Tag Archives: Wichita news media

Newspaper reports on lack of source for news

I wonder if the reporters and editors at Wichita Business Journal can see the rich irony in this article. It reports on a group of business leaders complaining about the lack of information about Wichita.

I wonder if we’ve forgotten about the role of newspapers, their websites, and mobile apps.

Emerging Leaders want to know what’s happening in Wichita

Daniel McCoy, Wichita Business Journal

Wichita has a lot of great things going on, but how do people find out about them?

There should be an app for that, say members of the Emerging Leaders program.

Rather than having to visit a number of individual websites to find out about what’s happening locally, the all-female group of 10 Emerging Leaders who sat down with the WBJ as part of the Breakfast with the Editor series on Friday say Wichita would be well-served to have a single place people can go for a comprehensive list of all the goings on in the community.

Continue reading at Wichita Business Journal: Emerging Leaders want to know what’s happening in Wichita.

Wichita Eagle: Reporting, then research

Wichita Eagle reporting on a controversy involving religion might leave discerning readers wondering just what is the correct story.

Wichita Eagle 2015-10-06 01In its article of October 6 titled “News of Wichita State chapel renovation to help Muslims sparks backlash” the Wichita Eagle reported:

Muslims at Wichita State University wanted a better place to pray. In May, workers renovated the campus chapel and removed the tiny altar and pews.

WSU administrators thought the change had resolved the problem by giving Muslim students a place to kneel on the floor and pray. Christian students could use portable chairs.

Everyone on campus seemed satisfied.

Later in the same article: “Muslims say they feel taken aback. They’d asked for the accommodation in the spring, in part, because they had difficulty finding a prayer space on campus.”

On October 8, the Eagle reported in “Wichita State president: ‘Grace Chapel can serve the needs of all faiths'”: “The pews were removed by WSU officials after some Muslim students asked that more space be made for them to pray there, in part by kneeling on roll-out rugs.”

What conclusion should we draw from these two stories? That the renovations were the result of requests by Muslim students? That seems to be what the Eagle reported.

Wichita Eagle 2015-10-06 02But if you formed that conclusion, you were wrong, evidently. On October 12, this report from the Eagle in the story “Campus minister: Muslims not ones who asked for Wichita State chapel renovations”: “The removal of the pews at Wichita State University’s Grace Chapel — criticized by some as a Muslim takeover of the facility — actually was sought by a Christian campus minister and Christian students who wanted a more flexible worship space, the former campus minister and others said Monday.”

Here we see a reversal in the story. Renovations weren’t at the request of Muslim students after all.

Finally, the largest newspaper in Kansas reports on October 29: “Eagle research has found that the request to remove pews and other furnishings from the chapel had originated not with Muslims, but with Christian students and former campus minister Christopher Eshelman, who wanted a more flexible space for their worship services.” (“Wichita State sets Friday town hall on controversy over university chapel”)

I guess it would have been nice if the Eagle had performed its research before printing the October 6 and 8 news stories. Or, at least the newspaper could acknowledge that its earlier stories were incorrect. I haven’t seen that.

Wichita Business Journal reporting misses the point

Reporting by the Wichita Business Journal regarding economic development incentives in Wichita makes a big mistake in overlooking where the real money is.

In a recent article discussing economic development incentives, the Wichita Business Journal looks at the situation in North Texas. (Incentives have meant big business in North Texas, Aug 24, 2015.)

Wichita Business Journal reporting misses the pointAn example used in the article is Toyota’s decision to move its North American headquarters to Plano. Toyota received incentives in conjunction. The article quotes Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, as saying “The incentives are really important.” But that hasn’t always been the line from Toyota.

At the time of the announcement last year, Forbes reported that incentives were a small part of Toyota’s decision, and that other cities likely offered more. Similar reporting came from the Houston Chronicle.

We can easily imagine Lentz coming to his senses, realizing that he needs to credit the incentives with at least some role in Toyota’s decision. Otherwise the local taxpayers — who have to pay for the incentives — might feel duped.

But a serious problem with the article is the claim that “But incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita.” This is an assertion made by others, including our mayor and city council members. Usually it’s qualified that cash incentives are off the table.

But incentives are far from gone in Wichita. Cash incentives — most commonly forgivable loans — may be gone, but these loans amounted to just a small fraction of the value of incentives used. (Would you like to be able to reference a database of incentives granted in Wichita? Many people would. But to my knowledge, no such list or database exists.)

