Tag Archives: Open records

Simple tasks for Kansas Legislature

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: There are things simple and noncontroversial that the Kansas Legislature should do in its upcoming session. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast January 3, 2016.

Continue reading Simple tasks for Kansas Legislature

Empowering and engaging Wichitans, or not

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Manager says “we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.” So what actually happens when you ask the city for data, including data that many governmental agencies make freely available? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 13, 2015.

In Sedgwick County, choosing your own benchmarks

The Sedgwick County Commission makes a bid for accountability with an economic development agency, but will likely fall short of anything meaningful.

Greater Wichita Partnership 01The Greater Wichita Partnership is a reorganization of local economic development agencies. It has asked the Sedgwick County Commission for $300,000 to fund a portion of its activities this year. Those on the commission who are skeptical of GWP and its predecessors have asked for measurable outcomes of the progress GWP makes.

Here is a paragraph from the agreement with GWP that commissioners will consider this week:

9. Measurable Outcomes. GWP shall be subject to measureable outcomes as it shall determine, subject to review by the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. GWP shall present an annual report to the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners at a regularly-scheduled Commission meeting no later than December 31, 2016.

I appreciate the attempt by members of the county commission to ask for accountability. But this paragraph is so weak as to be meaningless. The nature of the measurable outcomes is not defined, even in broad strokes. Further, GWP gets to decide, at an unknown time, what constitutes the measurable outcomes. Then the county commission gets to “review” them, which is a weak — really, nonexistent — form of oversight. We ought to ask that the county commission “approve” them, and sooner rather than later.

Sedgwick County Courthouse 2014-03-23But there is a bit of good news. Paragraph 10 of the agreement calls for a separate accounting fund to be created for the money the taxpayers of Sedgwick County will give to GWP. Then: “GWP agrees and understands that, by entering into this funding Agreement, any and all of its records, documents, and other information related to the Fund and the activities financed thereby shall be open and made available to the public upon request, in accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act.”

That’s good news, and a move towards the type of transparency and accountability that local governments — especially the City of Wichita — promote but finds difficult to actually deliver. Although this provision applies to only the county-supplied funds, hopefully GWP will realize that being transparent is better than being secretive.

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

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

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

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

Wichita checkbook register

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

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

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

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

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

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

The records request

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

Denver open checkbook.
Denver open checkbook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received an answer:

Mr. Weeks,

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

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

Sincerely,
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are our documents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas schools ask to fund extraordinary needs

Asking taxpayer-funded entities whether they are operating efficiently is a perfectly legitimate question that, frankly, should be the starting point of every budget discussion. That some find it offensive is indication that the issue should be much more aggressively pursued across government, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Extraordinary needs … or wants?

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.

Thirty-eight school districts have applied for additional state aid from the Extraordinary Needs fund based on increased enrollment, reduced property values, loss of state aid (just Hutchinson) and the reactivation of two refugee resettlement agencies in Wichita by the U.S. Office for Refugee Resettlement. The State Finance Council will decide whether — or the extent to which — each case merits additional funding from state taxpayers.

Several members of the Finance Council asked the applicants to provide information about steps taken to make their district operate more efficiently, to which some school districts, legislators and media responded with various forms of criticism. Asking taxpayer-funded entities whether they are operating efficiently is a perfectly legitimate question that, frankly, should be the starting point of every budget discussion; that some find it offensive is indication that the issue should be much more aggressively pursued across government. 

Kansas Policy Institute gathered the following data to help citizens make their own determinations, and even more information is available in our 2015 Public Education Fact Book. We requested a copy of each applicant’s Budget at a Glance for the current year from those who didn’t already have it posted to their web site in order to compare their current year budget with actual spending from prior years. We were only able to collect data on 21 of the 38 districts; remarkably, 8 applicants said their budget wasn’t finalized so the data wasn’t available. Seven applicants had the data but five of them would not provide it and two said they couldn’t provide it because those with access were away from the district. We were unable to get a response from the other two.

Some interesting information is found in the data shared by the 21 applicants, including:

  • 17 districts are budgeting more than an inflationary increase
  • 9 districts are budgeting more than a 10% increase
  • 10 districts plan to increase Administration more than Instruction.

Complete information on the applicants that provided information (dollar amounts by category including Capital, Debt Service and Total) can be downloaded here. The spreadsheet also shows the amounts each district received in block grant-equivalent funding for FY 2014 and the amounts for FY 2015 through FY 2017 as calculated by the Department of Education.

