Our shrinking community
This week was the annual publication of estimated population numbers for communities in northwest Kansas. Of course, the news was mostly bad as more people are generally leaving the small towns in western Kansas. WaKeeney and Collyer were in the middle of the pack, with population declines of .81% and .84% respectively. So actually, with less than one percent decline in 2008, I’d say we are holding our own compared to previous drops in population. But overall, the news for small towns out here is grim in terms of population.
There are a lot of great things about living in a small town, and you’ve read about many of them right here on Page 3. I frequently wax sentimental about how wonderful rural life is, how nice it is to know your neighbors, and how different country towns are from their city cousins.
But as anyone who has lived in small towns will tell you, there is a dark side to small town life as well. I generally don’t dwell on those dark downsides, but something happened in our office this week that caused me to shelve my original column and devote this space to one of the biggest reasons new people decline to move to WaKeeney, and why many young people decline to stay or come back.
It has to do with the closed nature of local government, the lack of transparency in how “things” operate, and how difficult it is to feel welcome in WaKeeney, no matter what the flags say. When citizens are kept in the dark about how their city operates, it creates feelings of mistrust and it causes them to not participate in the political process or community activities.
Since the “new” version of the WaKeeney City Council was seated this spring, there has been a disturbing trend toward secrecy and away from open government. One of the first actions taken by the new city council was to end the public broadcasts of city council meetings, and in fact, to end recording those meetings at all. People who were not able to actually attend the regularly scheduled meetings could previously tune in to local cable tv to see the meetings broadcast live, and hear what their elected officials were doing. Those without cable could pick up a DVD recording of the meeting, and those with failing eyesight could listen to audio tapes of the meeting that were made available at city hall. All that ended when the city decided this spring to stop all recordings of city meetings.
And to make matters worse, several “special meetings” of the council were held without any notice in the local paper or even in the Hays Daily. All that was required under the Kansas Open Meetings Law was that notice be posted at city hall. However, if you are not a daily visitor down there, you, as taxpayers and voters, were effectively excluded from those meetings because you didn’t know about them. It sort of makes one wonder what was and is going on over there that is more important than the public’s right to know.
And now, given the council’s actions to end recordings of the meetings, it’s impossible for citizens to know, first hand, what is said in city council chambers at these “special” meetings, held outside the normal time frame. Yes, minutes of the meetings are available, but as anyone who has read those minutes knows, they are carefully edited and are only brief notes on what actions are taken. Discussions are not quoted and it’s hard to know who said what and which positions belong to which elected official.
So in light of all this new secrecy, and in the interest of keeping local residents informed about what goes on with your city council and your city tax dollars, the editor of the Western Kansas World submitted a request, under the Kansas Open Meetings Law, that the newspaper be informed in advance of all “special” meetings. He further requested that agendas for these meetings be sent to the newspaper in advance of the “special” meeting. It was a routine letter, simple and to the point, and it followed the formal format generally used by news media across the state.
And your Mayor, Lionel Sawyer, responded to that request in a most unusual way. On Tuesday morning, he stomped into the World office and confronted Editor Jerry Millard in a most unprofessional way. He shoved a copy of the Kansas Open Meetings Law in the editor’s face with a belligerent sneer, saying, “here, this is for you and your friends” and proceeded to stomp back out the door in a fit of pique. Customers who were in the office at the time were stunned. One of them commented that if anyone had spoken to him that way, he’d have punched the Mayor in the nose. Fortunately, Jerry has more composure than that, but everyone in the office was just stunned by the Mayor’s tantrum.
The Open Meetings Law that was highlighted by the Mayor was 5.32 H. “Agenda Provisions”. This section notes “The Attorney General has said that an agenda, when prepared, must be made available to a requester.” But it was the next sentence that the Mayor highlighted with a yellow marker. “Copies of an agenda, however, do not have to be mailed if they can be obtained at a public place.” In other words, the city wasn’t going to send any agendas to us. If we wanted them, we could come get them. Of course, we’d have to actually know about these “special” meetings before we could walk over to city hall and pick them up. It was a classic “catch 22”.
