Wichita — The Wichita City Council approved a $2 million payment to the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, GO Wichita, despite objections to the lack of transparency in how GO Wichita handles taxpayer money.
The Kansas Open Records Act requires that entities receiving public money be subject to the law’s transparency provisions, but one of these provisions states that if such an organization files an annual financial statement, it has complied with the law.
At issue is whether a one- or two-page financial report listing total revenues and expenditures can substitute for public access to more detailed records regarding specific expenditures of public funds.
The subject came to a head at the City Council meeting Tuesday as Wichita activist Bob Weeks, who blogs at WichitaLiberty.org, asked that the Council require greater transparency in exchange for approving the payment to GO Wichita.
“In the past, I’ve asked for records from Go Wichita. It refused to comply,” Weeks told the City Council. Go Wichita said they were not subject the KORA law because it believes it is not a “public agency” as defined in the KORA.
According to its 2009 IRS Form 990 filing, Go Wichita received $2.3 million of its total $2.6 million revenue as fees from various government agencies. When earned interest income is subtracted, GO Wichita is 92 percent funded by government.
The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office found that the law allows Go Wichita to file an annual financial statement and escape KORA’s intended full transparency.
Weeks called the DA’s finding, “contorted legal reasoning that few believed would survive judicial scrutiny.” Weeks said pursuing a judicial ruling could cost thousands of dollars he does not have.
Weeks told the City Council that the city’s action in continuing to fund GO Wichita without requiring greater transparency is hypocritical in light of other statements by the city about its desire for transparency.
City Manager Robert Layton’s said, “We have established a reporting requirement for the agencies Mr. Weeks is talking about and that is submission of annual financial reports.”
“I believe Mr. Weeks is talking about is a greater level of detail than what’s required in those annual financial reports, and we do not require that. We do periodic checks and audits of what their expenditures are at the staff level, but they are not required to submit personnel information or vendor payment lists, which I think are some of the issues that have been in dispute in the past.”
City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf told the Council that enforcement of KORA is a matter for the district attorney and the Kansas attorney general, not the Wichita City Council.
“There’s nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that says the city must enforce that,” Rebenstorf said. “From the standpoint of us being transparent, we follow the KORA. Mr. Weeks’ argument is with the AG or asking the Legislature to change the definition process.”
City Council member Michael O’Donnell II, representing the city’s 4th District, asked GO Wichita President John Rolfe, “Why wouldn’t we want to be as open as possible?” He also pointed out that anyone could go to the City of Wichita’s website and get detailed information about City finances.
Rolf replied that he wouldn’t want to voluntarily comply with KORA because voluntarily providing information would be breaking the law. KORA and other state statutes do prohibit disclosure of certain personal and proprietary information but Rolfe did not invoke those prohibitions or offer further explanation.
Rolfe did offer, in response to a question by another citizen attending the meeting, that information is available to people GO Wichita deems to have an appropriate need for the information.
“Developers and others call us all the time and set up appointments to get information including the quarterly reports, occupancy,” Rolfe said. “It’s not a secret, whatever information we have is certainly available.”
“It’s available if he wants to come and visit with us, but we don’t just kinda hand it out,” Rolfe said. “I don’t know where it would go and what relevance it would have to anyone except for those who really need it. But it is available, so it’s not a secret type of information.”
The Kansas Open Records Act states any citizen can make a request and does not require an information request to state the reason for making the request.
Randy Brown, chairman of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, rose from the audience to speak in support of Weeks. Brown coincidentally happened to attended the meeting to speak on another matter.
“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,” Brown told the council. “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 to the citizens of Kansas.”
The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government strives to improve understanding of and strengthen open records and open meetings law in Kansas.
Brown said his organization’s work indicates that GO Wichita is subject to KORA and that, “organizations like Go Wichita all over the state are becoming more and more scrutinized and are losing their immunity from acting like public bodies, which of course is what they are.”
Brown said he’s amazed that public officials do not understand the importance of transparency.
“One of the biggest issues we have in our democracy is trust in the public process and public officials. And I don’t mean to lecture you today, I think the City of Wichita does a much better job than many agencies, but this situation is absurd,” Brown said.
Brown said open government is essential to democracy and the law in Kansas is clear. “Public records are to be made public and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”
O’Donnell asked if there is a way to get more transparency. Layton replied, “Ultimately that’s a decision the Council makes when they make allocation of funds to the agency.”
O’Donnell later moved that the city approve the budget for GO Wichita with the provision that it comply with KORA requirements. There was no second for his motion and ultimately the GO Wichita spending was approved unanimously.
The Spirit is Willing, But the Law is Weak (kansaswatchdog.org)
Randal O’Toole on Wichita’s Waterwalk and Government Planning (kansaswatchdog.org)