A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data.
As part of an ongoing transparency project, I asked the City of Wichita for check register data. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. Click here to access the visualization.
Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March 2015. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”
Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.
There are interesting entries. For example, the city had been spending a few hundred dollars per month to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. Then in July 2015, the city paid $3.7 million to KTA. A quick search of city council agenda packets didn’t reveal any reason for this.
Of note, it looks like there were 1,475 checks issued in amounts $20 or less over a period of nearly two years. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20.
The records request
The city supplied this data in an Excel spreadsheet, in an arrangement that can easily be analyzed in Excel or loaded into other programs. This is a step forward. Three years ago, Wichita could supply data of limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult to translate the image data into machine-readable text, and even more difficult to reorganize it to a useful arrangement or format for analysis.
In 2015 had to pay $24.00 to the city for this data. That’s a problem. It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. Upon inquiry, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.
While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data like that I paid for could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful, as I did. There is no reason why this should not be happening.
When I learned of the fee for these records in 2015, I asked for a waiver, sending this to the city’s records official:
I’d like to ask for a waiver of the requested fee. I ask this because check register data is an example of records that many governmental agencies make freely available on their websites. The Wichita Public School District and Sedgwick County are two local examples.
I’d like to also call attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “…fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”
I suggest that the records I am requesting will indeed “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” and that it is in the public interest of the people of Wichita that these records be freely available.
I received an answer:
Your request for waiver of fees is denied. KORA allows fees to be collected prior to finding and producing the document you seek. KSA 45-218(f). The extensive statute setting out how fees are to be determined, KSA 45-219, does not contain any provision for waiver in the manner you suggest.
The City will provide the document to you upon payment as invoiced.
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney
Mr. Hinkel is absolutely correct. Governmental agencies in Kansas have the right to charge for records, and the Kansas statutes do not mention the waiving of fees as do the federal statutes. But the Kansas Open Records Act does not require cities to charge for providing records, especially for records that the city should already be providing. Especially when citizens are willing to take that data and make it better, at no charge to the city.
(For the most recent records request, the city waived its intended fee of $24.00, noting this waiver is for the current request only. The city acknowledges that it temporarily misplaced my request, and as a result, was late in responding. I believe that is the reason for the fee waiver.)
Wichita’s attitutude, from top down
Hinkel provided a lawyer’s answer. Here, however, is the public policy the city promotes, from a Wichita city news release from 2013:
“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”
The importance of transparency. The city wants to empower and engage citizens by providing information. Well. I offered to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” but had to pay to do so.
When I asked city officials for clarification of why I had to pay to receive these records, communications staff told me: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”
I must disagree. This is not “open and transparent.” This is not how to “empower and engage” the people of Wichita. Not even close.
The city lags far behind comparable agencies in providing access to data. It’s been almost two years since the city expanded its staff by adding a Strategic Communications Director. It doesn’t seem that this has helped to provide information to citizens.