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Economic development group rebuts call for public disclosure

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, at 12:25 p.m.

A challenge to the county’s main economic development group by the Kansas Policy Institute met with a strong rebuttal on Tuesday.

The institute has demanded that the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition open its books to the public because the group is partly funded by government money.

In August, the institute appeared before one of the coalition’s partners, the Sedgwick County commissioners, to press its case, contending the coalition was a public body and subject to open records laws.

On Tuesday, coalition chairman Steve Sharp and lawyer Harvey Sorensen spelled out to the commissioners why such transparency wasn’t legally required, and why it could create problems.

On a practical level, Sharp said the coalition’s records would show which companies coalition staff was wining and dining. If there is a possibility that a company’s name would become public during negotiations, that company would bypass Wichita and look elsewhere to build a new plant, Sharp contended.

Legally, Sorensen said, two Kansas attorney generals have affirmed that nonprofit groups that take public money and follow certain guidelines, and there are many, do not fall under open records laws. The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office has ruled specifically that the coalition doesn’t fall under open records laws.

The coalition does release monthly financial reports and annual audits of its finances. And county commissioners and Wichita City Council members who sit on the coalition’s board can study coalition expenditures.

James Franko, communications director for Kansas Policy Institute, said the group didn’t buy those arguments, calling them “legalistic smoke and mirrors.”

The group contends the $300,000 Sedgwick County contributes annually are public funds and the public should know – in detail – how its money is being spent.

The discussion about the coalition’s books wasn’t part of a regular commission meeting, and the commissioners didn’t take any action.

Commissioner Tim Norton said the majority of the commissioners support the current way the coalition operates.

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