War . Nichols is formerly of Southwestern College in Winfield. Copies of the new book will be available for purchase at the meeting. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers include Derrick Sontag of Americans for Prosperity on April 1, Deputy Public Defender Jama Mitchell on April 8, Kansas Senator Chris Steineger on April 15, Friends University Associate Professor of Political Science Russell Arben Fox on April 22, and Wichita State University Political Scientist Ken Ciboski on April 29.

Kansas agencies mum on travel spending. From Kansas Policy Institute: “State agencies, boards and universities in Kansas claimed they did not have to disclose details on $21.4 million in spending on various forms of travel and entertainment in FY 2010, according to a Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) analysis of the state’s checkbook.” According to KPI president Dave Trabert: “$39 million is a lot to spend on travel in any year, and especially so when some agencies say they are being forced to cut services. Maybe the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needs some discretion when conducting investigations, but the breadth and volume of these confidentiality claims are incomprehensible.” While the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) has many categories of information that are exempt from disclosure, agencies have discretion as to which information to disclose. None of the exemptions mention travel. Says Trabert: “State checkbook records don’t indicate which exemption from disclosure is invoked on travel spending, but disclosing the names of hotels, airlines and restaurants that received taxpayer money would not be an unwarranted invasion of anyone’s personal privacy. It is, however, an unwarranted invasion of taxpayers’ right to not know how their money is being spent and state law should be changed to eliminate gaping loopholes in KORA.” … I’m really curious to learn more about this finding: “KPI’s review of state travel records also found many examples of the vendor being listed as the agency or university itself rather than the actual vendor that provided the service.” … KPI’s press release is at State Agencies Claim Confidentiality on Travel Spending.

Kansas wind energy jobs. Again we find that the promise of green energy projects being an economic development driver is overplayed. In “Goal of many more ‘green’ jobs is elusive” (February 14, 2011 Kansas City Star) we find the same skepticism that most now see justified regarding ethanol is applicable to wind power: “‘We need to temper our expectations on wind energy,’ said David Swenson, an Iowa State University economist known for deflating the ethanol industry’s job claims. Now, he says, the same ‘environment of hype’ is developing around wind power.” It’s been good for China, though: “… more than 80 percent of $1 billion in federal stimulus grants for wind projects went to foreign countries. One of the projects, a $1.5 billion wind farm in Texas, expected to collect $450 million in stimulus money — but use wind turbines made in China.” The counting of a job as “green” is highly suspect, as the article notes: “Kansas officials have trumpeted that the state already has 20,000 green jobs — and hopes for 10,000 more, many from manufacturing and assembly work for generating wind power. But so far, most of the jobs in that count by the state Department of Labor have been around for years, including carpenters installing energy-efficient windows and plumbers putting in toilets that don’t use much water. Even maids, if they use green products, are classified as green-collar workers.” … Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer promotes manufacturing of wind power machinery as good for Wichita’s economic development, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback supports renewable energy standards for Kansas.

The role of profits and losses. From Robert P. Murphy, Lessons for the Young Economist: Many naïve observers of the market economy dismiss concern with the “bottom line” as a purely arbitrary social convention. To these critics, it seems senseless that a factory producing, say, medicine or shoes for toddlers stops at the point when the owner decides that profit has been maximized. It would certainly be physically possible to produce more bottles of aspirin or more shoes in size 3T, yet the boss doesn’t allow it, because to do so would “lose money.” On the other hand, many apparently superfluous gadgets and unnecessary luxury items are produced every day in a market economy, because they are profitable. Observers who are outraged by this system may adopt the slogan: “Production for people, not profit!” … Such critics do not appreciate the indispensable service that the profit and-loss test provides to members of a market economy. Whatever the social system in place, the regrettable fact is that the material world is one of scarcity — there are not enough resources to produce all the goods and services that people desire. Because of scarcity, every economic decision involves tradeoffs. When scarce resources are devoted to producing more bottles of aspirin, for example, there are necessarily fewer resources available to produce everything else. It’s not enough to ask, “Would the world be a better place if there were more medicine?” The relevant question is, “Would the world be a better place if there were more medicine and less of the other goods and services that would have to be sacrificed to produce more medicine?” … Loosely speaking, the profit and loss system communicates the desires of consumers to the resource owners and entrepreneurs when they are deciding how many resources to send into each potential line of production. … In a market based on the institution of private property, profits occur when an entrepreneur takes resources of a certain market value and transforms them into finished goods (or services) of a higher market value. This is the important sense in which profitable entrepreneurs are providing a definite service to others in the economy.

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.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: State of the City 2011

This week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual “State of the City” address. While the Wichita Eagle editorial commenting on the mayor’s speech is titled “Cause to boast, hope,” a look at some of the important topics the mayor addressed will lead some to conclude otherwise.

The text of the mayor’s address may be read at several places, including here.

Economic development

Regarding Wichita’s economic development, the mayor said that the city’s efforts saved 745 jobs and created 435 jobs, for a total impact of 1,180 jobs. To place those numbers in context, we note that American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates the labor force in Wichita is 191,760 persons. This means that the economic development efforts of the City of Wichita affected a number of jobs equivalent to 0.6 percent of the city workforce.

