June 21, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

JoCo Commissioners release Peg Trent opinion on library funding after Sentinel publication

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In a victory for transparency, within hours of publishing a story about Johnson County Chief Counsel Peg Trent refusing to answer the Sentinel’s 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, the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners voted to release the information.

Trent had refused to release a memorandum giving an opinion on the legality of the match — given that the library is also a taxing entity in its own right.

The memo, released May 23, makes clear that the contributions were legal.

“The Library District can use funds from sources other than a tax levy for specific library purposes, as per K.S.A. 12-1225 (j),” Trent wrote. “The County can use unrestricted funds from the countywide supplemental retirement and compensated absences within the General Fund for Library employee benefit expenses, as the Library District is a taxing subdivision of the County under K.S.A. 12-1223.”

Upon receiving the document, the Sentinel reached out to Trent again, asking why something as simple as a “yes, this is legal,” required two weeks of back and forth, as well as why it was deemed “privileged” in the first place.

As of publication, neither Trent, nor Johnson County Public Affairs Director Jody Hanson has responded.

The background

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.”

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.

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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