The Kansas City Star, Dec. 30
It’s a modern maxim: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Another adage we embrace is “speaking truth to power.”
That’s all a tad bit odd, though, truth be known. You wouldn’t think, in 21st century America, that truth-telling might be considered a courageous act. Or that it would be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for straight talk and government transparency. Outspokenness, after all, is an American attribute, almost to a fault.
Yet even in the land of the First Amendment and nearly 250 years into the American experiment, telling the truth — or simply seeking it — remains a revolutionary act.
Just ask Debbie Miller.
The Independence, Kansas, citizen watchdog had to chase her city council members all the way to Topeka and the state attorney general’s office to force them to cough up the simplest of public documents.
In 2016, Miller simply sought a copy of a blank performance form used to evaluate the city manager. The city refused, claiming it was a personnel matter and a unique work product not subject to disclosure. The attorney general’s office easily found otherwise — and, interestingly enough, learned that the form in question wasn’t a unique work product, but “was in fact a city manager performance evaluation form publicly available on the internet.”
The city ultimately signed a consent order with the AG agreeing to provide the document, obtain open records training and pay a $250 fine.
It was a small victory by a lone-wolf citizen, but any victory in openness is a thing to be celebrated. It’s also a beautiful example of down-home civics and of the lengths to which, even today, Americans must be dogged in their pursuit of truth and transparency.
Fittingly, Miller became the first purely private citizen with no professional or personal interest in the outcome of an open records battle to win the Friend of Open Government Award from the nonprofit Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.
The coalition has been giving out such awards periodically since 2004 to media figures and organizations, attorneys and even legislators who uphold the spirit of openness. Two student publications also have been cited by the coalition: the Wichita State University Sunflower (for reporting on administrative problems at WSU) and the Emporia State University Bulletin (for coverage of a faculty member’s disciplinary proceedings over allegations of sexual harassment).
Miller didn’t think herself worthy of such company at first. But then she thought about the struggle and the forces often allied against the public in gaining access to the records it rightfully owns.
“Every person, even an older woman from a town of 9,000 people, who’s been fighting a seemingly endless and hopeless battle with her city government to obtain records per (the Kansas Open Records Act), can make a difference in ensuring open government,” Miller wrote to the coalition. “I hope this realization will either get other individuals motivated to join the effort, or keep individuals motivated who’ve been trying to be a part of the effort, despite the hurdles placed before them.”
It’s a rallying cry we hope is heard throughout the region — especially in Frontenac, not that far from Independence in southeastern Kansas, where residents of the state and the attorney general have again joined forces to wage transparency on a buttoned-up bureaucracy. After three top city officials were fired without discussion in September, the city further stonewalled requests to see preceding emails or other correspondence that might explain the city council’s vote.
Again, it’s amazing so many of us have to go to such great lengths to force our local governments to be open and above board with us. But that’s where we are in 21st century middle America.
Nor is it just local governments that bear watching.
“Kansas runs one of the most secretive state governments in the nation, and its secrecy permeates nearly every aspect of service,” The Star’s six-part series “Why So Secret, Kansas?” concluded in 2017. The months-long investigation won national awards, but more importantly action at the state level: The Legislature passed four measures to improve transparency and then-Gov. Jeff Colyer issued executive orders to do the same. Unfortunately, lawmakers’ follow-through has been lacking — if not non-existent.
Clearly our shared work as citizens isn’t done. Clearly it never will be. Our vigilance must indeed be eternal.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 25
The state’s largest private employer is in crisis.
Boeing’s recent announcement that it was halting production of the 737 Max airplane is a major blow to the Kansas aviation industry because Wichita-based Spirit Aerosystems, the state’s largest private employer, makes about 70 percent of Boeing’s 737 Max, including the fuselage.
Gov. Laura Kelly was in Wichita the day of Boeing’s announcement and met with Spirit CEO Tom Gentile to discuss how the state can support Spirit and its 13,000 employees in this uncertain time.
Following that conversation, Kelly told the Wichita Eagle, “What I’ve told Tom was that I’ve already gotten my secretary of labor together with my secretary of commerce, and they will be working with Spirit to bring all the resources that the state does have to offer to the table to help Spirit get through this.”
