No one’s happy in Kansas

Records requests creating strains FOI requests burdening cities and citizens.

Reporter Sara Stites of the Kansas City Star profiles two cities, and two citizens, who are frustrated by the current open records process.

The city of Fairway said that it couldn’t provide one year’s worth of legal bills to a citizen requestor until it first went over all the bills to separate out the public information appearing on the bills from the privileged information–a process they claimed would cost $1,480.50.

$1,480.50 to look at a year’s worth of legal bills paid by a small city in Kansas? That’s obviously prohibitive.

This request was abandoned when the requestor learned the cost.

Although the requestor didn’t get what he or she sought, that hasn’t stopped city officials from being in a state of high dudgeon about the fact that someone wanted copies of public documents.

“We have a very small staff,” said Kathi Robards, Fairway city administrator and clerk. “Last year they ran us ragged, just with these requests.”

Fairway has now started logging open records requests. The log is distributed to the City Council and includes the name of the person making the request, what they asked for and when they picked up the documents.

What this means, in practice, is that information about which citizens want records becomes readily known, while the records they’re asking for remain secret because of prohibitive costs.

The log shows how much staff time it took, in dollars, to deal with requests that aren’t paid for and picked up by the requester. Ultimately, other taxpayers pay for that time, Robards said.

A proactive way to handle this would be to make significant chunks of information available on the city’s website without anyone having to ask for it. Surely this information should include how much the city is paying in legal bills, and which law firms are receiving those payments. Voters are entitled to this information.

Sometimes, Winn said, especially in times of turmoil, cities can experience the “local curmudgeon” piling up records requests just to be a nuisance.

Voters are especially entitled to this information without being insulted in the local newspaper for their curmudgeonly nature while they are simultaneously not getting the records they ask for due to excessive fees.

That’s not how Winn, a paid spokesperson for the League of Kansas Municipalities sees it, though:

Not only do fees reimburse the city for expenses, but they can also weed out serious requests from those filed just to be difficult, Winn said.

I recall that during the Salem witch trials, it was believed that if witches survived dunking, it meant they were innocent. The ones that died of drowning were guilty.

Similarly, in Kansas, the city bureaucrats have figured out that if you say you want to know how much which law firms were paid by your small city in one year, if you don’t cough up the $1,480.50 it would allegedly cost to obtain those records, then you didn’t really want the records. You were just trying to be difficult.

See A Better Fairway on transparency.

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5 responses to “No one’s happy in Kansas

  1. Absolutely dead on. The baron de Montesquieu in the “Spirit of the Laws” wrote about the importance of a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances to minimize corruption and prevent tyranny. But one of those “checks” is the ability of the citizenry to be able to exercise oversight. How can citizens perform their civic duty to remain vigilatant participants in a Democratic Republic if basic information about low-level operations is kept hidden from public view?
    What arrogance for a city government to be comitted to a clever system aimed at discouraging curious investigation into its operations…it is not as if they are guarding precious national security secrets…who do they think they are fooling? This is the very essence of what it means to be a shady, corrupt government.

  2. I was an active part of a group of like minded citizens (the majority of Fairway) who would request information from the city. This was NEVER an attempt to “get our city to experience the local curmudgeon” as Mr. Winn suggests. Mr. Winn, by the way, works for a special interest group who are lobbyists. The League of Kansas Municipalities is not a governing body of any type for those who don’t know this already. The City of Fairway has decided to to hide facts from citizens through cost burdens. They spend tax payer money irresponsibly to prevent the tax payers from finding the truth about our own government. This is the very definition of corruption and someone in higher government should do something about it.

  3. Mac, thank you for your important insight. I agree with you that the city of Fairway, instead of figuring out ways to provide citizens with the public records to which they are entitled, is spending its time figuring out how to insult them.

    Earl, I’m sorry–very sorry–about this unfortunate experience. Is your group still active?

  4. Leslie, yes we are always active in finding truth and descency in this small government. Because of the size of Fairway, we feel it is imperative that the governing body be extremely careful and responsible with the city’s tax dollars. Over the last several years it has been the exact opposite. Spending tax dollars to hide information from citizens and running up legal bills to punish citizens for seeking the information that belongs to them is cowardly and disgusting, not to mention illegal.

  5. With the April elections forthcoming it appears
    it is time to make some changes in the local
    government starting the the mayor’s position.

    We can do Better!

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