Tag Archives: Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

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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.”

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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.

The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.

Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.

It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.

As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.

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.

Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.

The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”

Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).

The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.

“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

Issues regarding the City of Wichita

Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?

Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?

The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?

The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?

If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?

The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Arrival of Uber a pivotal moment for Wichita

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: 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? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast on September 14, 2014.

For more in this topic, see Arrival of Uber a pivotal moment for Wichita.

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

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.

At a conference produced by Kansas Policy Institute on Friday September 19, a panel presented the “nuts and bolts” of the jobs portion of the proposed Wichita sales tax that voters will see on their November ballots. I asked a question:

Listening to at least two of the three speakers, it sounds like Wichita’s not been using incentives. Two-and-a-half years ago when Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Brewer angrily produced a document saying since 1980, we’ve given Boeing $658 million in tax forgiveness. Last year the city and the state were somehow able to come up with $84,000 per job for 400 jobs here at NetApp. So we’ve been using a lot of incentives, haven’t we? What are we going to do different now, that hasn’t worked for us, clearly, in the past.

One of the panelists, Paul Allen, provided this answer:

I’m not sure that I agree that it hasn’t worked for us in the past. In fact, Boeing is still one of the largest taxpayers in the city. It has $6 million of real estate taxes paying a year. The Boeing facilities are still paying taxes in this community. Again, the jobs aren’t here, but Boeing on its rebates paid those back, those are on incremental property that it invested that came back on the tax rolls over time, and I think 6 million is the correct number last I looked there is still on the tax rolls in this city. So you have got pay back. And NetApp? NetApp is a win for the city. If you look at the economic models measuring the results of those 400 jobs and the fact that now the NetApp relationship likely to happen on the campus of Wichita State, that’s economic growth. Those are the kinds of jobs you need to attract. What are we going to do differently? We’re going to look at infrastructure more, we’re looking at a more integrated program across the spectrum. WSU is certainly a big part of that program, we’re going to get serious about diversification. We only talk about diversification in the city when the economy is down. We need to be a long-term program for diversification, taking the skills we have and looking at those skills and attracting companies here, helping our companies to expand. We need to invest in our work force, whether it’s at college level or particular to the technical colleges. Again those are the kinds of investments that are going to create a workforce that becomes attractive. It’s just one component, I think if we said it’s one tool in the toolbox. That’s a very important tool. And we are up against communities like Oklahoma City that has $75 million sitting in a fund and believe me that’s a lot more than we’ve invested in the last 10 years. And we will continue to get beaten in the competition if we don’t get more serious about being able to fight for the jobs and you can ask most business owners, particularly manufacturing, they’re called constantly from other communities trying to recruit then out of this community. And that competition is only going to get more intense, in my opinion. So we’ve got to be prepared to wisely invest our money.

(Paul Allen was Chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition for 2011, and Chair of Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce in 1998. The Wichita Chamber selected him to present the case for the sales tax at this conference.)

Allen’s pushback at the idea that the Boeing incentives were a failure produced a few gasps of astonishment from the audience. I’m sure that if any of Wichita’s elected officials had been in attendance, they would also have been surprised.

Response to Boeing AnnouncementIn January 2012, when Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita, people not happy. Mayor Carl Brewer in a written statement said “The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.” Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives: “Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.” (See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Boeing incentives)

But now an icon of Wichita’s business community says that since Boeing is paying $6 million per year in property taxes, it really was a good investment, after all. Today, however, no one is working in these buildings. No productive economic activity is taking place. But, government is collecting property taxes. This counts as an economic development success story, according to the people who support the proposed Wichita sales tax.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004Another important thing to learn from this conference, which is hinted at in Allen’s answer, is that sales tax supporters are not recognizing all the incentives that we have in Wichita. One speaker said “It would be a travesty for you to do nothing.” (He was from out of town, but the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce selected him to speak and presented him as an expert.) But as we know from the premise of my question, we have many available incentives, and in large amounts, too.