One of the state’s likely remedies is the shared-work program that enables employees to remain employees at Spirit, where they’ll receive a reduced paycheck, back-filled with unemployment benefits.
Sen. Jerry Moran spoke with President Trump on Sunday about the crisis upon which the president committed to do what he could to help.
Boeing’s announcement stopping production of the plane, which was grounded in March, means the Spirit workforce will return to work Jan. 6 to a plant that was producing 42 fuselages per month (down from 52 before the grounding) and now is making zero.
Company officials have said employees can do other within the plant, but it’s unclear for how long.
For the supply chain that supports Spirit’s work for Boeing, the announcement is impacting its businesses. The south-central region has hundreds of small and mid-size businesses working to supply parts to Spirit, and their workforce will likely experience disruptions as furloughs, layoffs and terminations. They also need resources to ensure their talented workforce is compensated during this downturn and not enticed to move to other states.
The aviation industry, while known for swings of prosperity and decline, is a major part of the Kansas economy and the life’s work of many Kansas families. Other states have recognized the value of aviation jobs and are competing with Kansas in this sector for the talent pool. We have an exceptionally skilled workforce, and Kansas can’t risk the loss of any of our talent.
Without question, federal, state and local officials must come together to ensure all remedies are used to retain the talented men and women who have built the Air Capital region. We know the state is experiencing an export of talent. It’s an issue that needs our attention in all sectors but is particularly urgent now for the aviation sector.
No matter where you live in the state, ensuring resources for our disrupted workforce demands bipartisan cooperation and problem solving.
Working together, we can minimize the fallout from Boeing’s decisions until Spirit and its supply chain are back on solid ground.
The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 24
Thousands of Spirit AeroSystems workers will head into the new year facing an uncertain future, after the company announced it would suspend production of Boeing 737 Max jets on Jan. 1.
That news — along with impending layoffs at Textron Aviation and the resignation Monday of Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg — should have Wichita leaders scrambling to deal with what could be a devastating blow to our local community.
Spirit employs about 12,500 people in Wichita. More than half of its revenue comes from the production of 737 aircraft components, including the fuselage.
Those fuselages have been stacking up on a tarmac in south Wichita while Boeing works with federal regulators to get the Max back in the air. If that doesn’t happen in time to head off potential layoffs, our region could be looking at way more than the average downturn.
Time to panic?
“Leaders don’t panic,” Wichita mayor-elect Brandon Whipple told The Eagle on Monday. “They respond to a crisis, so that’s what we’re going to do. . . . We’re going to respond with every tool we have to minimize the effect it has on our economy.”
When Whipple takes office Jan. 14, he should be ready for the economic version of Omaha Beach.
Elected officials and the Greater Wichita Partnership have talked for years about attracting new industries and jobs, but aviation manufacturing continues to dominate the landscape. So when Spirit falters, Wichita quakes, and it’s imperative that leaders do whatever necessary to minimize the impact.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has said the state may need to step in and help pay Spirit workers to keep them on the assembly line. She said it’s vital to keep Spirit workers employed so the state doesn’t lose that talent pool — and Whipple agreed.
“The last thing we want is for our human capital — the people who are working these jobs — to up and move,” the mayor-elect said Monday.
“One of Wichita’s strongest resources is the fact that we build airplanes better than anyone else, and we design airplanes better than anyone else. So we have to act fast. We don’t want people thinking that they have to leave.”
That happened in 2013, when Boeing closed its facilities in Wichita. The bulk of Boeing Wichita’s work moved to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Seattle area, and most of its 2,100 employees followed the company out of town, were laid off or retired.
This time, again, leaders need to consider the downstream effects a massive shutdown could have on the Wichita area:
What kinds of alternative jobs could workers find?
What will it mean for WSU Tech and other institutions with programs that feed the aviation industry?
What could manufacturing layoffs mean for local retail and other sectors of the economy — car dealerships, restaurants, real estate and more?
Spirit’s latest troubles won’t make for a happy holiday for local workers or their families. It’s up to local leaders to face the situation head-on, develop short-term strategies and look for long-term solutions.