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In Wichita, respecting the people’s right to know

The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government. But the city’s record in providing information and records to citizens is poor, and there hasn’t been much improvement.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Former Mayor Carl Brewer often spoke in favor of government transparency. 1

When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said the city was honored. 2

Mayor Jeff Longwell penned a column in which he said, “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.” And the mayor’s biography on the city’s website says, “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

But the reality is different. It shouldn’t be. Nearly four years ago the city expanded its staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director. When the city announced the new position, it said: “The Strategic Communications Director is the City’s top communications position, charged with developing, managing, and evaluating innovative, strategic and proactive public communications plans that support the City’s mission, vision and goals.”

But there has been little, perhaps no, improvement in the data and information made available to citizens. The Wichita Eagle has editorialized on the lack of sharing regarding the details surrounding the new baseball team. 3

While this is important and a blatant example, there are many things the city could do to improve transparency. Some are very simple.

For example, it is very common for governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, as does the Wichita school district. But not the City of Wichita.

Until a few years ago, Wichita could 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 a useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This was a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Now, if you ask the city for this data, you’ll receive data in an Excel spreadsheet. This is an improvement. But: You may be asked to pay for this data. The city says that someday it will make check register data available, but it has been promising that for many years. See Wichita check register for the data and details on the request.

Another example: 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.

Example from the Lawrence report. Click for larger.
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 city should implement this reporting 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.” Now the city produces headlines like “Wichita Transit to Receive Good Apple Award.”

But if you want to know how the city spends economic development dollars, you won’t find that.

There are other things:

Most of all, the city simply needs to change its attitude. Here’s an example.

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, Visit Wichita (the former Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau), and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, now the Greater Wichita Partnership. 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.

Recently 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.

This attitude has been the policy of the city for a long time. In 2008, Randy Brown, at one time the editorial page editor at the Wichita Eagle wrote this:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

Randy Brown
Executive director
Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government

A few years later, Brown noticed the attitude had not improved. 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.”

I don’t think things have improved.


Notes

  1. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, Brewer listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” See https://drive.google.com/open?id=1xgx96BEXALDEgLBRcQdz2Kg0_W5x3e2J.
  2. “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 City New Release. Available at https://www.wichita.gov/News/Pages/2013-03-18b.aspx.
  3. Wichita Eagle Editorial Board. *Fight for transparency during ‘Sunshine Week’ and year-round.” Available at https://www.kansas.com/article227430494.html.
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