Another problem is Allen’s disagreement that what we’ve done has not been working. This is contrary to the evidence the Wichita Chamber has been presenting, which is that we have lost thousands of jobs and are not growing as quickly as peer cities. That is the basis of their case for spending more on economic development.

Allen also spoke of a $75 million fund in Oklahoma City, saying it is much larger that what we’ve invested. I’m sure that Allen is not including all the incentives we’ve used. There were some years, for example, when the value of the abated taxes for Boeing was over $40 million. Last year the city initiated a process whereby NetApp saved $6,880,000 in sales tax, according to Kansas Department of Commerce documents. These tax abatements are more valuable than receiving the equivalent amount as a cash payment, as the company does not pay income taxes on the value of abated taxes.

"Yes Wichita" website
“Yes Wichita” website
Wichita voters will also want to consider the list of things Allen said we will do differently in the future. He spoke of concepts like infrastructure, an integrated program, diversification, investing in our work force, attracting companies, and helping existing companies expand. He told the audience “So we’ve got to be prepared to wisely invest our money.” There are two things to consider regarding this. First, these are the things we’ve been talking about doing for decades. Some of them we have been doing.

Second, the people saying these things — promising a new era of economic development in Wichita — are the same people who have been in charge for decades. They’ve been chairs of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Visioneering Wichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. They’re the members of the leadership committee the Chamber formed.

These people are Wichita’s business establishment. They’ve been in charge during the time the Wichita economy has fallen behind. Now, they promise reform. We will do things differently and better, they say. Now, we will prepare to invest wisely, Allen told the audience.

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.

Hanging file folders

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.

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request

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.

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?

Uber is a ridesharing service, although that word doesn’t describe it adequately. Here’s how it works. People apply to be Uber drivers. Uber does background checks to its satisfaction. Drivers must have a relatively late-model car. If Uber accepts drivers, they receive a smartphone with an app, and they’re in business.

Customers who want to use Uber must have a smartphone. Then, customers create an account and make payment arrangements such as credit card, Google Wallet, or PayPal.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
When customers want a ride, they use the Uber smartphone app to make a request. A driver accepts the request and picks up the passenger. At the end of the ride, payment is made through the Uber app. There is no tipping.

After the ride, passengers rate drivers. (Drivers rate passengers, too.) Passengers receive a receipt via email that shows the route taken on a map.

I’ve used Uber a few times in Washington and was pleased with the experience: No extortion of tips, polite and courteous drivers, clean cars, offers of bottled water, a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat beside me, and magazines in front of me.

People like Uber. Especially the young millennials I know that live in cities where Uber operates. These are people that Wichita is desperately trying to appeal to. So you may be thinking “isn’t it great that Uber has expanded to Wichita?”

Uber in Wichita is good if you value innovation and progress. But not everyone does. There will be a scuffle.

Available Uber drivers on a Sunday morning in Kansas City. There were no Uber drivers available in Wichita at the time.
Available Uber drivers on a Sunday morning in Kansas City. There were no Uber drivers available in Wichita at the time.
In 2012 Wichita passed new taxi regulations. They create substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: A central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.

These regulations protect Wichita’s existing traditional taxi industry. There are three taxi companies in Wichita, with two having the same ownership. Already one owner is speaking out against Uber. The public agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council lists a citizen speaking on the topic “Taxi Cab Insurance.” I imagine this speaker is inspired to speak on this topic due to Uber’s arrival.

The taxi companies that benefit from the restrictive Wichita regulations are likely to fight to keep their competitive barriers in place. The question is this: Does Uber fall under these regulations?

