Despite receiving a C- grade (which is still less than desirable) from various organizations that rank government transparency on a state-by-state basis, Kansas is one of the least open states in the nation. The studies that evaluate transparency in state governments fail to look beyond what happens in the statehouses. As residents of Kansas, we can see a pattern of secrecy that begins in Topeka but that extends to our local school boards, our law enforcement agencies and our municipal bodies.
City of Wichita
The Wichita City Council has a long-standing reputation for conducting public business behind closed doors, through a myriad of private organizations, specifically in regards to taxpayer funded development projects. City officials including Mayor Carl Brewer and City Manager Robert Layton often attend private meetings with local developers, hosted by organizations like The Downtown Development Corp and Go Wichita. These organizations receive taxpayer funds, but are not required to disclose how those funds are spent due to their status as private organizations.
Because these organizations are private, their spending is exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act and their meetings are exempt from the Kansas Open Meetings Act, allowing city officials to plan Wichita’s economic future in complete secrecy. These meetings often include developers who contribute heavily to City Council elections. These developers and contractors often have close personal and/or financial ties to the Mayor, City Council members and the City Manager.
Presently, the City of Wichita is facing a budget deficit ranging between $1-3 million, primarily due to the city’s failed practice of awarding STAR Bonds and Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts to their campaign donors, financing private development with public money on the promise of increased sales and property tax revenues. These increases have been much lower than initially projected.
The Wichita Police Department has also failed to operate with transparency, along with the various other law enforcement agencies around the state. In fact, Kansas law enforcement agencies rank among the worst in the nation in regards to public access to police records. Generally, obtaining documents pertaining to the actions of the police department requires a lawsuit.
The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office is charged with reviewing and prosecuting incidents of police misconduct in Wichita. In thirty years, the DA’s office has never once found a Wichita police shooting to be unjustified. The DA’s office rubber stamps these shootings as justified, despite all evidence to the contrary. One officer, involved in three separate shootings, who has openly admitted to fabricating information in at least one of those incidents, has never been prosecuted.
The county also oversees the Intrust Bank Arena, a publicly-funded project. The arena has failed to disclose records pertaining to finances, making it impossible for the taxpayers of Sedgwick County to determine if the sales tax increase that financed the construction of the arena was a worthwhile investment.
The Wichita School Board
The Wichita School Board has been closing schools in low-income areas and then rebuilding in areas that will soon be developed on the outskirts of town. Each of these schools is being designed by the same architecture firm, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, which is a key contributor to school board campaigns. The board has repeatedly been accused of meeting in private, in groups of three, which falls just below the four member threshold that would make such meetings public, according to the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
The board does not tolerate any criticism of its members or its policies in board meetings, claiming that the meetings are “not for the public“. The district has also faced scrutiny due to the secrecy involving the physical restraint of disabled students by staff members. The district has even withheld this information from the parents of the students who were restrained.
The State of Kansas
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature may have been awarded a score of C-minus in national studies, but it would appear that they are being graded on a curve. Brownback is currently under fire for his decision to withhold the names of the applicants to the Kansas Appeals Court, information that has been public for thirty years.
Despite Sen. Susan Wagle’s claims of transparency in Kansas lobbying expenditures, 74% of lobbyist spending is still undisclosed. According to Kansas state law, this level of secrecy in lobbying is perfectly legal. State legislators have met in private to negotiate everything from the tax plan to changes to the Medicaid program.
The people we have elected to represent us should be able to operate with complete transparency. When our officials operate behind closed doors we end up with policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.