The Kansas City Star, Nov. 12

Why hide in the shadows, Kansas? State government is shrouded in secrecy

Kansas must have more sunlight.

That's the inescapable conclusion its citizens will reach this week, as an investigation by The Star is published.

The stories reveal a concerted and disturbing effort by officials at all levels of Kansas government to keep the public's business secret.

The Legislature. The executive branch and state agencies. Police departments. Courtrooms. City halls and county commissions. From Tonganoxie to Topeka and beyond, The Star has uncovered a culture that seeks to hide critical facts from the very people the government is meant to serve.

Top to bottom, Kansas government may be one of the most secretive in the nation. The public should be deeply concerned.

? Children have suffered horrific abuse and have even died while state agencies obscure their roles in investigating these cases. That leaves child care advocates and relatives unable to judge how well children are protected.

? Documents and evidence related to police shootings are sometimes hidden. Police investigations are left open for decades, allowing authorities to bar citizens — and crime victims — from knowing the details of criminal inquiries.

? Officials bypass public email accounts to communicate privately, a practice that shields their policy decisions from open-records scrutiny.

? State departments "slow-walk" open records requests or withhold documents clearly in the public domain. Some ask citizens and reporters to explain a reason for seeking documents, an inquiry not required by state law.

? Open meetings are not always publicized. Minutes and votes are recorded haphazardly.

? Economic development initiatives are hidden from residents until the last minute. Tax credits are handed out secretly, at a time when the state is scrambling for cash.

? State policy discourages candor and honesty from executive-branch employees. A worker who speaks out risks losing his or her job.

? Even the branch of government that should be the most transparent — the Kansas Legislature — hides its work. The vast majority of bills are offered anonymously, leaving voters unable to attach names to policy.

Lawmakers don't always record committee votes, a shocking and easily corrected omission. Non-controversial language is routinely stripped from pending bills and replaced with important policy measures — a process called "gut-and-go."

Taken together, the evidence shows Kansans face enormous challenges in understanding decisions made in their names.

Why?

Often, it's simply an effort to ward off scrutiny or criticism. You'll find that in most organizations, of course, public and private.

But the systemic secrecy in Kansas reveals something far more dangerous: the government's belief that the public is an adversary to be resisted.

This is deeply offensive and is at odds with democracy and the state's Constitution. "All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority," the Kansas Bill of Rights says.

Many public officials in Kansas fail to understand that concept, our investigation shows. They consider members of the public as supplicants entitled only to as much information as the government wishes to divulge.

Some of this can be easily remedied. There's no reason Kansas lawmakers should be allowed to offer bills anonymously. All votes, even in committee, should be recorded — and made available to citizens online.

Other changes will require a new culture in Kansas.

We understand and endorse the need for privacy in some parts of government, particularly agencies involved in investigatory work. Criminal witnesses and evidence need protection. Courts should not prematurely release information that poses a threat to innocent residents.

Children must also be shielded from public exposure.

But we don't have secret police in Kansas, or secret courts. Justice must be reached in the open. And privacy can never be a shield to protect workers whose own performance is embarrassing or substandard.

This week, we'll watch closely to see how Kansas government responds to these revelations. Then we'll recommend possible solutions that can be embedded in state laws and regulations, or at the local level.

We also hope the stories will convince public employees of good will to resist being forced into the shadows. They're our neighbors. They have a stake in transparent government, too.

The clouds have covered Kansas for too long. This week, they should break, and the sun should start shining in.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 12

The governor refused to address serious questions about Antonio Soave's record

Less than two months after former Commerce Secretary Antonio Soave announced his candidacy to represent Kansas' 2nd District, he's ending his campaign. On Nov. 2, the Kansas City Star reported, "At least nine of Soave's friends or business partners, including his law school roommate, received Commerce Department contracts for consulting and marketing services." Soave probably realized that voters aren't crazy about government officials who hand hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to their buddies and associates.

One of these associates clearly wasn't a buddy: Paola Ghezzo sued Soave this summer for allegedly using her $500,000 investment in their firm (Capistrano Italia) for expenses unrelated to the business. According to Soave's response to the lawsuit, Ghezzo "repeatedly" refused to assume greater responsibility for running Capistrano Italia after he became commerce secretary, so he "offered to possibly explore finding her a consulting (job) with the Kansas Department of Commerce." He found her one that paid $6,000 per month for "well over one year."

