Editorials

Longwell documents came at significant cost — they weren’t ‘willingly provided’

In a response to an Eagle story published Sunday, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says he “willingly provided . . . more than 2,300 pages of documents,” which chronicled the mayor’s cozy relationship with a group wanting to do business with the city.

If that’s the case, we’d like to know when to expect a refund for the $1,092 we paid for those records.

And we’d like all the records we requested.

The Eagle paid the fee because the documents — obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act — provided a critical window to how Longwell and others conducted government business in the months leading up to pivotal votes on a new water treatment plant.

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 Kansas open records law allows state and local government agencies to charge a “reasonable fee” to recoup the costs of providing public records. The definition of what is “reasonable” is fluid, and often varies depending on the agency.

The truth is, those fees often prohibit news organizations and the general public from accessing records. Subsequently, they can diminish transparency and hinder the ability of citizens to monitor their government.

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The Wichita Eagle editorial board is committed to leading a community conversation about issues that affect our city and region. Editorials reflect the opinion of the editorial board, which is separate from The Eagle’s news department. Members of the editorial board are: publisher Tony Berg, executive editor Michael Roehrman and opinion editor Suzanne Perez Tobias. Read more about other types of editorial content by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

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Too often, public bodies hide their work to camouflage who has influence and who doesn’t when it comes to government business. The Eagle’s recent investigation illustrates how open records laws, combined with persistent journalists, are meant to ensure that elected officials do the people’s business out in the open.

But make no mistake: The mayor did not voluntarily hand over all requested documents to Eagle reporters. To say, as he did in a statement posted on the city’s Facebook page, that he provided “even more than they requested” is misleading, and it disregards the laborious and costly process required to access public records.

In fact, city attorneys withheld several records which they said are subject to attorney-client privilege. They refused to produce others because they said those emails and other correspondence included notes, drafts, research data or other information “in which opinions or policies or actions are proposed” and are, according to the city’s attorneys, not subject to open records laws.

We don’t know how much was withheld or whether the city has legitimate reasons for withholding it. Unfortunately, the only recourse the public has in such situations is to file a lawsuit and ask a judge to review the materials to determine whether exemptions really apply — another expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Documents obtained for The Eagle’s investigation came at significant cost — one that few members of the public would be able to afford.

But we pushed, and we paid, on behalf of Wichita residents. It’s part of our mission to hold public leaders accountable.

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