Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability

Go Wichita, the convention and visitors’ bureau, will receive its annual budget of more than $2 million in public funds amid concerns that it does not comply with open-government laws.

City Council approved Go Wichita’s budget Tuesday but members pledged they will look closer into public accountability of organizations that receive taxpayer funds.

What looked like a routine measure on the council agenda erupted into a debate about whether private agencies funded by the public should be exempt from state open records laws.

Bob Weeks, who writes a blog on local and state political issues, said he’d been denied requests for records from Go Wichita this year.

John Rolfe, Go Wichita’s chief executive, said the organization is private, while acknowledging that it receives 85 percent of its revenue from the city and other taxpayer-supported entities.

But Weeks contended that the public also is entitled to see how Go Wichita spends its money.

“This says that access and accountability are on the city’s terms and not on the citizens’ terms,” Weeks said.

Randy Brown, executive director for the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, told the council transparency promotes public trust in its leaders.

“It always angers me when public officials do not realize that transparency helps them,” Brown said.

Rolfe said the organization provides monthly financial reports and audits to the city.

“I think we are very transparent,” Rolfe said.

“But you don’t want to be 100 percent transparent?” asked council member Michael O’Donnell II.

O’Donnell made a motion to pass the budget with the requirement that Go Wichita comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. There was no second to that motion.

The council unanimously passed the budget with no requirements, but several council members, including Pete Meitzner, pledged to hold a study session where they examine the public accountability of how people who receive city funds spend them.

“But I don’t want to do it on a case-by-case basis,” Meitzner said.

Certain information about private organizations receiving public funds is available in many states and through the federal government.