The city of Wichita’s new legislative agenda endorses the questionable exemptions from state open-records law enjoyed by three key tax-funded economic development groups, giving new meaning to the “private” in such public-private partnerships.
As it is, it can be difficult to assess the claims and success of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., the three organizations whose “statutory records exemptions” the city seeks to protect.
More transparency about the groups’ records would make it easier for the public to know whether they are meeting their goals and using tax dollars wisely.
Both the city and Sedgwick County could build openness into their funding deals with the groups, such as the five-year, $1.5 million agreement with GWEDC approved Tuesday by the Wichita City Council, but have chosen to rely on legal opinions that such financial records need not be disclosed.
And now the city is defending the secrecy in Topeka, in reaction to an overly broad bill proposed last year that would have created a bookkeeping burden for every nonprofit group that gets $350 or more in public money annually. The city of Wichita testified against that legislation, arguing that “it would seriously compromise the mission” of the three groups and place the city “at a competitive disadvantage by allowing outside agencies to encourage predatory efforts on our current and future businesses.”
There are sound arguments for keeping certain information confidential in the heat of competition against other communities to recruit businesses or conventions. But the answer is to draft narrow disclosure exemptions to accommodate such situations, not broadly shield such heavily tax-funded groups’ finances from sunlight and accountability.
The work done by GWEDC, Go Wichita and WDDC is essential to building the local economy and revitalizing downtown. So it was no surprise, for example, that the City Council and Sedgwick County Commission renewed their commitment to GWEDC, which also has raised an impressive $6.3 million in private funds for business recruitment and retention.
But especially as they ponder a sales-tax ballot initiative that could fund not only economic development deals but also the new convention center sought by Go Wichita, local elected leaders should extend their stated commitment to open government to their private partnerships.