So far, the city’s position is this, according to the Wichita Eagle: “From the government side, interim City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe said Uber is not a taxi service because the private cars its drivers use aren’t equipped with taxi meters.” (Ride-sharing app begins offering Wichitans a lift, August 28, 2014)

I’ll expect the city’s position to change when the city realizes that Uber cars do have meters. Not clunky old-fashioned meters, but meters running on smartphones that track journeys using GPS. After all, Uber charges for its trips just like traditional cabs: A fee to enter the cab, and then charges based on distance traveled, and in some cases, time. (In Wichita, Uber charges a base fare of $2.00 plus $0.20 per minute and $1.65 per mile, plus $1.00 safe rides fee. There is a $5.00 minimum. When you request a ride, Uber can give you a fare quote.)

The overhaul of Wichita taxi regulations in 2012 was partly inspired by the perception that drivers were not projecting a good image for the city. Now there are regulations in addition to the above that require standards of dress and hygiene, and “knowledge of the geography of the city and the area, and knowledge of local public and tourist destinations and attractions.” Cabbies must take a customer service class delivered by city bureaucrats.

Taxi driver was on sex offender registrySo Wichita has many regulations for the taxi industry. But as I explain in more detail below, the city admitted that it failed to enforce a really important regulation: Convicted sex offenders shouldn’t be taxi drivers. But through the city’s mistake, one such man was granted a taxi driver license. He’s now serving a lengthy prison sentence for raping a passenger.

The standard argument against Uber is that it is unfair because Uber doesn’t have to follow laws and regulations. But Uber is regulated by a very powerful force: The marketplace. Remember, passengers rate Uber drivers. Can you rate your traditional Wichita taxi driver? What if you felt that your traditional taxi driver was padding the fare by taking a roundabout route? Uber trips are monitored by GPS. Passenger receipts have a map that shows the route taken, which can be the basis for a fare review.

The traditional taxi industry complains that Uber doesn’t have to follow follow laws and regulations. That’s nonsense. Uber drivers must follow traffic laws. Uber drivers and passengers must observe the most fundamental of laws: “Don’t hit people, and don’t take their stuff.” Beyond that, the taxi industry laws and regulations are from a bygone era. The traditional taxi industry is comfortable with these laws and regulations. The taxi companies can cope with them, and they make it difficult for competition to form. The purpose of these laws and regulations is not to benefit passengers, in most cases. They exist for the benefit of the taxicab industry.

But there is a transformation underway. Wichita can stop it if it wants to, but that would be a mistake.

The city says it is considering whether this industry — Uber — needs regulation. The question I have is this: Has the City of Wichita earned the right to regulate taxis? The answer is no. The city has created regulations that prop up the near-monopoly of traditional taxi companies and stifle innovation, but failed to protect passengers from being raped by convicted sex offenders.

Beyond that, the city has to decide whether it can back off its heavy-handed regulation and allow market-based innovation to thrive. The city has to decide in favor of customers or the traditional taxi industry and its near-monopoly ownership. It’s a decision that will let us learn a lot about the future direction of Wichita.

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulationsWhen the Wichita City Council passed new taxicab regulations in 2012, the focus was on dirty cabs and slovenly drivers who were not acting as goodwill ambassadors for the city. Mayor Carl Brewer said he was “tired” of hearing complaints about drivers.

So the council passed new regulations regarding taxicabs, including the requirement that drivers attend customer service training provided by Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other regulations determine taxicab office staffing levels and level of supervision.

Bryon Scott Spohn, a taxi driver accused of raping a passenger.

But something very important slipped through the cracks. The Wichita Eagle has reported the city didn’t competently enforce regulations designed to protect passenger safety:

A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said. Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry, March 3, 2014

The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city.

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

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?

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

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

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

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

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

Attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website

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

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

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

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

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

mywichita_logo

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

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

Spending data

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

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.

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

Legal notices

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

Publish requests

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

Leveraging our lobbyists

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-03-03 1200

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s city tourism fee, Special taxes for special people

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Council will hold a meeting regarding an industry that wants to tax itself, but really is taxing its customers. Also, the city may be skirting the law in holding the meeting. Then: The Kansas Legislature is considering special tax treatment for a certain class of business firms. What is the harm in doing this? Episode 35, broadcast March 16, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.
Wichita City Hall.

