After yet another fractious Kansas City Council meeting about the future of Kansas City International Airport on Dec. 14, Mayor Sly James was frustrated.
During a tense hour in closed session, a supermajority of the council had torn up the city’s memorandum of understanding with Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate to design and build a new $1 billion single terminal at the airport. The project was left hanging in limbo.
“You all pushed all this stuff on this issue of transparency,” the mayor said to a Star reporter. “This is your transparency.”
Listen: We understand your exasperation, mayor. We don’t doubt that like us, you just want Kansas City to end up with the best airport possible — one that will bear your imprimatur for years to come. And we understand your annoyance that we forced your hand last May by revealing the now-scuttled plan to present a build-finance deal with Burns & McDonnell to the public as a fait accompli.
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The problem has always been with the process — or specifically how those of us outside government have been excluded from that process. This past year brought far too many lowlights at every level.
▪ Secret Kansas
A multi-part investigation by The Star in November identified numerous ways Kansas thwarts its citizens’ right to know what lawmakers are doing. The state bears the dubious distinction of having one of the most opaque governments in the nation, and its citizens suffer real-life consequences.
It’s outrageous enough when members of the Legislature pull a “gut-and-go” move on a bill — replacing its text with all-new language, sometimes with no relationship whatsoever to its original content. Or when 94 percent of bills signed into law carried no sponsors’ names for constituents to trace back, as was the case in the most recent session.
It’s more troubling that police body camera footage is often classified as investigative records and not public records, making it much more difficult than in most states for loved ones and lawyers to see what happened in incidents involving law enforcement.
But most egregious is the culture of secrecy in the Kansas Department for Children and Families, whose putative goal is to serve the most vulnerable Kansans of all. When its workers are more concerned about avoiding negative media attention than with ensuring children’s welfare — insisting the father of a slain 10-year-old sign an agreement not to discuss the case or the department, in one shocking example — it’s clear that priorities are misplaced. Newly-installed Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel must follow through on her promises to “be as transparent as we can be.”
Gov. Sam Brownback and officials from Tyson Foods learned the hard way that citizens don’t always like surprises in September, when the unexpected announcement of a $320 million chicken processing plant near Tonganoxie was met with protest instead of open arms of gratitude. That project is now “on hold” while the poultry giant eyes another site in Tennessee. The company would be wise to cultivate community buy-in there first.
▪ Dark-money Missouri
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens campaigned as an outsider. The former Navy SEAL told St. Louis Public Radio in January 2016 that unlike other candidates, he would not take money from “secretive super PACs where they don't take any responsibility for what they're funding.” He vowed ethics reform, including a ban on lobbyist gifts.
Less than one year into his governorship, it’s a much different story. The gift ban stalled in an increasingly hostile General Assembly. And the governor has emerged as a major beneficiary of exactly the kind of dark money contributions he decried on the campaign trail, including $1.9 million from the ultra-secretive PAC “SEALS for Truth” — then the largest single donation to a candidate in Missouri history.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has calculated that Greitens has spent the equivalent of seven weeks in other states and countries on political visits. He’s shown up at a meeting in conservative stronghold Colorado Springs with Koch brother allies, and he’s echoed President Donald Trump’s lines on “Fox & Friends.”
But we still don’t know who paid for his stately inaugural festivities, or who’s privately footing the bill for the planes he takes on official state business.
The governor prefers to address his supporters directly via social media and friendly outlets such as Fox News. In our experience, getting an official comment from his retinue can be like pulling hen’s teeth.
We would welcome Greitens’ own voice in these pages, but he has so far declined. The offer still stands, governor.
▪ From the top
The federal government, with its labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy, has never been a bastion of transparency. The Trump administration hasn’t changed that, even on its mission to cut, cut, cut.
The candidate who made a game out of the “will-he-or-won’t-he” of releasing his tax returns has been no more forthcoming since moving into the White House. The culture of the scorched-earth non-disclosure agreements he required campaign workers to sign has carried over into his administration, where Cabinet members routinely refuse to disclose even their calendars, which detail the people and groups they meet with, according to Politico.
All of this matters, and it’s hardly a partisan issue. The nonprofit Associated Press sued the Obama administration in 2015 to obtain emails from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Elected officials — local, state or national — must remember they are public servants above all else. They are not CEOs of privately-held corporations. They are not the keepers of trade secrets and privileged intellectual property.
And we, the citizens, are not customers. We’re the board of directors. Politicians, let us know what you’re planning as you put it into action. Show your work.
The arrival of 2018 brings a chance for a hard reset. We won’t stop pushing for openness.