Want to know about KC candidates’ conflicts of interest? You may be out of luck

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This year’s Kansas City elections have revealed flaws in how candidates tell the public about potential conflicts of interest.

The new mayor and council should correct those problems. The Missouri legislature should work on the issue, too.

Under current city ordinance, a long list of public officials — the mayor, council members and appointed city officers — must file personal financial disclosure statements with the state and city clerk.

The disclosures are properly extensive. They require a list of companies owned, partnerships, some stocks, real estate, trips, memberships and the like. The information allows voters to determine if a public official might have problematic conflicts of interest.

Curiously, though, the city’s ordinance doesn’t require disclosures from non-incumbent candidates. That means someone running for re-election must reveal his or her financial interests, while an opponent may not.

There is a backstop, but it’s equally ill-considered. Under Missouri law, a non-incumbent local candidate must file a disclosure if he or she has been involved in a “transaction” with the city of $500 or more, either personally or through a business.

Why $500? It seems arbitrary. And it isn’t clear why a $550 transaction with the city would be a conflict, while a $450 transaction would not.

More importantly, direct transactions between a candidate and the city aren’t the only potential conflicts. A candidate might be a landlord, for example, or own a private security company. Voters would consider that information relevant even if the owner did no business with City Hall, and it should be disclosed.

There’s also a basic matter of fairness. Why should incumbents disclose their holdings, but not opponents? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s too late to change the ordinance for this election. But the new council should consider the matter in August when the financial disclosure ordinance comes up for renewal. The fix is easy: The city could simply add “candidates” as a required disclosure category to ensure that incumbents and non-incumbents are all playing by the same rules.

Meanwhile, the Missouri legislature should act quickly on another issue related to financial disclosure statements.

Today, if you want to see a financial disclosure form, you must request it in writing from the Missouri Ethics Commission or seek it from the city clerk’s office. There is no website or database providing voters with easy digital access to the information.

That’s a mistake. Finding campaign contributions is easily accomplished by computer, and disclosure statements should fall in the same category.

State Rep. Rory Rowland, a Jackson County Democrat, has offered a bill that would change public access to the disclosures. It would allow the Missouri Ethics Commission to provide a “searchable electronic access system” for the disclosure statements.

Naturally, the bill has not had a hearing. As they’ve shown repeatedly, Republicans in Jefferson City are not interested in real transparency.

All candidates for office should show voters their potential conflicts of interest, and the public should be able to find the information online. Local and state officials should take steps to make that happen.