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

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

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who pays this tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More secret spending

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

The bureaucrats profit

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

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

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

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

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

wichita-taxi regulations

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulations

When the Wichita City Council passed new taxicab regulations in 2012, the focus was on dirty cabs and slovenly drivers who were not acting as goodwill ambassadors for the city. Mayor Carl Brewer said he was “tired” of hearing complaints about drivers.

So the council passed new regulations regarding taxicabs, including the requirement that drivers attend customer service training provided by Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other regulations determine taxicab office staffing levels and level of supervision.

Bryon Scott Spohn, a taxi driver accused of raping a passenger.

But something very important slipped through the cracks. The Wichita Eagle has reported the city didn’t competently enforce regulations designed to protect passenger safety:

A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said. Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry, March 3, 2014

The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city.

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

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

File folder and documents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

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

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

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

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

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

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

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.

Visit Wichita, and pay a tourism fee

welcome-wichita-01

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

This week the Wichita City Council will consider advancing the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent fee 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 Go Wichita’s market efforts. The cost of the effort is estimated at $2.5 million per year. The item the city council will consider Tuesday will set a date for a public hearing, if the council agrees to proceed.

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.”

A few remarks:

First: If it’s true that increased marketing of Wichita’s hotels will result in increased business, who is in the best position to undertake this effort? Hotel operators themselves, or the government bureaucrats that staff tourism bureaus?

Second: The proposal indicates that hotels will collect this money via an item on the bill that will be called the “City Tourism Fee.” I wonder: Is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? Not only that, but a tax that will explicitly be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

It would be one thing if the city required hotels to remit 2.75 percent of their revenue to the TBID. It’s another matter for the city to levy a fee for the privilege of staying in a hotel room in Wichita and list it on hotel bills. There’s nothing like saying “thank you” for visiting Wichita by adding 2.75 percent to your hotel costs.

Coming to Wichita for business

There will be quite a bit of tax on a Wichita hotel bill if the TBID is implemented. Start with 7.15 percent sales tax. Add six percent hotel guest tax. Now add 2.75 percent tourism fee. That’s 15.9 percent total tax. Except: If the hotel is one of several located in a Community Improvement Districts, guests may need to add an additional two percent, for a total of 17.9 percent in tax.

But I forgot. Not all of that is tax. Some of it is a only a fee assessed for the privilege of visiting Wichita and staying in a hotel.

Third: This will be more taxpayer funds that are spent in relative secrecy, because it is the position of Go Wichita and the city that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors BureauFourth: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner who wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not a wise path to economic development and prosperity. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

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 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

For Wichita, more districts, more taxes, more bureaucracy

red-tape-person-upset

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District. Actually, the council will formation of a planning committee to determine boundaries, parameters, budgets, and how to fund the budget.

The impetus behind the TBID, according to city documents, is “Go Wichita has proposed that a TBID be created to enhance its marketing efforts.” Go Wichita is the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The source of its funds, again from city documents: “A fee is assessed to each of these properties based on room night sales. This fee is usually determined as a percentage of the room rate or as a flat dollar amount per night. The funds collected in the district are spent exclusively for the benefit of the hotels and are usually programmed by the local convention and visitor’s bureau.”

What will be done with the money that is raised? “The funds generated from the district would be used to increase convention advertising in key meeting planner publications, convention sales initiatives in key markets and digital advertising. Additionally, a significant portion of the new funds would be earmarked for leisure marketing efforts.”

Tomorrow’s action contemplated by the council is just the formation of a planning committee, not he actual TBID. So there’s still time to think this through. Here’s what I hope the city considers:

First, is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? A tax that will probably be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

Second: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner that wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Then: The members of the committee are appointed by the mayor. Hotel owners: Do you want Carl Brewer to be in charge of appointing people to oversee something important to your business?