Soave's response argues that Ghezzo "lacked the expertise, experience, time, interest, discipline, and entrepreneurial drive necessary to assume primary responsibility and directional control of Capistrano Italia's operations." It also accuses her of ignoring her responsibilities, showing up to work "sporadically" and spending "much of her time overseas in Italy." But these shortcomings apparently didn't disqualify her from taking $72,000 in taxpayer money every year.

Soave says Ghezzo defamed him to put his job as commerce secretary at risk. His attorneys say this "caused its intended effect - the Governor's office placed significant pressure on Soave in June 2017 to resign his post as Kansas's Commerce Secretary." So he did. But when Soave left the department earlier this year, Gov. Sam Brownback praised his "great vision" and said, "We wish him well in his new endeavors." When Brownback was recently asked about firing Soave, he said, "Uh, no, no. He's a, you know, he's a good guy. But you'd need to ask him his own reasons for doing that. He's a good man."

Only after the Kansas City Star released the story about Soave awarding at least nine state contracts to friends and associates did Brownback admit that he had been fired. A statement from his office explains that Soave "did a number of positive things but also presented a number of problems that resulted in his termination. Among those problems, he entered into several consulting contracts that reflected a lack of judgment and that the Governor felt were inappropriate." Why has Brownback been so sheepish about admitting this? Even after the disturbing arrangement with Ghezzo surfaced, Brownback explicitly denied firing Soave and couldn't stop telling us what a great guy he is.

This would be a sordid and disingenuous response even if Soave wasn't running for Congress at the time. But that fact makes Brownback's equivocations even more galling - didn't voters have a right to know that Soave had, in fact, been "terminated" from the Department of Commerce? Brownback clearly thought his behavior was unacceptable, so what's with the evasive answers? Was he just covering for a friend? Didn't he think Soave's actions were relevant to the Kansans who live in the 2nd district?

Thanks to diligent reporting by the Kansas City Star, we're much more informed about Soave's record at the Department of Commerce. But our governor was happy to let Soave advance his political career without telling his fellow Kansans the truth.

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The Lawrence Journal-World, Nov. 13

Farmland deal still going sour

What the city of Lawrence wouldn't give to go back in time and renegotiate the terms of taking over the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. Never has something billed as free been so expensive.

The city took ownership of the former fertilizer plant in 2010 with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for a new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property, but agreed to accept responsibility for cleaning up environmental issues left behind by the bankrupt fertilizer plant. The city would get an $8.6 million trust fund that Farmland had set aside for cleanup.

Problem is, cleanup is expected to exceed $13.6 million and the city's plan to use interest on the trust fund to make up the difference isn't exactly working out.

Not only did the city vastly overestimate the interest it would receive on investing the $8.6 million, but also the city recently discovered that more than half of the trust fund has been sitting in a noninterest-bearing account for the past couple of years, drawing no interest.

The original plan for the cleanup of the property involved pumping groundwater through an existing pipeline system to North Lawrence, where the fertilizer-contaminated water could be spread on farm fields.

But City Manager Tom Markus, who inherited the Farmland mess when he was hired in 2016, said changes in the land and farming have made it impractical to use the pipeline system.

"Over time, the farming uses on those properties have changed," Markus said. "We've lost some of those properties, and we don't have enough places to apply that nitrogen-aided water."

Now comes word that the city will begin releasing the nitrogen-contaminated water from the fertilizer plant into the Kansas River. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has authorized the release over the next several months, saying the impacts should be minimal.

The city is authorized to release up to 30 million gallons of nitrogen-contaminated water from now until April 1. No more than 500,000 gallons of nitrogen water can be released per day.

Markus said releasing the water into the river is significantly less expensive and less dangerous than trying to truck it off site. The KDHE agreed.

"The volume of water that ultimately might have had to be trucked out meant that we were potentially talking thousands of truckloads moving in and out of the Farmland site," said Tom Stiles, assistant director of the KDHE Bureau of Water. "We felt like that might represent a greater safety and environmental impact than authorizing this discharge through the existing permit under certain conditions."

Let's hope Stiles and Markus are right, and that there are no harmful impacts from the release.

Meanwhile, it has been three years since VenturePark opened and the park is still seeking its first tenant. Some deal Farmland Industries has turned out to be for the city.

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