Kansas City’s 57% increase in Administration amounts to $15.7 million, which is ironically about the same amount that applicants are collectively requesting in Extraordinary Needs funding. A Legislative Post Audit efficiency study conducted in 2013 found that Kansas City was paying well above market for many positions and it appears that that may still be true.

The adjacent table is a sampling from the district’s payroll listing for the 2015 school year obtained through an Open Records request. Work of this nature could be outsourced at much better prices, with the savings made available for Instruction. 

Kansas City may be somewhat of an extreme example but it is very common for districts to have work performed by district employees that could be more efficiently outsourced. This is just one example of valid questions that should be asked of districts that are requesting additional aid. 

Allocation of resources to teaching and non-teaching positions would be another valid line of inquiry. Classroom teacher employment over the last ten years has outpaced enrollment in many cases and non-teacher employment has grown even faster. This is not to say that the relationship should be the same in every case, as there are a number of legitimate reasons for some degree of variance.  But the raw data — available here — allows for additional benchmarking that indicates opportunities more efficient staffing levels.

It would also be pertinent to ask applicants whether they provide lucrative payouts to employees who terminate or retire. The Blue Valley superintendent received a one-time payment for deferred compensation of $328,591 last year; the cost of that alone is significant but it could also dramatically increase his pension .. for life. The Shawnee Mission Assistant Superintendent collected $132,614 for unused sick leave and vacation upon retirement and could also collect additional pension as a result. Kansas City told us that the position of Chief Human Resources Officer was eliminated but his contract had to be paid out, which accounts for the large increase last year. 

Local school boards make these decisions to provide lucrative payouts but taxpayers all across Kansas pick up part of the tab, as there is no separation between what is paid with state and local tax dollars on items of this nature.

School districts may have made some spending adjustments but they are still organized and operating rather inefficiently according to Legislative Post Audit and other information. It would be appropriate for any grant of extraordinary aid to be conditional upon a commitment to implement substantive measures to implement specific operating efficiencies, including outsourcing to regional service centers and the private sector as appropriate.

Discussion of open government in Wichita and Kansas

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

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

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

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and 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.

Year in Review: 2014

Here is a sampling of stories from Voice for Liberty in 2014.

January

A transparency agenda for Wichita
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.

New York Times on Kansas schools, again
The New York Times — again — intervenes in Kansas schools. As it did last October, the newspaper makes serious errors in its facts and recommendations.

Visit Wichita, and pay a tourism fee
The Wichita City Council will consider adding a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills, calling it a “City Tourism Fee.” Welcome to Wichita!

Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product
Compared to peer areas, Wichita’s record of growth in gross domestic product is similar to that of job creation: Wichita performs poorly.

The death penalty in Kansas, a conservative view
What should the attitude of conservatives be regarding the death penalty? Ben Jones of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty spoke on the topic “Capital Punishment in Kansas from a conservative perspective: Is it a failed policy?”

Kansas school test scores, the subgroups
To understand Kansas school test scores, look at subgroups. Sometimes Kansas ranks very well among the states. In other instances, Kansas ranks much lower, even below the national average. It’s important for Kansans — be they citizens, schoolchildren, parents, education professionals, or (especially) politicians of any party — to understand these scores.

The state of Wichita, 2014
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. He said a few things that deserve discussion.

February

In Wichita, why do some pay taxes, and others don’t?
A request by a luxury development in downtown Wichita raises issues, for example, why do we have to pay taxes?

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior
he Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

Our Kansas grassroots teachers union
Letters to the editor in your hometown newspaper may have the air of being written by a concerned parent of Kansas schoolchildren, but they might not be what they seem.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens
This 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.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers
The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

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

March

Special interests struggle to keep special tax treatment
When a legislature is willing to grant special tax treatment, it sets up a battle to keep — or obtain — that status. Once a special class acquires preferential treatment, others will seek it too.

In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance
Last year the Wichita City Council selected a development team to build apartments on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, between Douglas Avenue and Second Street. But city leaders may have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside this land to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.”

In Wichita, pushing back at union protests
A Wichita automobile dealer is pushing back at a labor union that’s accusing the dealer of unfair labor practices.

Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups
The Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

State employment visualizations
There’s been dueling claims and controversy over employment figures in Kansas and our state’s performance relative to others. I present the actual data in interactive visualizations that you can use to make up your own mind.

State and local government employment levels vary
The states vary widely in levels of state government and local government employees, calculated on a per-person basis. Only ten states have total government employee payroll costs greater than Kansas, on a per-person basis.

April

Wichita not good for small business
When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

Cronyism is welfare for rich and powerful, writes Charles G. Koch
“The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism,” writes Charles G. Koch in the Wall Street Journal.