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not the wisest path to follow. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

We already see some of this excuse-making taking place: Private investment in downtown Wichita has been weak, it is said, because there’s not yet a critical mass of development. It is promised by downtown boosters that given enough public money, critical mass will be achieved, and private investment will rush in. But since there is no definition of what constitutes critical mass, this excuse is always available to justify failure.

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.

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:

Fact checking a Wichita Ambassador Hotel “Vote Yes” mailer

On February 10th many voters may have received a large mail piece from Moving Wichita Forward, a group formed to urge Wichitans to “Vote Yes” in the February 28 special election in Wichita.

The subject of the election is a Wichita city charter ordinance that rebates 75 percent of the Ambassador Hotel’s guest tax collections back to the hotel’s owner. A yes vote means you agree with this allocation of the taxes the hotel collects. A no vote means you disagree, and would rather see the hotel’s guest tax collections handled in the usual manner — funding Wichita’s convention and tourism promotions, and debt service, maintenance, and updates of Century II.

Like the first mailer sent by Moving Wichita Forward, it pays to examine the claims carefully.

For example, the front of the mailer shows a sign reading “Going Out of Business” with a caption nearby reading “If you vote NO.” The implication is that a no vote is bad for business, and will cause businesses to close and jobs to be lost.

The reality, however, is quite different.

First, the Ambassador Hotel developer has said that even if the “Vote No” side prevails in the February 28th election, the hotel will open, and jobs will be created. So voting no, according to the hotel developer, will not prevent jobs from being created.

Beyond that, the WSU study that the “Vote Yes” campaign relies on contains some inconvenient facts that Moving Wichita Forward leaves out. An important fact in the WSU study is the estimation that 50 percent of the Ambassador Hotel’s business will be diverted away from other Wichita hotels. As these hotels experience a drop in business due to the Ambassador Hotel opening, they may become at risk of going out of business.

Even if they stay in business, lower levels of demand for hotel rooms means it is likely that jobs will be lost at other Wichita hotels.

Here’s another claim made in the mailer: “The Ambassador Hotel project will create a total of 1,102 direct and indirect jobs, including 978 for construction and 124 for ongoing operations.”

First, remember that the developer has said the hotel will open and jobs will be created, no matter the outcome of the election.

As to the claimed creation of 978 construction jobs, here’s what the author of the WSU study said about these jobs: “It is likely that these expenditures merely support existing construction jobs.”

Supporting existing jobs is important. But that’s a lot different from creating new jobs, as Moving Wichita Forward claims.

Also, there is a question as to how many local workers are being hired for the construction jobs. The Kansas Democratic party, in support of its “Hire Kansas First Act,” has specifically criticized the Ambassador Hotel for using large numbers of out-of-state workers.

For the jobs due to ongoing operations, remember the WSU study and the 50 percent substitution factor. As the hotel draws business away from other Wichita hotels, it is very likely that jobs will be lost at these hotels.

Another claim by Moving Wichita Forward is this: “Visitors will pay through the transient occupancy tax or bed tax. The bed tax cannot be used to fund city services — it can only be used to promote the city of Wichita.”

Tax Fairness for All Wichitans has never claimed that the bed or guest tax is used to fund city services.

Instead, the purpose of that tax is to provide revenue to the city’s Convention and Tourism fund. The purpose of that fund is to support the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and also to support debt service, maintenance, and upgrades to Century II.

A Yes vote will drain this fund of revenue. It’s losing $2 million this year, and its balance will soon be near zero. Remember that half the Ambassador Hotel’s business — according to the WSU study — is diverted away from other Wichita hotels that presently pay guest tax to the Convention and Tourism fund.

Voting Yes on February 28th diverts future revenue away from the Convention and Tourism fund and into the pockets of one hotel developer. It is likely that Wichitans across the city will have to make up the missing revenue. That’s an unfair burden to city taxpayers, and an important reason to vote No.

