July 24, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Johnson County avoiding questions about Library retirement funds

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Johnson County Chief Counsel Peg Trent is refusing to answer questions about the legality of using more than $6 million in taxpayer funds to pay a portion of the Johnson County Public Library employees’ “supplemental retirement match” for the last approximately 22 years.

According to an email obtained by the Sentinel, Johnson County Commissioners were informed by Johnson County Budget Director Robin Symes that “in 2002, the county began the supplemental retirement match with contributions budgeted in the Countywide Budget within the General Fund. For the initial implementation, the Park & Recreation match was paid from the Parks Fund, while the Library’s match was paid from the General Fund. 

“After reviewing the allocations recently, it was determined that the Library matching funds should be budgeted within the Library Taxing District for consistency with other Library expenses,” Symes wrote. “Due to the timing of the budget discussions at the Library, they have already developed their 2025 budget proposal.  We will be working with the Library staff on a plan to transition the costs to the Library Taxing District. The estimated cost of the annual match for the Library is $500,000.”

In other words, for over two decades, Johnson County Taxpayers have been subsidizing the retirement funds of the Johnson County Library — which has its own tax levy — due to an apparent “accounting error.” Additionally, the funding will continue for at least another year.

On May 1, the Sentinel asked Johnson County Chief Counsel Peg Trent if there were no accounting procedures in place to identify the error. Trent was additionally asked if it is legal for General Fund tax dollars to be used in this fashion and if the millions of dollars in misdirected funds would be refunded to the county.

Johnson County Public Affairs Director Jody Hanson initially responded that they were working on the “request” and twice requested additional time.

However, after May 4, there were no further communications from the county.

Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara also asked substantially similar questions and confirmed she received a memorandum on the subject. However, she was also specifically told that the memo was covered by attorney-client privilege. 

The same day, the Sentinel asked Trent to explain why an opinion on the legality of paying library retirement matches out of the county general fund would be “privileged,” and Hanson responded: “Attorney-client privileged memoranda prepared by Chief Counsel Peg Trent for the Board of County Commissioners are confidential and not subject to disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.”

However, the Sentinel filed no requests under KORA and didn’t ask for a memo; we just asked if it is legal to use general fund tax dollars to pay for library expenses.

In a phone interview, O’Hara said she spoke with the chief counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties and was told a county’s chief legal officer has broad authority to “deem” materials privileged.

“I could ask the chief legal counsel, ‘What, what do we need to do if I stub my toe?'” O’Hara said. “She could send me a memo and she could put privileged information on that. I could not get that released unless I had a vote of the majority of the board to say that information should be released.  

“It’s a method of keeping information from the public, in my opinion.”

O’Hara said she is also getting “dribbles and drabs” from county staff and was told that the policy was initially set in place in 2001 and county staff was “blindsided” by the “anomaly.” 

O’Hara said from what she had been able to determine, once the payments were embedded in the budget, “their cover is that — because the budget was approved every year, therefore the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners) acknowledged this policy. The commission has yet to address the library accounting error in an open meeting.

“Well, how in the world can I, as a commissioner, approve an ongoing policy if it’s so buried in the budget that I know nothing about it?” she said. How many other policy decisions have been running around for 20 years that I have no idea about?”

O’Hara said this is just another example of a pervasive lack of transparency about the budget.

“It’s stunning that a budget of $1.791 billion has no transparency,” she said. “The people that come to the meetings on a regular basis, that are very, very concerned about the budget, they have been asking for years to have more detail of the budget and they’re not given it.

“This is a red flag showing we need to have way more transparency.”

Transparency in Johnson County is an ongoing issue

This is hardly the first time Johnson County has had issues with transparency. 

In 2023, texts showed apparent collusion between Johnson County officials and the “youth justice” organization in putting on — and then canceling a “training session” on “race and equity.”

A series of text messages buried at the bottom of a 618-page document dump appears to show direct collusion between a Johnson County official and the Gault Center, a Washington, D.C.-Based think tank, to prevent the public from seeing what was in a training session on race and equity co-sponsored by the county.

The event was called the “Sunflower Summit” and was to be a joint venture between the Johnson County Department of Corrections and the Gault Center, a think-tank specializing in “youth justice.” 

However, the event was abruptly canceled and switched to an online-only format after the Gault Center and O’Hara were unable to agree on her bringing a videographer to tape it. This was also apparently in response to Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Haden’s planned attendance and his decision to station two deputies outside the event for security.

When organizers discovered they would be unable to prevent the public from attending because of the county’s co-sponsorship, they canceled the event.

In 2022, Johnson County Commissioner Shirley Allenbrand called a meeting in which another commissioner was disinvited, and other stakeholders were advised not to attend, raising concerns about transparency and the Open Meetings Act.

The 6th District commissioner called the meeting among interested parties to discuss the reconstruction of 199th Street in the southwestern part of the county to accommodate large trucks and 18-wheelers. 3rd District Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, a critic of the project in which she and others have raised safety concerns, was told of the meeting, then in her words, “disinvited’ later. Southwest Zoning Board member Kenneth Klingensmith says he was told by County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert since the Allenbrand meeting was not considered a “public meeting” there was no need for his attendance.

 

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