Instead, the incentives most commonly used — where the real money is — are tax abatements.

Earlier this month I reported about an incentive considered and passed by the Wichita City Council. Through the city’s Industrial Revenue Bonds program, WSF developers avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents didn’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income. 1 2 3

The sales tax abatement granted was on top of other incentives, most notably STAR bond financing of $7,525,000. These bonds will be repaid by sales tax collections from the project and surrounding merchants. The beneficiaries will pay nothing. 4

The incentives illustrated above are common in Wichita. Again, with the city failing to track the award of incentives, it’s difficult to know just how common.

But we can safely say that the assertion by the Wichita Business Journal that “Incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita” is incorrect. Worse than that, it’s irresponsible to make such a statement.

  1. Stateandlocaltax.com, (2015). IRS Addresses Federal Tax Treatment of SALT Incentives : SALT Shaker : State & Local Tax Attorneys : Sutherland Asbill & Brennan Law Firm. Online. Available at: http://www.stateandlocaltax.com/policy-and-legislation/irs-addresses-federal-tax-treatment-of-salt-incentives/ Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  2. Journal of Accountancy, (2009). Location Tax Incentive Not Federal Taxable Income. Online. Available at: http://www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2009/apr/locationtaxincentive.html Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  3. American Institute of CPAs, (2015). Federal Treatment of State and Local Tax Incentives. Online. Available at: http://www.cpa2biz.com/Content/media/PRODUCER_CONTENT/Newsletters/Articles_2008/CorpTax/Federaltreat.jsp Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  4. Weeks, Bob. (2015). In Wichita, an incomplete economic development analysis. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/in-wichita-an-incomplete-economic-development-analysis/ Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas legislative failure, newspaper editorials, and classical liberalism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The failure of Kansas lawmakers to reform state spending means you will pay. A newspaper editorial excuses bad behavior by government. Then: What do classical liberals and libertarians believe? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 85, broadcast May 24, 2015.

In Wichita, bad governmental behavior excused

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.

In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2

In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.

For that matter, several other council members should not have voted. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received substantial campaign contributions from Key Construction executives several months before he voted on the airport contract. So too did Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) . In fact, the only contributions Williams received in 2012 were from Key Construction interests. 3

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4

In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.

Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.

The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”

A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?

As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle. 6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.

Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.

Intrust Bank Arena loss for 2014 is $5 million

The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But no one wants to talk about this.

The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.

In February the Wichita Eagle reported: “The arena’s net income for 2014 came in at $122,853, all of which will go to SMG, the company that operates the facility under contract with the county, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said Wednesday.” A reading of the minutes for the February 11 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission finds Holt mentioning depreciation expense not a single time. Strike one.

Last December, in a look at the first five years of the arena, its manager told the Wichita Eagle this: “‘We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,’ said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager.” Strike two.

I didn’t notice the Eagle opinion page editorializing this year on the release of the arena’s profitability figures. So here’s an example of incomplete editorializing from Rhonda Holman, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.” (Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle in 2013 did not mention depreciation expense, either.) Strike three in the search for truthful accounting of the arena’s finances.

The problem with the reporting of Intrust Bank Arena profits

There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted in her Eagle op-ed, was $255,678. (Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for the television cameras.)

For 2014, the arena’s profit was $122,853. All that goes to SMG, based on the revenue-sharing agreement.

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially last year. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”

Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any, and naming rights fees. The Arena had an operating loss of $5.0 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.2 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,157,424 was charged for depreciation in 2014, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $26,347,705.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,157,424 to pay depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But not many of our public leaders recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

Earlier in this article we saw examples of the Sedgwick County Assistant Manager, the Intrust Bank Arena manager, and several Wichita Eagle writers making the same mistake.

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
The contention — witting or not — of all these people is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) in the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to this view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds. Since Kansas is one of the few states that adds sales tax to food, low-income households paid extra sales tax on their groceries to pay for the arena — an arena where they may not be able to afford tickets.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently. The Wichita Eagle aids in promoting this deception.

We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita Eagle reporting, marijuana laws, and the Kansas economy

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita Eagle prints several stories that ought to cause readers to question the reliability of its newsroom. Wichita voters pass a marijuana law that conflicts state law. Performance of the Kansas economy. Finally, some unexplained results in the way people vote. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 81, broadcast April 19, 2015.