Rich States, Poor States for 2014 released
In the 2014 edition of Rich States, Poor States, Utah continues its streak at the top of Economic Outlook Ranking, meaning that the state is poised for growth and prosperity. Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance rankings, and fell in the forward-looking forecast.

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes
On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

May

Poll: Wichitans don’t want sales tax increase
According to a newly released poll from Kansas Policy Institute, Wichitans may want more jobs and a secure water source but they certainly don’t support a sales tax increase as the means to get either. Reporting on this poll is available in these articles: In Wichita, opinion of city spending consistent across party and ideology, Few Wichitans support taxation for economic development subsidies, Wichitans willing to fund basics, and To fund government, Wichitans prefer alternatives to raising taxes.

Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs
Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available.

In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well
Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone. Except for the waste, that is.

Wichita seeks to form entertainment district
A proposed entertainment district in Old Town Wichita benefits a concentrated area but spreads costs across everyone while creating potential for abuse.

In Wichita, capitalism doesn’t work, until it works
Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements?

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.

Wichita per capita income not moving in a good direction
Despite its problematic nature, per capita income in Wichita is used as a benchmark for the economy. It’s not moving in the right direction. As Wichita plans its future, leaders need to recognize and understand its recent history.

Uber, not for Wichita
A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.

For Kansas’ Roberts, an election year conversion?
A group of like-minded Republican senators has apparently lost a member. Is the conservative voting streak by Pat Roberts an election year conversion, or just a passing fad?

June

Wichita property taxes compared
An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.

Government employee costs in the states
The states vary widely in levels of state government and local government employees and payroll costs, calculated on a per-person basis. Kansas ranks high in these costs, nationally and among nearby states.

With new tax exemptions, what is the message Wichita sends to existing landlords?
As the City of Wichita prepares to grant special tax status to another new industrial building, existing landlords must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement
Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.
Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

July

Wichita property taxes rise again
The City of Wichita is fond of saying that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. But the mill levy has risen in recent years.

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome
A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

For Wichita’s new water supply, debt is suddenly bad
Wichita city leaders are telling us we need to spend a lot of money for a new water source. For some reason, debt has now become a dirty word.

Pat Roberts, senator for corporate welfare
Two years ago United States Senator Pat Roberts voted in committee with liberals like John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Debbie Stabenow to pass a bill loaded with wasteful corporate welfare.

August

Charles Koch: How to really turn the economy around
Writing in USA Today, Charles Koch offers insight into why our economy is sluggish, and how to make a positive change.

Wichita airport statistics updated
As the Wichita City Council prepares to authorize funding for Southwest Airlines, it’s worth taking a look at updated statistics regarding the airport.

Wichita sales tax hike would hit low income families hardest
Analysis of household expenditure data shows that a proposed sales tax in Wichita affects low income families in greatest proportion, confirming the regressive nature of sales taxes.

Welcome back, Gidget
Gidget stepped away for a few months, but happily she is back writing about Kansas politics at Kansas GOP Insider (wannabe).

September

Wichita planning results in delay, waste
Wichita plans an ambitious road project that turns out to be too expensive, resulting in continued delays for Wichita drivers and purchases of land that may not be needed.

‘Transforming Wichita’ a reminder of the value of government promises
When Wichita voters weigh the plausibility of the city’s plans for spending proposed new sales tax revenue, they should remember this is not the first time the city has promised results and accountability.

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: NetApp incentives
In making the case that economic development incentives are necessary and successful in creating jobs, a Wichita campaign overlooks the really big picture.

Arrival of Uber a pivotal moment for Wichita
Now that Uber has started service in Wichita, the city faces a decision. Will Wichita move into the future by embracing Uber, or remain stuck in the past?

Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Boeing incentives
The claim that the “city never gave Boeing incentives” will come as news to the Wichita city officials who dished out over $600 million in subsidies and incentives to the company.

Beechcraft incentives a teachable moment for Wichita
The case of Beechcraft and economic development incentives holds several lessons as Wichita considers a new tax with a portion devoted to incentives.

For Kansas budget, balance is attainable
A policy brief from a Kansas think tank illustrates that balancing the Kansas budget while maintaining services and lower tax rates is not only possible, but realistic.

To Wichita, a promise to wisely invest if sales tax passes
Claims of a reformed economic development process if Wichita voters approve a sales tax must be evaluated in light of past practice and the sameness of the people in charge. If these leaders are truly interested in reforming Wichita’s economic development machinery and processes, they could have started years ago using the generous incentives we already have.

For Wichita Chamber’s expert, no negatives to economic development incentives
An expert in economic development sponsored by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce tells Wichita there are no studies showing that incentives don’t work.