Voting No protects the city’s Convention and Tourism fund and an important source of revenue for Century II.

A previous fact check of a Moving Wichita Forward mailer is at Fact checking the Wichita Ambassador Hotel campaign.

In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information on this matter may be found at

Open records, rights of Kansans disrespected at Wichita City Council

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

A few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

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

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

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

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

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

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

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

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

O’Donnell made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

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

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

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

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

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

Wichita open records issue buried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita claims transparency

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

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

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

Why open records are important

Here’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

Issue is buried in consent agenda

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: State of the City 2011

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

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

Economic development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plans for downtown

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

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

Accountability and transparency

In his address, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.”

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

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

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

Two times last year I appeared before the city council when the city was considering renewal of its contract with Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked the mayor that as a condition of renewing the contracts, the city ask that the agencies follow the law. But the mayor and the city rely on an incorrect interpretation of the KORA from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf and refused to act on my request. It should be noted that Rebenstorf has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to the council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations.

The Kansas Open Records Act in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.” Governments in Kansas should be looking at ways to increase availability of information. Instead, the City of Wichita uses a narrow — not liberal — interpretation of the records law restrict citizen access to records. At some time I believe the city’s legal position will be shown to be wrong.

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

Citizen response

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

The City of Wichita ought to do the same.

For Wichita city government, open records are not valued

As a condition of renewing its contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, I asked that the Wichita City Council require that the agency comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. As has been the case before, the city council and city staff say they are in favor of open records and government transparency, but their actions indicate that they are not.

After my remarks, which are presented below, City manager Bob Layton said that my attack on the city attorney was unfair, that it was not he who made this decision not to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Instead, he said the decision was made by the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s own attorney. John Rolfe, the Bureau’s president, said he believes that his organization has been open in their explanations of how they spend their funds, at least to the City.

Rolfe also repeated his mistaken belief that I’ve discussed with the Bureau’s attorney how I might gain access to the information that I’ve requested. These discussions have not happened. That’s not the way the Kansas Open Records Law works. Citizens do not negotiate with agencies to gain access to records. The law says that citizens make requests, and agencies comply.

Furthermore, the duty of the Bureau’s attorney is to protect and advance the interests of his client, not the interests of the public. The fact that the city council and the city manager are comfortable with this arrangement is disturbing.

Any member of the city council could have followed my suggestion to make a motion that the city ask that the Convention and Visitors Bureau to simply agree that they are in fact a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But none of them did.

Council member Jim Skelton asked questions several times seeking to find out how the agency spends its funds, but he did not give “how” a specific meaning. The city and most agencies would like to present simple and broad budgets or income statements to account for their spending. But this level of disclosure, which is what the Convention and Visitors Bureau provides to the public, is not sufficient.

Here’s an example why: Last year 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. Three agencies — Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — have all refused to comply with requests like this. The city council members and staff have agreed with their positions.

This is not transparency. This is not accountability.

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 have done. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney has had my case since December 17 of last year. That office has been working on the case, and a decision is expected soon.

No matter which way the District Attorney decides, the City of Wichita, its quasi-governmental taxpayer-supported agencies, and their hostility to open records is a matter that the Kansas Legislature should notice. We need a better records law.

Following are remarks I delivered today to the Wichita City Council regarding the city’s compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act.

I’m recommending that the city not renew its contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau until that organization decides to follow Kansas law, specifically the Kansas Open Records Act.

I’ve requested records from this agency. Its response is that the agency is not a “public agency” and therefore is not subject to the open records law.

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

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

According to its 2008 annual report, 89% of Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau’s revenue came from the transient guest tax. I suggest that this qualifies as supported “in whole or in part” by public funds.

