Tag Archives: Open records

This week, Wichita has a chance to increase government transparency

The Wichita City Council can decide to disclose how taxpayer money is spent, or let it remain being spent in secret.

The City of Wichita has three surrogate quasi-governmental agencies that are almost totally taxpayer-funded, specifically Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests.

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors BureauThese agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. This week the city will consider funding Go Wichita with a budget of $2,356,851 for 2015. That is not all the taxpayer money this agency will spend, as earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. City documents indicate that tax is estimated to generate $2.3 million per year.

That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency RequestI’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Go Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

The lack of transparency at Go Wichita is more problematic than this. Earlier this year Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.

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 agreed with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Go Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.

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

Why does Go Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $4.6 million next year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “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.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.

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. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Go Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.

Not all Wichita candidates support your right to know

As candidates spring up for Wichita mayor and city council, voters need to know that many, such as current district 2 council member Pete Meitzner and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell, have been openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent. Following is a news story by Craig Andres of KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

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

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.”

Voter privacy a subject ready for debate

Campaign methods used in the recent election may spark debate on the information government makes available about voters and their voting behavior.

This election day, after voting, someone posted on their Facebook page: “I’m not comfortable with the GOP observer writing down the names of those who appear to vote.”

Elsewhere on Facebook and other online sites stories like this were common: “I received a palm card that had names and addresses of my neighbors, and whether they voted in the last four elections. This was supposed to motivate me, a woman voter, to vote. It actually freaked me out that someone is distributing that information without my consent.”

The practice referred to in the first comment — poll watching — is common and has been used for decades. The practice objected to by the second writer is new. By sending mail or email informing people of the voting practices of their neighbors, campaigns attempt to shame people into voting. Research suggests shaming is effective in motivating people to vote.

Both major parties and independent groups from all sides of the political spectrum used this technique this year.

From social media and news stories, it seems that people are surprised to learn that their voter information is a public record. It’s important to know that the contents of your ballot — that is, which candidates you voted for — is secret. Here’s what anyone can acquire in Kansas about voters (other states may be different, but I think most are similar):

Voter registration ID number, name, address, mailing address, gender, date of registration, date of birth, telephone number (if the voter supplies it; it is not required) whether the voter is on the permanent advance list, party registration, precinct number, and all the different jurisdictions the voter lives in such as city council district, county commission district, school district, Kansas House and Senate districts, and others.

Then, for each election you can learn whether the voter voted, and by which method (mail, advance in person, polling place). For primary elections, you can learn whether the voter selected a Republican or Democratic ballot.

(I should mention that in Kansas this information is supplied in a clumsy format that is difficult to use. I’ve developed procedures whereby I restructure this data to a relational data model that allows for proper analysis.)

Other organizations may enhance these records with data of their own. For example, in the government-supplied voter file, many telephone numbers are missing. Others are out-of-date, especially as households abandon traditional telephone service for cell phones. So candidates may use services that provide telephone numbers given names and addresses. Or, organizations may add other data purchased from marketing research services, such as magazines subscribed to, etc.

It would be useful to have a debate over whether the fact of being a registered voter and the act of voting should be a public record. This is the first election where people have become widely aware of the nature of the voting information that is available, and how campaigns and advocacy groups use it. I wonder if the new awareness of the availability of this information will deter people from registering and voting?

As far as government transparency and open records is concerned, we can distinguish voting data from other government data. When we ask for records of spending, contracts, correspondence, and the like, we asking for information about government and the actions government has taken.

But voter data is information about action taken by people, not by government. There’s a difference.

WichitaLiberty.TV: The proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll talk about the proposed Wichita sales tax, including who pays it, and who gets special exemptions from paying it. Then, can we believe the promises the city makes about accountability and transparency? Finally, has the chosen solution for a future water supply proven itself as viable, and why are we asking low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries for drought protection? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 63, broadcast October 26, 2014.

In Wichita, promises of accountability and transparency

Boosters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency. But Wichita has not delivered on that in the past, and still rebuffs the public’s right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.


Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner does not support the public’s right to know how taxpayer funds are spent.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending, especially regarding the jobs fund. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. Simple requests for contracts without outside entities are rejected. The city supports this refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Here are some things voters may want to consider as they evaluate promises of future transparency and accountability:

  • Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes.
  • The city council seems pleased with city manager Robert Layton. He has not advocated for citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent despite being presented with compelling reasons why the city should act to increase transparency.
  • The Kansas Open Records Act does not prohibit the city and these agencies from releasing spending records. The city and agencies have made this decision, and have spent taxpayer resources fighting against the release of spending records.
  • If the city and its quasi-governmental agencies are serious about accountability and transparency, they could release the requested records today.
  • The city is unable to provide spending records in computer-readable form except for images. This data is not readily usable.
  • One of the co-chairs of the “Yes Wichita” group, Harvey Sorensen, has been a vigorous defender of government’s ability to spend taxpayer funds in secret, telling the city council that advocates for transparency simply want to embarrass the city, and there is no public purpose for their requests.

Given this background, on what basis do we believe that the city and its agencies will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

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.

A simple step towards government transparency in Wichita

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why doesn’t the City of Wichita (and Sedgwick County and the District Court) post their legal notices on their websites?

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

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.

Assistance needed in obtaining records from a government agency

September 12, 2014

Mr. Marc Bennett
Office of the District Attorney
Sedgwick County Courthouse

Dear Mr. Bennett,

I am writing to ask your assistance in obtaining records from a government agency. Specifically, I asked Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau for a copy of a contract the organization recently formed with an external entity. My request was declined.

The Kansas Open Records Act says this in defining which 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.”

Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau receives substantial public funds from the City of Wichita. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city, meaning the agency is 87 percent funded by public money. This year the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that will add 2.75 percent to Wichita hotel bills starting on January 1, 2015. This public money will be sent to Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. The city estimates the proceeds of this tax to be $2.5 million per year, which will boost the percent of support by public money to a higher level.

I feel that this level of public funding qualifies as “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” as described in the Kansas Open Records Act.

It has been the position of Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau that it is a non-profit private corporation and therefore not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. The City of Wichita supports this position. But Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau performs a governmental function, and is funded almost entirely by public funds.

Mr. Bennett, as your office considers this case, I ask that we remain mindful of the language from the preamble to the Kansas Open Records 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.”

Respectfully,

Bob Weeks

For proposed Wichita sales tax, claims of transparency

Claims of valuing and promoting government transparency by the City of Wichita are contradicted by its taxpayer-funded surrogates.

As boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax promise accountability and transparency in how money will be spent, especially the portion designated for jobs and economic development, voters may want to consider the city’s past and present attitude towards government transparency and open records.

Brochure from Kansas Attorney General's office
Brochure from Kansas Attorney General’s office
The city has three surrogate quasi-governmental agencies that are almost totally taxpayer-funded, specifically Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests.

These agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. In December the city approved funding Go Wichita with $2,322,021 for 2014, along with a supplemental appropriation of $150,000. Earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. That tax is thought to raise $2.5 million per year.

That’s a lot of tax money. It’s also a very high portion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records would be supplied.

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency RequestI’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Go Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

This week Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be public record. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

Supporters of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax promise transparency in the way decisions are made and money is spent. Below, Mike Shatz explains how this promise is hollow.

City of Wichita wants to increase sales tax by 14%

The City of Wichita funnels your tax dollars into “non-profit” development groups that refuse to show us how that money is spent, and now the City wants you to vote in favor of a sales tax increase so they can give these organizations even more of your money.

These groups, Go Wichita, The Downtown Development Corporation, and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, get roughly 90% of their overall funding from Wichita tax dollars, but claim that they are exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act, because they are “private” organizations.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent, but the City refuses to do so. This is not transparency.

Continue reading at Kansas Exposed.

What the Wichita city council could do

While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.

This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.

The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.

Oversight commissions

Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.

Wichita Investing in Jobs, How it WorksThe problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.

As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.

At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”

If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.

Transparency

The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.

In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.

Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:

In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.

According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.

What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.

William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)

Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)

wichita-economic-developmentOne might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.

What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?

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: 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, 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?

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!

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

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 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’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.

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

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’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.

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.