Wichita Eagle fails readers, again

In its coverage of the 2015 election, the Wichita Eagle prints several stories that ought to cause readers to question the reliability of its newsroom.

Readers of the Wichita Eagle must be wondering if the newspaper trusts its own reporting. In a fact check article regarding the Wichita mayoral general election printed on March 27, the newspaper looked at claims made by campaign ads. The story examined this claim from an advertisement by Sam Williams, referring to opponent Jeff Longwell: “Supported government handouts for low-paying jobs and then chastised voters when they rejected his plan.”

The article’s verdict on this claim: “There is no apparent reference to ‘chastising’ comments in the blog posts or article.”

Here’s what the Eagle itself reported on September 14, 2011, regarding the possibility that citizens might petition to overturn a measure Longwell supported. I’ve emphasized a few portions.

City council member Jeff Longwell called the petition drive “disappointing.” “We had a very transparent, open hearing, listened to both sides, listened to all of the arguments,” Longwell said. “We moved in a direction we felt was most compelling, and now you have a group that still is unhappy and it is just sour grapes. I’d argue that when they keep pulling these kinds of stunts, they will continue to lose credibility.

The dictionary holds this definition for chastise: “To criticize severely; reprimand or rebuke.” I’d say that Longwell’s criticisms fit this definition. It’s unknown why the Eagle reporters and editors came to a different conclusion.

This is not the only example. Here’s the start of the newspaper’s profile of Longwell:

It’s 4:45 a.m. on a Friday, and Jeff Longwell is playing basketball with a group of guys at the Northwest YMCA. Three days a week, 10 to 15 men gather before dawn to shoot hoops. Sneakers squeak. Shouts echo. Longwell, 55, jokingly describes himself as a “prolific three-point shooter.” “I don’t think WSU is going to recruit me,” he says, worn out after the game. The guys say that if Longwell is elected mayor, he still has to play with them. He agrees. Teamwork is his style, he says, and not only in basketball.

For the Williams profile, the article started with this:

Sam Williams sits on a cerulean blue couch in his campaign headquarters, nervously picking at the edges. “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on the radio as volunteers – mostly family members – make calls, urging people to vote for Williams for mayor on April 7. For a few moments, a guy who spent a lifetime in advertising has trouble articulating why he should be mayor of Wichita. “It’s uncomfortable for me having this conversation talking about me,” Williams says, still picking at the couch.

The difference in the way the Wichita Eagle chose to portray the two candidates is startling. It’s not that there are no awkward or unflattering incidents that could be used to introduce Jeff Longwell. There are many. Likewise, there are many positive aspects to Sam Williams that could have been used in his introduction, including feats of athleticism. These two articles illustrate, in my opinion, an effort to promote Longwell and dismiss Williams.

Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Wichita Eagle Building, detail
This is not the only recent incident regarding the Eagle newsroom that is troubling. In the campaign for the Wichita sales tax last year, The newspaper published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” There was no similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigned for the sales tax. Also, there was little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.

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 endorsed Jeff Longwell for mayor, just as it endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by failing to hold Longwell accountable for his remarks, by printing the two introductions illustrated above, and 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.

WichitaLiberty.TV: A downtown parking garage deal, academic freedom attacked at KU, and classical liberalism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: While chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, a Wichita business leader strikes a deal that’s costly for taxpayers. A Kansas University faculty member is under attack from groups that don’t like his politics. Then, how can classical liberalism help us all get along with each other? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 68, broadcast December 14, 2014.

WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita Eagle fails the city and its readers

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: In its coverage of the recent election, the Wichita Eagle has failed to inform its readers of city and state issues. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

For more on this topic, see In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short and For Wichita Eagle, no immediate Kansas budget solution.

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.”

WichitaLiberty.TV: Results of and reflection on the Wichita sales tax election and campaign

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll look at the results of the Wichita sales tax election and what might happen next. Then, we’ll evaluate the Wichita Eagle’s coverage during the campaign. Also, this election raised issues of the privacy of voter data. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 65, broadcast November 16, 2014.

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.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Unknown stories of economic development, Uber, Fact-checking Yes Wichita

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita economic development, one more untold story. The arrival of Uber is a pivotal moment for Wichita. Fact-checking Yes Wichita on paved streets. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 58, broadcast September 14, 2014.

