This article was co-written by Ark City Daily Bytes Editor Kayleigh Lawson.
Cowley College President Dennis Rittle held a press conference June 19 to address local news media regarding a recent open records request filed under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) that produced two one-page emails, with an attachment.
“After careful review with legal counsel, these records are now made available in accordance with the laws pertaining to open record requests,” Rittle read from a prepared statement to members of the media, the public, college staff and members of the college’s board of trustees.
He then opened the floor for 10 minutes of questions from media members in attendance.
The college received similar records requests from two different news media entities — Ark City Daily Bytes and the Cowley CourierTraveler.
Both entities were quoted a charge of more than $200 for the emails and attachment to be produced by the college.
Both media outlets also challenged the quoted price — Daily Bytes filed a claim with the Office of the Kansas Attorney General (AG) and the CourierTraveler hired legal counsel to ask the college to reconsider the seemingly exorbitant fees.
The college eventually produced the records at no charge to all media, but only after Daily Bytes had already paid the $205 fee and initiated the records production process. A refund has been requested at the direction of Rittle.
Justifying the cost
The records request generated two emails. The first was regarding a communication from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, while the second was an email from Rittle directly to the board of trustees and an unidentified college employee.
“We actually contacted the AG on that topic,” he said. “The actual cost of these two records being released today is approximately $425 — that’s real cost.”
Rittle said that cost was based partially on the college’s work with the AG. “We can charge attorney fees, and we actually had two attorneys working on this particular topic and the redactions,” he said by way of justifying of the fees.
He said that emails received by press on June 19 “could” have had information redacted from them.
“This was longer than one page, then?” CourierTraveler Publisher David Allen Seaton asked about one of the two emails received.
“No,” said Rittle, who went onto say that the use of multiple attorneys was to determine whether the law would permit release of the records.
Lives and reputations
Rittle confirmed after the press conference that an employee name was redacted from the email, but he did not name that individual.
“It’s people’s lives on the line,” he said. “There was even a question of whether it would qualify as an open record.”
Several other times, both in his email and during the press conference, Rittle used language to describe the actions of trustees and media that compared this situation to life-altering incidents.
A board member asking questions recently — which is clearly a duty of the trustees, as outlined on Page 16 of the Board of Trustees’ handbook — was portrayed as “soiling” the reputations of the staff members who were being questioned.
Rittle also indicated that he conferred with other college presidents regarding the open records request.
“We don’t generally have media asking for communications between a president and their board members,” Rittle said.
Disputing the cost
In disputing the quoted cost of $425, Ark City Daily Bytes reporter Jeni McGee compared the records request sent to the college to one of a much larger nature — consisting of hundreds of emails concerning dispatch services — that was made to the City of Arkansas City in 2016.
That request also mandated redaction by an attorney, but the total request still cost less than the amount paid to the college for the two emails.
“Most of the conversation pertained to whether or not a president speaking to the board of trustees is (subject to) open records requests,” Rittle said. “At this point, (the records request) jeopardizes my communication with my employer.”
“It seems like what you’re saying is that communications between the college president and the individual trustee or trustees is more important or sacrosanct than the actual public records or public trust between the trustees and the public,” Seaton said.
“It seems like you’re saying, ‘Hey you, the media or the public that’s requesting this information, you’re forcing us to violate our trust,’ and we’re (just) trying to get public records. It sort of seems like you’re downplaying the idea that you should respond to requests for public record.”
Rittle responds to criticism
Rittle referenced his time in the military, and tried to compare the use of memoranda and face-to-face meetings in a military setting to the communications used by the college.
“They’re (the military) not subject to these laws — you are. The college is,” Seaton said, referring specifically to KORA.
Rittle further said that as times have changed, communications have evolved with new technology. When once a clear and “polished” memo might have been the only record available for request, he said, now any number of written or recorded files are subject to open records laws.
He claimed that when KORA was written in the 1980s, legislators were not thinking of “communications” as records.
This stance was contradicted, though, when the Kansas Legislature updated KORA in 2016 to clarify that open public records can include text messages and other files from public officials’ personal cell phones and computers, as long as they discuss official business of the agency.
