February 24, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Trustees: Butler County Community College fails transparency test

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ELDORADO — Two Butler County Community College trustees say they routinely have trouble getting information to which they are entitled.

Trustee Shelby Smith said he ran for the position specifically because of a lack of transparency and concerns about where money was being spent in an organization that’s largely taxpayer-funded.

According to Smith, roughly 60% of the college’s budget is taxpayer money. Smith says the college brings in approximately $19 million a year in tuition and fees, on a budget of $52 million a year.

“So you’re 60% taxpayer-supported, but you’re kind of unwilling to just put all the data on the table, give us all the numbers and let us look it up,” Smith said. “That’s not being unreasonable.”

Smith said he’s made several requests regarding budget numbers, including for a satellite campus at McConnell Air Force Base, and received very little data or a delayed response.

“I made specific requests about McConnell Air Force Base,” Smith said. “All I got was a summarized, maybe three-line item of ‘here’s our income, here’s our expenses here’s our loss.'”

Smith said he requested the raw numbers, and still has not received it.

Fellow trustee Julie Winslow, who, like Smith, ran for the position in order to try to bring what she felt was accountability to the college, said she likewise has had trouble obtaining information to which a member of the BCCC governing body is entitled.

Winslow said that, among other things, she has repeatedly requested copies of the college’s various insurance policies and said she was stonewalled in obtaining it or was told she could only view the documents on a system called SharePoint.

Winslow, who has a background in IT said SharePoint is a collaboration and monitoring system that would allow the college to see exactly which documents she was looking at — and for how long — something she was unwilling to do.

Both suggested they were being forced to submit formal Kansas Open Records Act requests for information they are entitled to as members of the board.

BCCC denies requiring KORA requests

“We have never suggested, requested nor required a Kansas Open Records request for information from any Butler County Community College Trustee, nor do we plan to,” BCCC Spokeswoman Kelly Snedden said in an email statement. “Any and all information requested by members of our Trustees has been and will be provided subject to Legal Limitations, e.g., college employees’ rights to privacy. Butler County Community College believes in transparency and in providing any Trustee with the information they request so that they may, in good faith, best serve the functions of their elected office.”

Winslow said in an emailed response that she had labeled some emails as “FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act), however, FOIA is a federal statute, not state, and there is specific language required when making a KORA request, although it needn’t be complicated.

For example, when the Sentinel makes a KORA request from a governmental entity, a simple form email stating “Please accept this letter as a request, pursuant to the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) Kan. Stat. Ann. Secs. 45-215 to 45-254.

“Please provide (explanation of documents requested goes here). You may fulfill this request electronically by return email to me. If applicable, please inform me in advance of any costs associated with this request. If this request is denied, in whole or in part, please describe any materials for which exemption from the KORA is asserted, with reference to the specific exemption.”

Dave Trabert, CEO of Kansas Policy Institute (which owns the Sentinel) has a lot of experience getting government entities to provide public information.

“Many agencies and local governments have been very cooperative, but the extent to which some go to prevent the release of public information is astounding.  USD 231 Gardner-Edgerton hired an expensive attorney when we requested their payroll list in Excel, and they did so only after we got the Johnson County District Attorney’s office involved.”

KORA doesn’t require citizens to complete a form to get information that doesn’t include employee names or addresses, and a simple email suffices; formal letters are not required.  Citizens can also request data to be provided in Excel-compatible format rather than get PDFs; a Kansas Attorney General opinion says agencies should provide information in the format requested if they can do so.

Trustees react to BCCC

“I have labeled some emails to BCC as FOIA in the past,” Winslow said. “I believe in freedom of information from any municipality or similar organization supported in any part by taxpayers, with exclusion of certain unavailable records as described by the attorney general of the state of Kansas.”

Winslow said she finally received the policies on a flash drive — as she had originally requested — on Jan. 1, 2020.

“I have not yet been able to verify that the records are complete as there appears to be hundreds of PDFs to examine when I was expecting a single pdf of the entire policy per each calendar year,” Winslow said.

Document dumps such as this are a not-uncommon method, for public entities to resist transparency.

Smith, likewise, took issue with the college’s statement.

“Unfortunately what I see lacking from BCC’s statement is any description of a time frame,” he said. “Throughout the past year I have made multiple budgetary requests regarding different programs. It has sometimes taken months to get simple data that would show income and expenses.

“I have on occasion been provided brief summaries in place of specific data, after numerous requests and months of waiting. I don’t believe that technically meets the definition of transparency. I have been vocal in my requests and lack of response. All of our meetings are available to watch on YouTube.”

Winslow agreed with that assessment.

“This is month number 13 on the Board of Trustees,” Winslow said. “I can honestly compare requesting information from BCC, by this trustee, to be just as excruciating as the act of pulling actual teeth.”

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