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.