Any type of communication that has to do with public business is subject to KORA, regardless of what form or medium it takes.
Transparency and ‘authentic communication’
Rittle implied that a strict interpretation of KORA could stifle open communication between college officials.
“If I spoke to the employee right now, to the employees sitting in this room right now, and said, ‘Folks, I want you to look at all your email you sent in the last week and we’re going to require you to post all of that information out there (as) open records,’ how do you think that the employees would respond to that?” Rittle asked the media in attendance.
Because the college is a publicly funded agency, any and all emails, recordings, videos and documents that it maintains fall under KORA.
This includes everyone from the president to the janitorial staff, or even the trustees, if they are communicating about public business.
Still, Rittle voiced his disquiet regarding his emails being open to the public in his prepared statement.
“However, a regrettable result of this open records request is that the spirit of transparency and authentic communication between the president and the trustees has now been placed in jeopardy,” he said.
Some of the statements made by Rittle during the press conference, asserting that these open records requests would change the dynamics of communications at the college, were met with strong responses from several journalists.
“Your point is fair,” Seaton said. “But (emails falling under KORA) is what the law of Kansas says.”
This feeling was echoed in a strong statement from Max Kautsch, a legal consultant for the Kansas Press Association who also was retained by the CourierTraveler in this matter.
“I strongly disagree with the college’s contention that ‘a regrettable result of this open records request is that the spirit of transparency and authentic communication between the president and the trustees has now been placed in jeopardy,’” Kautsch said in an email to Daily Bytes.
“Accusing KORA requesters of inhibiting transparency indicates the college’s lack of understanding or complete disregard for the public policy underpinnings of KORA in favor of openness.
“An authentic and transparent public body would welcome scrutiny from the media and gladly share public records in order to prove its integrity, not demonize those who seek to hold it accountable.”
Staff time stress
Rittle also claimed the college is not staffed properly to handle the number of requests it has been “bombarded” with in recent months.
He claimed this particular records request took 2 1/2 hours of his time, and each attorney an hour and a half, to process the request.
This includes Rittle’s time to work with the attorneys the college had retained and the AG’s office, as well as his time to “process” the email.
“We’ve seen a whole lot more public records requests than we’ve seen in a long time, since the November election,” he said.
“And the discussion has been, ‘Do we even have staff to handle this?’ We’ve been bombarded.”
Additionally, Rittle said the college would have to add staff in order to be prepared to fill records requests such as this on a regular basis.
“If we’d like to, we could add a different staff — personnel — but that would require a … different cost,” he said.
“When you go to Kansas University, you’d find a whole team of individuals that handle these.”
For comparison, the City of Arkansas City has two full-time employees designated to handle open records requests, but this is not the primary function of their positions. The city employs about 120 people, while the college employs nearly 380, including part-time staff.
“I think if the public knew (about the requests), they’d be saying, ‘Wow, how much dollars are being spent by this institution to process these requests?’ It’s substantial,” Rittle said.
Wilson questioned staff
The records request that led to the June 19 press conference stems from the May 21 meeting of the Cowley College Board of Trustees, when trustee Gary Wilson questioned college administrators about the college’s purchasing practices.
Wilson inquired how certain vendors were selected in connection with purchases being made for the new Sumner County campus.
These included the hiring of a furniture consultant and various technology items procured for the campus.
Following the May meeting, Rittle sent a mass email to the board of trustees and the unidentified staff member.
“During the Board meeting last night (May 21), a question was raised regarding the furniture consultant,” the email states. “I have included the Nov 2017 agenda. Please note on Pages 12-13, the information regarding the selection and subsequent approval of the Furniture Consultant.”
The pages in question state: “The following furniture consultants, and distributor/vendors have been chosen to provide design and price proposals on the furniture for the Wellington campus.” It then lists the vendors chosen by staff and their subsequent roles in the process.
This item was included as part of the administrative reports, which were approved by the board in a single vote with no separate discussion.
