Last week, Cowley College President Dennis Rittle held a press conference regarding emails that had been requested by multiple media outlets under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA).
After the college quoted $205 to obtain the two emails, the request languished for several weeks as both Ark City Daily Bytes and The Cowley CourierTraveler tried, in different ways, to get the college to charge a lower fee.
Ultimately, Daily Bytes paid the money, after which the press conference was called and the records were released for free to those who attended.
Daily Bytes since has requested a refund of the $205 fee.
This is not the first or only time that Daily Bytes has faced a seemingly out-of-proportion bill from Cowley College when trying to obtain records.
The first quote was given to Daily Bytes in April when it requested records connected to the cost of the signs recently installed throughout the Arkansas City campus.
Readers wanted to know not only the initial cost of the signs — which was approved during a Board of Trustees meeting in January — but also the costs connected with installing the signs, and so on.
When Daily Bytes reporter Jeni McGee requested these documents, she was quoted a charge of $1,020 for five hours of staff labor and the printing of said documents.
McGee clarified that Daily Bytes only required digital copies and asked for a new estimate to be given, minus the printing fees.
The quote that followed jumped up to $1,250.
The staff time was raised from five hours to 30 for seemingly less work.
Then came the request for the emails between Rittle and the Cowley College Board of Trustees.
The most recent records request Daily Bytes has filed with the college is for its accounts payable records for the fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018 to date, as well as audit fees from the last few years. Once again, digital files were requested to avoid cost-prohibitive printing charges.
This return quote for this request?
More than $1,700.
The college only has printed copies of these documents — which are a board archive — and college staff either will have to copy or scan these documents, according to Janette Hanna, Cowley College director of human resources and open records custodian.
McGee asked for clarification that there were no digital copies of these files. She was told there were not.
Hanna then said that the college did not have to “create” records for Daily Bytes by running the computer report to generate those records.
This seems to be a misinterpretation of the Kansas Open Records Act, which does say that government agencies do not have to create records.
However, the fact that these records exist in a computer means that they already have been created in a digital form and are being maintained by the college, and therefore are subject to KORA.
By way of comparison, these same financial records are posted monthly by the City of Arkansas City on its website for public viewing, free of charge.
The pattern that has emerged is concerning to Daily Bytes as a news entity, but should be even more concerning to the public.
KORA is not just for journalists. It also is for the everyday citizen who wants to know what his or her tax dollars are doing, and to make sure that they are not being misused.
Daily Bytes has spoken with several attorneys with intimate knowledge of KORA (and the Kansas Open Meetings Act), all of whom agree that this pattern — while not strictly illegal — is not really in keeping with the spirit of of the law, and that it appears to be purposefully impeding any type of investigation.
Repeated inquiries to the Kansas attorney general about these fees have, at this time, gone largely unanswered.
It is important to note that every time Daily Bytes has requested records from the college, it has been at the urging of readers.
Daily Bytes has received countless emails, telephone calls and letters asking us about these items. In each case, we file requests to act on reader interest.
Especially of interest to those who communicate with us are the college’s finances, how much it is spending and what it is spending it on.
If it seems like there are a lot of requests, that is because readers are asking us to investigate these things.
Statistically speaking, three requests in six months is nothing — some journalists send out literally thousands of requests every year.
Daily Bytes is a small business with only two full-time employees — and its budget is relatively small, compared to most small businesses.
There is simply no way for the company to afford four-digit requests for nearly every set of records, so now it is up to the readers.
If you want this in-depth investigative coverage, Daily Bytes is going to need your help in the form of monetary donations.
Any donation to this cause will used exclusively to obtain records from the agencies we are asked to investigate by the readers.
Daily Bytes is dedicated to being a reliable, responsible and reasonable source of news in Arkansas City. If you have a story that you’d like us to tell, let us know and we’ll look into it.
Those wishing to make a donation — anonymous or otherwise — can do so by going online to www.acdailybytes.com/donations/help-keep-the-news-free or sending a check to Ark City Daily Bytes, 314 S. Summit St., Arkansas City, KS 67005.