Views from Kansas: Governments defend secrecy
Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.
The Wichita Eagle has been doing extensive reporting on the new water plant Kansas’ largest city is going to need — to the tune of more than $500 million.
As part of that, the paper uncovered evidence that Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell had allegedly been steering contracts to his cronies.
A significant portion of that investigation was a records request in which the Eagle noted it received more than 2,300 pages from the City of Wichita.
“The Eagle requested the documents from city officials in late July and paid $56 for an initial search of employee emails and databases. Subsequent requests added another $1,036 to our bill — 37 hours of administrative staff time at $28 an hour — for copies of the mayor’s work calendar and communications between city staff and contractors,” the Eagle’s editorial board wrote in a Sept. 30 editorial.
Less than $1,100.
Still a significant sum to be sure, but it was at least actual costs.
Compare this to a recent records request by the Pittsburg Morning Sun to the City of Frontenac for records related to the firing of the three top city employees last month. After initially denying the request due to a lack of a city attorney (after having just fired theirs) — a position not supported by the Kansas Open Records Act — interim City Clerk Jayme Mjelde told the Sun the cost would be $3,500 — in advance — with no explanation of how that figure was arrived at, nor any indication how many documents would be responsive to our request. And that at a rate $3 per hour lower than what the City of Wichita charged the Eagle.
By our calculations if — and we don’t have any way to know this — $500 of that charge was for copying fees at 25 cents per copy, then the remaining $3,000 would represent 120 hours of employee time at $25 per hour — and Frontenac officials tell us a third party vendor would be needed to search their own email servers.
Our problem is not that we cannot pay — our parent company GateHouse Media is the largest of its kind in the country — but we simply refuse to be extorted in this way.
A private citizen who wanted these same records — records, be it noted, that do not belong to the City of Frontenac but to that self-same taxpayer — would likely be unable to pay. And so transparency, which should be a watchword of local government, dies.
Indeed, this does not look like the City of Frontenac and its governing body have any interest in obeying the law, but rather as if they are trying to stall our legitimate investigation into what exactly transpired on the night of Sept. 16 and the days leading up to it.
We must wonder– if the governing body’s actions that fateful September night were above reproach, why are they trying so hard to prevent us from exercising our duty of oversight? What do they fear?
We call on the City of Frontenac and the Frontenac City Council to comply with the law, to release the documents we and other news organizations have requested. If they have acted within the law and in the best interests of the residents of their city we’ll be the first to say so, and they should want to put this controversy behind them.
If they have not, they should be held accountable.
— Originally published in the Pittsburg Morning Sun.