The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has sworn off secrecy, saying it once again will abide by open records and open meetings laws in Kansas and Missouri.
Responding to criticism, the ATA's governing board on Wednesday rescinded a policy that exempted the city's RideKC bus service and paratransit provider from those laws.
"We have unfortunately made a misstep," chairman Daniel Serda said in explaining the reason for the reversal.
After meeting Tuesday with Johnson County officials critical of the agency's lack of transparency, CEO Robbie Makinen recommended that the ATA board no longer assert, at its discretion, its right to meet privately without notice and to keep secret documents that are considered public records in both states it serves.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The board agreed unanimously during a late-afternoon special meeting Wednesday.
Makinen said the board was under no legal obligation to change the policy, but he worried that retaining it would undermine public trust and undo the progress he and the board have made in building a better transit system.
"At the end of the day, if the people don't trust us, if our customers don't trust us, all of the work we've done for two and a half years or more to move this agency forward is for naught," he said.
For many years, the agency strictly adhered to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which presumes that most government documents and meetings are open to the public.
Then on Jan. 24, the ATA board adopted a new policy with regard to meetings and documents. While it would be "guided by" the open records laws in Kansas and Missouri, from then on the ATA believed it could pick and choose when it wanted to ignore those provisions.
The ATA based that authority on its unique status among local governmental bodies. Although based in Kansas City, it is a creature of both states, created in the 1960s as a result of a bi-state "compact" approved by both state legislatures and ratified by Congress.
While updating a number of ATA policies recently, the authority's lawyers studied a 2008 federal court ruling out of St. Louis. The judge in that case said that governmental agencies created by bi-state compacts do not have to follow the laws of one state unless both states agree on which laws apply.
Kansas and Missouri have never decided whether the Missouri Sunshine Act or Kansas open records and meetings acts apply to the ATA. Based on that decision, the board declared four months ago that it was free to withhold information from the public when it was in the best interest of the ATA.
Former Raytown mayor and ATA vice chairman David Bower said he thought the board should have done more study before making the change.
"I for one feel we moved in haste with this decision," he said.
Proponents of open government were outraged after The Star first reported last week on the ATA's contention that it did not have to follow either state's laws. The policy came to light when the ATA used it as the basis for refusing The Star's request for documents showing how much the transportation authority paid in 2017 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former employee.
Settlement amounts are public records in Missouri and Kansas, even when the parties sign nondisclosure agreements.
After the article ran in Sunday's newspaper, Johnson County Commissioner Mike Brown suggested on Facebook that, unless the new policy of secrecy was reversed, he would support canceling the county's contract with the ATA to provide bus service.
If that were to happen, it would have unraveled the unified transit system that Makinen and the ATA board have knitted together under the RideKC brand.
Now that the secrecy policy is gone, the board will work to come up with a new one that irons out any minor differences between the Kansas and Missouri laws.
In the meantime, the agency still hasn't turned over the documents The Star requested. The board voted at the close of Wednesday's meeting to go into session behind closed doors and discuss how to proceed.