This small number of jobs impacted by the city’s economic development initiatives is dwarfed by other economic events. Additionally, these efforts by the city are counterproductive — if our interest is creating a dynamic economy in Wichita. Analysis by the Kauffman Foundation finds that it is new firms — young firms, in other words — that are the primary drivers of job creation. But the economic development policies of cities like Wichita are definitely biased toward older, established firms. The cost of these economic development efforts, which are paid for by everyone including young businesses firms struggling to grow, means that we prop up unproductive companies at the expense of the type of firms we need to really grow the Wichita economy.

In particular, the mayor’s proudest achievement — he nearly burst with pride when speaking of it — pours a large amount of state, county, and city funds into Hawker Beechcraft, an old-line company that is shrinking its employment in Kansas. This deal with Hawker Beechcraft should not be viewed as a proud moment for Wichita and Kansas. Instead, we should view this as succumbing to economic blackmail by Hawker, based on a threat that may not have been genuine. We responded by making in investment in an old-line, shrinking company, apparently the first time that the state has invested public funds in a downsizing company.

Furthermore, the investment in Hawker comes on the heels of an analysis that says Hawker should divest itself of all its lines of business except for one. The analysis paints a grim future for Hawker: “In addition, backlogs are dwindling, R&D budgets are miniscule, employee pensions are underfunded by $296 million and the prospects of paying down its long-term debt are remote. At this point, it would be a monumental task just to roll-over the debt, let alone pay it off entirely. At the root of the problem is the state of Hawker Beechcraft’s business jet product lines. … At the heart of HBC’s current strategy is the assumption that a market recovery will fix what’s ailing the company, and that is just not true. The company’s business aviation products are seriously underperforming with new products relegated to minor upgrades due to a token R&D budgets based on an across-the-board derivative strategy.”

The mayor also touted an agreement with Bombardier Learjet for the company to produce a new jet in Wichita. This deal required that the state issue bonds to raise money to give to Bombardier. The bonds will be paid off by the company’s employee withholding taxes. That’s money that would normally go to the state’s general fund. Instead, this deal raises the cost of government for everyone else.

The mayor said of these deals: “As I suggested at the time of the Hawker deal, this was a declaration that Kansas and Wichita will fight to keep its aircraft industry. As I said then, ‘You’re not going to take what’s most important to us, and that’s our aviation industry.’ Simply put, we will not lose these jobs. Period.”

Unfortunately, the mayor’s declaration is an invitation to Kansas companies of all types to seek public funds just as these two companies did, and as others have across Kansas. The result is increased costs of government and a state and city less inviting to the dynamic and innovative young companies that we now know are the engine of prosperity and job growth.

The mayor also lauded the use of “revenue bonds” used for the construction of a IMAX movie theater in west Wichita. Focusing on the bonds allowed the mayor to gloss over the large measure of property tax forgiveness — corporate welfare — granted to the Warren Theater. The theater’s owners have received corporate welfare before from the city.

Plans for downtown

On the master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, the mayor said the plan will “lead us to a point where ultimately the private investment exceeds public investment by a 15 to 1 ratio.” At the time agitation for a downtown plan started two years ago, research indicated that the ratio of private to public investment in downtown was approximately one to one. It’s quite a stretch for the mayor to promise an eventual 15 to one ratio, especially since the Goody Clancy plan recently adopted by the city council calls for — over the next 20 years — $500 million in private investment supported by $100 million of public investment. That’s a five to one ratio, not the 15 to one mentioned by the mayor. Even then, it will be surprising if anything near a five to one ratio is achieved.

The mayor also promoted the decision by Cargill to build a new facility downtown as a sign of success. This facility, however, required over $2.5 million in various subsidy from state and local governments. It hardly seems a measure of proud success when companies are able to extract this level of corporate welfare in exchange for locating facilities in Wichita.

Accountability and transparency

In his address, 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.”

This an instance in which the actions of the city do not match with Brewer’s rhetoric. A small example is from last fall when the city had a stakeholder meeting to discuss the city’s community improvement district policy. While the term “stakeholder” is vague and means different things to different people, you might think that such a gathering might include representatives from the community at large. Instead, the meeting was stacked almost exclusively with those who have an interest in extracting as much economic subsidy as possible from the city. Often we find that meetings of this type are designed so that no dissenting voices are present.

More importantly, the City of Wichita has failed to follow a fundamental law that provides accountability and transparency: the Kansas Open Records Act.

I have made requests for records from three quasi-governmental agencies, two of which are under the city’s direct influence: Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these organizations denied that they are public agencies as defined in the KORA, and therefore refused to fulfill my requests.

Two times last year I appeared before the city council when the city was considering renewal of its contract with Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked the mayor that as a condition of renewing the contracts, the city ask that the agencies follow the law. But the mayor and the city rely on an incorrect interpretation of the KORA from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf and refused to act on my request. It should be noted that Rebenstorf has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to the 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.

The Kansas Open Records Act 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.” Governments in Kansas should be looking at ways to increase availability of information. Instead, the City of Wichita uses a narrow — not liberal — interpretation of the records law restrict citizen access to records. At some time I believe the city’s legal position will be shown to be wrong.

At any time the mayor could ask — and it could have been written into their contracts — that these agencies comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. The mayor’s refusal to do so indicates an attitude of accountability and transparency on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Citizen response

At many levels of government, when the chief executive makes an annual address like this, time is provided for someone to make a response, usually someone with a different point of view. This is the practice at the federal level, and also in Kansas when the governor delivers the state of the state address.

The City of Wichita ought to do the same.