The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority may be backing down on a policy that gives it discretion on whether to hold secret meetings and close records that would otherwise be public under state laws.
The move comes after pressure from Johnson County officials, who raised transparency concerns after The Star first reported on the existence of the policy last week. One county commissioner even suggested pulling out of the metro-wide RideKC service if the policy wasn't reversed.
Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said agency representatives made the concession during a 45-minute meeting Tuesday afternoon in Olathe between officials from the county and the ATA.
Robbie Makinen, the ATA's CEO, said he would recommend that the ATA's board of directors rescind the secrecy policy approved on Jan. 24 and once again promise to follow state laws pertaining to open records and open meetings.
"We had a good discussion," Eilert said. "Robbie will recommend to his board that the Jan. 24 action be rescinded and that the Missouri and Kansas open meeting statutes will be followed."
The stance exempting the ATA from the open records laws of Missouri and Kansas came to light last week when the agency denied The Star's request for details of a six-figure settlement the ATA paid out to a whistle blower in 2017. Records documenting the settlement amounts are public under Kansas and Missouri laws.
But the ATA said it was exempt from the requirement and could keep secret the amount of tax dollars spent to settle the lawsuit brought by former human resource officer Jimmy Fight.
That lack of transparency upset First Amendment advocates and Johnson County officials, who have long been skeptical about governmental institutions across the state line.
"There is a general distrust of what goes on in Kansas City, Mo., with money and how they manage things," Johnson County Commissioner Mike Brown said.
It had taken 33 years for the Kansas City-based area transportation authority to regain Johnson County's trust enough to, in late 2014, have county commissioner agree to let the ATA once again run that their bus system as part of the rebranded RideKC.
This week that trust was in jeopardy.
Brown announced on his Facebook page Monday and again over the phone Tuesday morning that he would favor breaking away from the ATA unless the Jan. 24 policy was reversed.
"They will either become fully transparent with Kansas money, Johnson County money, or there will be no more Johnson County money or Kansas money, if I have anything to do about it," Brown said prior to the meeting that appears to have ended the dispute.
Other commissioners were less emphatic, but also voiced concerns.
If there had been a parting, it could have meant a return to cumbersome commutes for suburban riders who now enjoy the benefits of a seamless metro bus system with unified fare prices and convenient connections that didn't always exist before the merger.
Prior to January, the ATA's policy was to comply with the Missouri Sunshine Law, which compels local and state agencies to discuss most business in public and promptly comply with requests for most documents in their possession.
But since then, the ATA has said that while it will be "guided by" the open records and open meetings laws in both Missouri and Kansas, it was not subject to them.
The current policy states that the KCATA may withhold records and close meetings at its discretion and face no penalty for doing so.
The policy change was based on the advice of the ATA's lawyers, who said the agency didn't have to play by the same rules as other local governments because it was created by a bi-state compact between Missouri and Kansas, which was approved by Congress 50 years ago.
That position relied on a 2008 federal court ruling, which held that the St. Louis transit agency, Bi-State Development, was exempt from the Sunshine Law because the other partner in its state compact, Illinois, had not agreed that Bi-State would be subject to the laws of Missouri.
But while the ATA may be correct in its legal interpretation of the law, the new policy didn't fly politically. Johnson County officials were not alone in their criticism.
Sheila Styron , a blindness/low vision specialist at the Whole Person, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, said the ATA's assertion that it does not have to tell taxpayers everything it does with their money "causes me to wonder if there are other financial transactions or hidden practices that limit funding for regular and paratransit services."
The ATA is overseen by a 10-member board of commissioners, five from Kansas and five from Missouri.
Makinen has called a special meeting of the ATA board for late Wednesday afternoon to consider changing the policy.
In a statement , Makinen said, "Based upon input from our Kansas and Missouri board members I am recommending the board rescind the policy and instead implement a policy following the Kansas and Missouri laws. I would expect this policy to be both transparent and beneficial to all parties concerned."
Until then, the settlement in Fight's case remains private. In his suit, Fight alleged that Makinen fired him in August 2016 for insisting that the FBI or some other outside agency be brought into investigate thefts of parts, tools and scrap material by ATA employees.
Neither Fight nor his lawyer are commenting due to a nondisclosure agreement that was part of the settlement.