Jerry found all of this odd, as we always receive agendas, in advance of meetings both “special” and ordinary, from the Trego County Commissioners and the USD 208 Board of Education. They’ve never complained about sending anyone agendas. But apparently, Mayor Sawyer and the new city council see things differently. So Jerry set out to find what their policy is regarding sending this information to other media.
And low and behold, when Jerry contacted Mike Corn at the Hays Daily News, he found that Mr. Corn receives WaKeeney City Council agendas in his email before each and every time the council meets. He was surprised that the Mayor was refusing to provide these agendas to the LOCAL newspaper when they are regularly provided to out of town media. And, by the way, he wasn’t the only one stunned that our Mayor puts the Hays Daily’s need to know above the need of the local citizens served by the Western Kansas World.
All of this illustrates the dark side of small town living and why many people prefer not to come back to Peyton Place. It’s these petty and personal vendettas and the misuse and abuse of “power” that makes small towns difficult. As we’ve seen in too many instances here, local officials just shut out anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They go after people’s employment simply because they can, and good people often leave town because they just get sick and tired of dealing with the good ol’ boys.
In a larger community, there would be multiple media outlets to keep track of local government and keep the citizens informed. But here, it’s not unusual to see city council members and the mayor “having coffee”. It’s hard for public officials not to socialize or patronize each other’s businesses, but who is to say, in these “coffee conversations” that city business is not discussed, and even decided before public meetings are held. That is obvious to anyone who attends city council meetings, or who used to be able to watch the recordings of the council and their discussions.
While the joys of small town living are many, the dark side of prejudice and the politics of personal destruction are not often talked about. But the dangers of closed-door government are real, and one need only go back to May when the past city attorney admitted to wrongdoing at a hearing of the Kansas Bar Association. It seems in WaKeeney, we have a tradition not of open government, but of secrecy and hiding activity from the public.
All of this is especially ironic given the fact that Mayor Sawyer and council members Floyd Dinkel and Pete McGann actually campaigned on a platform of “accountability for city officials and equal treatment of all citizens”. And where, you might ask, did I get that quote? It is the headline of a campaign advertisement published in the Western Kansas World on March 29, 2007. Yep. And also in that ad, signed by all three of these gentlemen, was this item: “We can assure you that our interest in serving all members of this community is very strong. We will work very hard to see that policies are implemented and changes will be public and openly made to the benefit of all persons.”
Apparently, the “openly made” only applies to the citizens of Hays and their newspaper, and not the citizens of WaKeeney and their local newspaper. Ironic isn’t it that the Mayor places a higher priority on Hays than his own people. Because make no mistake about it, the World doesn’t publish city council news for our benefit. We publish it for the benefit of the citizens and taxpayers of this community. And no matter how the Mayor thought his hissy fit would hurt us, in the end, it’s the people of WaKeeney who are hurt most when campaign promises prove to be just empty slogans, and “special” meetings are where the real business gets done.
And just to prove the saying that “irony is lost on those most in need of it”…
One of the other points made in the March, 2007 campaign ad for Mayor Sawyer and council members Dinkel and McGann was that “the City Mayor will not have absolute power and decisions will involve consulting ALL Council Members.” In light of Lionel Sawyer’s refusal to provide agendas to the local paper in the same way he does out of town papers, I just have to wonder if he “consulted ALL Council Members” before he caused a scene in our office. And if he did consult them, do they also approve of his tantrum? Do they approve of the city informing the Hays Daily when they ignore the paper that serves local citizens? If you see them, you might ask about it.
And at the same time, you might also ask if this is how we, as a community, “welcome” citizen participation in government. The answer to that question might shed some light on why our population numbers continue to plummet.