Water, economic development discussed in Wichita
Dr. Art Hall, Executive Director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas School of Business, presented his “Thoughts on Water and Economic Development” at the Wichita Pachyderm Club Friday, September 19, 2014

Stuck in the box in Wichita, part one
To pay for a new water supply, Wichita gives voters two choices and portrays one as bad. But the purportedly bad choice is the same choice the city made over the last decade to pay for the last big water project. We need out-of-the-box thinking here.

October

Kansas economy has been underperforming
Those who call for a return to the economic policies of past Kansas gubernatorial administrations may not be aware of the performance of the Kansas economy during those times.

Union Station TIF provides lessons for Wichita voters
A proposed downtown Wichita development deserves more scrutiny than it has received, as it provides a window into the city’s economic development practice that voters should peek through as they consider voting for the Wichita sales tax.

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.

While Wichita asks for new taxes, it continues to spend and borrow
The City of Wichita says it doesn’t have enough revenue for things like street maintenance and transit, but continues to borrow for spending on new projects.

Wichita debt levels seen to rise
As part of the campaign for a proposed Wichita sales tax, the city says that debt is bad. But actions the city has taken have caused debt levels to rise, and projections are for further increases.

For Wichita, another economic development plan
The Wichita City Council will consider a proposal from a consultant to “facilitate a community conversation for the creation of a new economic development diversification plan for the greater Wichita region.” Haven’t we been down this road before?

In Wichita, pro-sales tax campaign group uses sales tax-exempt building as headquarters
While “Yes Wichita” campaigns for higher sales taxes, it operates from a building that received a special exemption from paying sales tax.

For Wichita Chamber of Commerce chair, it’s sales tax for you, but not for me
A Wichita company CEO applied for a sales tax exemption. Now as chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, he wants you to pay more sales tax, even on the food you buy in grocery stores.

Should Wichita expand a water system that is still in commissioning stage?
Should we be concerned about rushing a decision to expand a water production system that has not yet proven itself?

Wichita sends educational mailer to non-Wichitans, using Wichita taxes
Why is the City of Wichita spending taxpayer money mailing to voters who don’t live in the city and can’t vote on the issue?

Wichita to consider tax exemptions
A Wichita company asks for property and sales tax exemptions on the same day Wichita voters decide whether to increase the sales tax, including the tax on groceries.

November

In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

Kansas school spending visualization updated
There’s new data available from Kansas State Department of Education on school spending. I’ve gathered the data, adjusted it for the consumer price index, and now present it in this interactive visualization.

In Kansas, school employment rises again
For the fourth consecutive year, the number of teachers in Kansas public schools has risen faster than enrollment, leading to declining pupil-teacher ratios.

Richard Ranzau, slayer of cronyism
In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges in the battle for capitalism over cronyism.

Kansans still uninformed on school spending
As in the past, a survey finds Kansans are uninformed or misinformed on the level of school spending, and also on the direction of its change.

In Kansas, voters want government to concentrate on efficiency and core services before asking for taxes
A survey of Kansas voters finds that Kansas believe government is not operating efficiently. They also believe government should pursue efficiency savings, focus on core functions, and spend unnecessary cash reserves before cutting services or raising taxes.

Kansas cities should not unilaterally grant tax breaks
When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.

City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Cultural Arts Districts
Wichita government spending on economic development leads to imagined problems that require government intervention and more taxpayer contribution to resolve. The cycle of organic rebirth of cities is then replaced with bureaucratic management.

December

City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Airfares
The City of Wichita’s legislative agenda regarding the Affordable Airfares subsidy program seems to be based on data not supported by facts.

Options for funding Wichita’s future water supply
Now that the proposed Wichita sales tax has failed, how should Wichita pay for a future water supply?

KU records request seen as political attack
A request for correspondence belonging to a Kansas University faculty member is a blatant attempt to squelch academic freedom and free speech.

Why is this man smiling?
In Wichita, the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce crafts a sweetheart deal for his company to the detriment of Wichita taxpayers.

Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce: What is the attitude towards taxes?
Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?

Will the next Wichita mayor advocate enforcing our ethics laws?
Wichita has laws that seem clear. But the city attorney said they don’t mean what they seem to say. Will our next mayor stand up for ethics?

Campaign contribution stacking in Wichita
Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.

Economic development in Wichita: Looking beyond the immediate
Decisions on economic development initiatives in Wichita are made based on “stage one” thinking, failing to look beyond what is immediate and obvious.

Economic development in Sedgwick County
The issue of awarding an economic development incentive reveals much as to why the Wichita-area economy has not grown.

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