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

Mr. Mayor and council members, look at the plain language of the Kansas Open Records Act, as I’ve explained. Look at the intent of the Kansas Legislature as embodied in the statute: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

The policy of the state is that records should be open. Governmental bodies shouldn’t be looking for excuses to avoid complying with the law, as has the City of Wichita and this agency, and has two other similar agencies. Especially when the reasons the city legal staff has used are wrong, both in terms of the letter of the law and its intent.

Now I realize that Mr. Gary Rebenstorf, the Wichita City Attorney, disagrees with my contention that this agency is in fact a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. Mr. Rebenstorf 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 with regard to my records requests, he’s advised this council to keep records closed when the law and the public policy of this state says they should be open.

He, or perhaps whoever is instructing him as to what opinions to write, is hostile towards towards open records and citizens’ right to know.

Mayor, you’ve spoken about “building public trust in government” and working to achieve greater transparency. Manager Layton has as a goal “Promoting transparency by providing timely, accurate and relevant information.”

This is a chance for the political leadership of this city to make a decision: does the city promote transparency by deciding itself what information to release, or does it agree to citizen-driven accountability, where citizens are in charge?

It’s not only this agency. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition are similarly situated.

As a condition of renewing the city’s contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, I ask that this council instruct the Bureau to follow the Kansas Open Records Act.

Oklahoma City sales tax passes; model for Wichita

On Tuesday, voters in Oklahoma City passed a new sales tax to fund downtown improvements. It passed by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent.

The tax will be used to fund improvements such as a 70-acre downtown park ($130 million), a new convention center ($280 million), mass transit initiatives ($130 million), health and wellness aquatic centers for senior citizens ($50 million), and other things.

The tax was promoted as not really a “new” tax, as it is timed to replace an existing tax of the same amount that is expiring.

Wichita’s plans for downtown revitalization will need some sort of funding, and the Oklahoma City tax — its name is MAPS 3 — has been promoted by John Rolfe, President and CEO of Go Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau, as “interesting.” Other downtown leaders have spoken favorably of a sales tax for funding downtown improvements.

Wichitans can count on a similar sales tax being proposed for whatever projects the year-long downtown planning process calls for. Oklahoma City’s experience will surely be used to promote a similar tax in Wichita.

Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau should follow Kansas Open Records Act

Remarks to be delivered to the December 1, 2009 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

Mr. Mayor, members of the council,

I’m recommending that the city not renew its contract with the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau until that organization decides to follow the Kansas Open Records Act.

Recently I made a request under the provisions of the records act for records from the Bureau. This request was denied. The Bureau didn’t deny my request because of the nature of the records I asked for. Instead, the Bureau’s Chairman, Devin Hansen, has an understanding, he wrote, that the Bureau is not subject to the open records law.

Here’s why the Convention and Visitors Bureau 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.

Let’s ask a few questions:

Is the Convention and Visitors Bureau supported in whole or in part by tax funds? According to its 2008 annual report, 89% of its revenues came from the transient guest tax. We must answer “yes” to this question.

Is the Convention and Visitors Bureau an office or agency connected with state or local government? Absolutely, in terms of both funding and function.

There’s no rational or reasonable basis for the Bureau’s assertion that it is not a public agency subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.

There are two other quasi-governmental organizations similarly situated, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. These two organizations have also refused to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act for the same reason as the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The WDDC, in particular, is relying on what I believe to be an incorrect interpretation of the law by city legal staff.

Mr. Mayor and council members, look at the plain language of the Kansas Open Records Act, as I’ve explained. Look at the intent of the Kansas Legislature as embodied in the statute: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

The policy of the state is that records should be open. Governmental bodies shouldn’t be looking for reasons to avoid complying with the law, as has the City of Wichita and these three quasi-governmental organizations. Especially when the reasons the city legal staff has used are wrong, both in terms of the letter of the law and its intent.

As a condition of renewing the city’s contract with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, I ask that this council instruct the Bureau to follow the Kansas Open Records Act.