In Wichita, the news is not always news the city thinks you should know

In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.

After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:

The City of Wichita's website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
The City of Wichita’s website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”

It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.

Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.

At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.

But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.

This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.

Intrust Bank Arena: Not accounted for like a business

Proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. It’s a business-like way of accounting, but a well-hidden secret.

Sedgwick County Working for YouThe true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.

An example of the incomplete editorializing comes from Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.”

Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle did not mention depreciation expense, either.

There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted, was $255,678. Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for the television cameras.

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially at Sedgwick County in 2013. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”

Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena that opened on January 9, 2010. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any. The Arena had an operating loss of $4.7 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.3 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,295,414 was charged for depreciation in 2013, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $21,190,280.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,295,414 in depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But some don’t recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters such as the Wichita Eagle editorial board is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to his view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct in that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently.

We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

Shame, says Wichita Eagle editorial board

Shame on Legislature - Rhonda HolmanThe Wichita Eagle editorial board, under the byline of Rhonda Holman, issued a stern rebuke to the Kansas Legislature for its passage of HB 2506 over the weekend. (Eagle editorial: Shame on Legislature, April 8, 2014)

Here are some notes on a few of Holman’s points.

She wrote that the legislature should not “undermine teachers’ rights and meddle in education policymaking.” First: There’s controversy over what the bill actually means to the relationship between teachers and their employers. Courts will probably have to intervene. Second: Should the Legislature have a say in policy, or just pay?

Then, she criticized the bill as “passed with only Republican votes” on a “Sunday night.” This reminded me of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the United States Senate. At the time, The Hill reported: “The Senate approved sweeping healthcare reform legislation by the narrowest of partisan margins early Christmas Eve morning” (Senate passes historic healthcare reform legislation in 60-39 vote) That’s right: Votes from only one party, and on Christmas Eve.

Later in her op-ed Holman complained: “With such handling of the various bills, GOP legislative leaders also failed to reflect Brownback’s State of the State assertion that the ‘wonderfully untidy’ business of appropriations is ‘open for all to see.’ They held a conference committee meeting at 3 a.m. Sunday — after media, most legislators and the teachers had left the Statehouse for the night, and with insufficient public notice.” Reading this, I was again reminded of the passage of Obamacare, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her famous explanation as reported by Politico:

“You’ve heard about the controversies, the process about the bill .. but I don’t know if you’ve heard that it is legislation for the future — not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America,” she told the National Association of Counties annual legislative conference, which has drawn about 2,000 local officials to Washington. “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it — away from the fog of the controversy.”

On the expansion of innovative districts, Holman wrote: “Nobody even knows whether the new ‘innovative districts’ program will work or is constitutional,” calling it an “accountability-free concept.” Well, we know that an important provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was ruled unconstitutional (the expansion of Medicaid), and Chief Justice John Roberts had to torture logic and the plain meaning of words in order to shoehorn the individual mandate into the Constitution.

I’m not saying that I approve of the way the Kansas Legislature approved this bill. But if it worked for Obamacare, and if Rhonda Holman and the Wichita Eagle editorial board like Obamacare (they do), well, you can draw your own conclusions.

Also, Holman complained of “unproven ideological reforms” contained in the Kansas school legislation. Two things: First, we know that the present system of public education in Kansas is not working for many children. For example, if we critically examine the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores that Kansans are so proud of, we find that for some groups of students, the national public school average beats or ties Kansas.

Or, if we read the National Center for Education Statistics report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, we can learn that Kansas has relatively low standards for its schools, and when Kansas was spending more on schools due to the Montoy decision from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered the standards.

ideology-definitionI’m of the opinion that whenever someone criticizes their opponents as ideological — as the Wichita Eagle editorial board has — they don’t have a very good argument. They’re likely confusing ideology with partisanship. The Wikipedia entry for ideology says: “An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things. … Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political or economic tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.”

I wish the Eagle editorial board was more ideological. If it firmly believed in economic freedom, free markets, limited government, and individual liberty — that’s an ideology we could live with, and Kansas schoolchildren could thrive under.

Instead, we’re left with the Wichita Eagle editorial board’s ideology of less educational freedom and less accountability to those who pay the bills and parent the students.