Despite promises, Wichita fails to inform citizens on important activities of its government.
For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.
The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This report is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.
It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)
The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.
Why is this information not available? Is the communications staff overwhelmed, with no time to provide this type of information?
During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”
This year the city produces headlines like “Annual Arbor Day Returns Friday” and “Arkansas River Trash Roundup Saturday.”
But if you want to know how much — and how well — the city spends economic development dollars, you won’t find that.
Since the sales tax election in 2014 the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in 2015. Later that year the economic development staff was boosted with the hiring of an Assistant City Manager and Director of Development.
But no economic development reports.
Wichitans need to know that besides living in a city that doesn’t provide much information about its operations, the city believes it is doing a good job. Here is 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.”
In 2015 the city won another award, with the city reporting: “The City of Wichita has been recognized nationally for leading efforts related to technology, community engagement and transparency.
The official city biography for Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says he has “championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency.”
When I’ve expressed frustration with the process of asking for information from the city, communications staff told me this: “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.”
Wichitans need to wonder:
Why can’t we have the same information about our city government that residents of Lawrence have?
Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax in 2014?
Does the city believe it deserved the awards it has received?
Is transparency really a governing principle of our city?