Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Audit tests government’s willingness to share records

March 14, 2007

At least four northeastern Kansas counties have no Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan -- or have one substantially out-of-date -- and do not comply with federal law, according to an audit by the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers.

The newspapers visited a total of 18 counties in Kansas as part of nationwide effort that visited a total of 404 communities of varying sizes. In Kansas, auditors visiting Franklin, Lyon, Jefferson and Wabaunsee counties were unable to acquire a copy of the report, as is required by a federal law dating from the 1980s.

The emergency plan is a set of plans that identify potential risks in a community and prepare responses to those risks, as well as identify responsibilities for those responses. The federal law that mandates creation of the CERP also requires that the plans be updated on an annual basis and that notice be given to the community that the plan exists and is available for public inspection.

This audit was conducted as part of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote openness and awareness of government that was started in Florida five years ago. It has since become a nationwide effort.

Leavenworth County officials provided access to the plan, but only under the supervision of a staff member, the auditor reported. Officials even denied the request initially, before referring the auditor to a supervisor.

As the auditor reviewed the document, the Emergency Services manager reminded the auditor that the plan was under lock and key and 24-hour surveillance.

Unlike Douglas and Johnson counties, Leavenworth County does not make its plan available online and does not seem to have a plan to do so soon.

Franklin County

In Franklin County, the auditor who visited was told that the only plan that exists dates to 1984, before the federal law was enacted. At the time of the audit, Alan Radcliffe, the county's director of emergency management, said a new, up-to-date report would be available by March 1.

Radcliffe this week said that he expected the report to be approved in April and be available sometime thereafter. Radcliffe cautioned that Franklin County wasn't operating without a plan, only that the plans that existed were in custody of the various emergency responders.

"We had a newer plan, but it was never finished," Radcliffe said. The new one "will be updated every year by my office."

Franklin County never had a full-time emergency manager until Radcliffe's hiring three years ago, which he said is the reason the plan has apparently never been updated.

The new plan, which will meet the federal NIMS standard, cost $65,000 to put together, Radcliffe said. The price tag was funded by a federal grant.

Jefferson County

The situation is somewhat similar in Jefferson County, where Douglas Schmitt, of Lawrence, earlier this year took over as director of emergency management.

The auditor who visited Jefferson County was told that no one knew where the existing plan was, but when they found it, a copy would be mailed. Two months later, the auditor still has not received a copy of the emergency management plan.

Schmitt said he does have a copy of the plan, but added it hasn't been updated since 1989.

"One of my first tasks is to revise that, and it is in need of revisions," Schmitt said. "Even the contact numbers are out of date."

Like Radcliffe, Schmitt is the first full-time director of emergency management in his county. Schmitt said it was likely the pressure for the previous managers to perform their day-to-day duties prevented making emergency planning a priority.

Schmitt said it was too soon to determine how much his county's new plan would cost to develop.

Resident review

Like Douglas County has already done, Radcliffe said Franklin County plans to make the report available online via the county Web site. The new reports should be available as a PDF for any resident to review.

Schmitt said he hoped the new plan for Jefferson County also could be made available online via the county Web site.

"That will be something for my county commission to decide, whether they want to make it available online or leave it at the courthouse," Schmitt said.

In Lyon County, which adjoins Coffey County and the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, officials told the auditor that no copy would be made available because it wasn't current, and even if it were current, it was too big to make a copy. In Wabaunsee County, officials told auditors that Emergency Manager Amy Terrapin would be out of the office for four days and would provide the information when she returned. As of more than a week later, Terrapin had neither called nor provided any information.

Messages requesting comment from Terrapin and Lyon County Emergency Manager Richard Frevert were not returned.

National results

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which promotes openness in government, said he was disappointed by the level of noncompliance uncovered by the nationwide audit. Kansas results were in line with what he's seen around the country.

"In the context of what's not available to the public, we see federal, state and local government concealing things every day," Bass said. "Is this really what we want for our country? I would say no. One of the basic tenets of our democracy is the right to know."

Bass said that by opening up, governments can expect to see more involvement and engagement from residents.

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