Dispute among officials
In his email to the trustees, Rittle stressed his desire for them to ask their questions prior to public meetings.
“It is very important that we ask these types of questions prior to the meeting as this matter could have easily been resolved,” the email states.
“Instead, it has created a very awkward moment for all parties and publically (sic) soiled people’s reputation.”
“In closing, we have extremely educated, skilled, and dedicated people working at this College,” Rittle’s email continues.
“Our Senior Team of VPs and President have over 130 years of collective experience in higher education, and most work well north of 60 hours per week and rarely take a vacation. Please allow us to do our jobs and trust us.”
In the email, Rittle also requested that the board apologize to college staff.
“I think a public apology is in order during the June Board meeting,” the email concludes.
The trustees did not issue any type of apology during the meeting. Wilson previously told the CourierTraveler he would not issue any apology.
“We’re responsible to the people that elected us,” Wilson said in an interview June 19. “We’re responsible to K.S.A. 71-201 (the Kansas statute governing community college boards of trustees). I take representing the people pretty serious.”
“There isn’t any reason he (Rittle) can’t run the college as he sees fit, but there is a group over him that expects certain things,” Wilson added.
“He answers to us. I just want this thing to function the way it’s supposed to function.”
Wilson also said the “people who pay the bills” elected him to do a job, which he intends to do to his utmost ability.
‘Don’t ask questions’
This is not the first time Rittle has publicly criticized the media. Earlier this year, he accused the media of “proof-texting” during a board retreat.
He claimed that local media were “spinning” their stories with a particular endgame in mind.
“I call it what it is, and that’s storytelling,” he said at that time. “If I’d ordered it, it would have been number one — (media) may actually be a threat.”
Both current and past trustees have indicated there is an atmosphere of obfuscation surrounding board proceedings.
“You weren’t supposed to ask questions,” former trustee Sid Regnier said in a January interview.
“You were just supposed to accept the way things were.”
The Board of Trustees handbook, voted into effect in November 2017, doesn’t do much to make things any clearer.
“Part of the responsibility of public service is that issues affecting the public are shared and debated in public,” the handbook states on Page 8.
“Doing so promotes trustworthiness and reliability.”
Then — just one page further in — the handbook seemingly contradicts itself.
“Board Members and the President should not take each other by surprise, especially in public,” the handbook states. “Board Members and the President should always support each other — especially in public because the institution always loses when internal battles go public.”
Teamwork or groupthink?
On numerous occasions, the board handbook mentions working as a team, speaking with “one voice” and communicating with the president, rather than “surprising” board members and administrators in public.
This sentiment was echoed in the June 19 press conference, with trustees JoLynn Foster and Bob Juden both using the term to describe the board relationship with staff.
“At the bottom of (Rittle’s) memo, it talks about being a team and speaking with one voice,” Seaton said.
“This has been problematic, from my point of view. Maybe you can help me with this?”
“You guys are individually elected,” he continued, addressing the trustees. “You don’t run as a block.”
“To be part of a team,” Juden responded.
“So, where does the line between trying to be a team and do things in unison, and actually being an individual trustee and voting your own individual conscience, come through?” Seaton asked.
“You’re not a team in the sense that you weren’t elected together — you were elected separately, right? How is it a team relationship?”
“We come to a decision in this meeting and it’s going to be the majority that agrees on the decision that is made,” Foster replied.
High costs are the norm
This is not the only records request filed by Daily Bytes that has been quoted by the college with seemingly excessive fees.
Another request concerning Cowley College documents related to new signs on campus initially was quoted at $1,097 — which included five hours of staff time, “datafile” charges and printing fees.
When Daily Bytes clarified that it was requesting digital copies only, the quote was adjusted and came back even higher at $1,250 — no printing fees were included, apart from those files that required it, but staff time was quintupled to an estimate of 30 hours.
This quote was forwarded to the AG office, but no response to this complaint has been received yet.
Daily Bytes since has filed an additional KORA request with the college, but has yet to receive a quote regarding its cost.
Audio of Press Conference
Cowley College president criticizes media during retreat for trustees