From domain name renewals to auto parts, lollipops for recreation program parties and everything in between, municipal check registers and credit card statements are the truest way to see exactly how government officials are spending your tax dollars.
There are payouts for salad fixings, pond liners, library books, rain pants, work boots, dental insurance, health insurance, office supplies — and that’s just a cursory snapshot of the spending habits of local municipalities as reviewed by the Democrat and Chronicle.
To coincide with Sunshine Week, the national initiative that promotes the importance of open government and free access to government records, Freedom of Information requests were sent in late January to 23 local governments, asking for municipal check registers and all credit card invoices for 2012 and 2013. Communities that were contacted include all towns in Monroe County as well as the county; the city of Rochester and the town of Victor in Ontario County.
Any citizen interested in inspecting public records could make a similar request — a “pull” of information from the government involved. Increasingly, however, advocates for open government are asking municipalities to “push” their information online, allowing citizens and others to get the same information simply by opening the appropriate Web page.
The responses to our FOIL requests revealed significant differences in whether and how local agencies were able to provide their financial records and comply with the letter and spirit of state open government law.
Here are some of our findings:
• Most municipalities released their financial records promptly, but a handful of communities — Monroe County, East Rochester and Greece— failed to provide the records strictly within the time limits set under state law, in this case by March 7. East Rochester’s information arrived by mail on March 10. Greece, where delay might be attributed to personnel changes in the Town Clerk’s Office, had the information ready on March 11. Monroe County asked for another 20 days.
• Although state law requires municipalities to provide records in the format we asked for, if they were available that way, the majority of check registers we did obtain were not given as data files. We did ask for electronic copies, and were largely sent items in PDF format — essentially emailable photocopies, or pictures of data. Remarkably, East Rochester mailed a copy of its check register on hundreds of perforated continuous pages apparently printed by a dot-matrix printer. Data contained within PDF files cannot be easily indexed and searched by database or spreadsheet software. This complicates the ability of anyone, citizen or journalist, to properly analyze the data.
• Some communities, including Sweden, Parma and Riga, provided a mix of records, some in data format, some in PDF and even some photocopies of handwritten ledgers. Not all communities use only electronic record keeping, said Parma Town Clerk Donna Curry.
• The diversity of formats made it impossible to do any deep analysis of the spending information in time for this story’s publication.
• True electronic data files were provided only by Ogden, Rush, Sweden, Clarkson, Gates, Irondequoit, Penfield, Webster and Rochester. It was unclear whether the reason PDFs were provided in other communities was because town clerks believe that is an acceptable electronic format, or because the town’s financial software doesn’t allow for easy export, or if town finance officials didn’t know how to get their software to provide other formats.
Either way, the law is clear, said Camille Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government.
“They are obligated to provide the information to you in the format that you request, as long as they are reasonably able to do that,” she said. “This would include forwarding information in a data delimited file rather than converting it to PDF prior to release.”
In all, though, the project highlights the need for local governments to adapt for changing technologies in order to provide citizens with better access to public data — something the Committee on Open Government advocates, calling for “proactive digital disclosure” to make government more efficient, provide cost savings, unleash innovation and spur economic growth.
That’s something government watchdogs want, too.
“The point of the FOIL and the transparency movement in general is not to be punitive to the municipalities, but to make this data which should be open to the public, open to the public without being a burden,” said Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank that runs SeeThroughNY.net. That website offers a searchable database of public salaries as provided by the state retirement system.
“What we really want is for governments to give me what they have, without doing any extra work and without it taking any extra time.”
Push vs. Pull
In his time (unsuccessfully) working throughout the last decade to save the old Hojack swing bridge across the Genesee River and in organizing Greece’s community and neighborhood groups as a political force in the 1980s and 1990s, Arthur Daughton found the Freedom of Information Law indispensable.
“It’s crucial,” he said. “The government should have all its cards up on the table, if they’re supposed to be representing the people, all the information should be known.”
It’s the difference between government pushing data into the public realm, or waiting for it to be pulled via a FOIL request.
With the Internet and government websites allowing more and more information to be posted where citizens can easily find what they’re looking for, Daughton said municipalities should take better advantage of technology.
“Putting information on government websites should just be part of the process,” he said. “If you want to look, it should just be there.”
Virginia Ignatowski, Chili’s town clerk, said providing more information online eventually saves time and money, but it can come with significant startup costs for new software, data storage and converting paper files to digital.
“One of the initiatives I’ve had that I’m trying to get closer to is getting more electronic documents up, but it’s a matter of records management software,” she said. With a $90,000 grant from the New York State Archives, her office is working on scanning and digitizing historical records from the Assessor’s Office. “There is an expense to that, but it is better that instead of people having to FOIL information, they can just go out and grab it.”
She said overall FOIL requests processed by her office have fallen significantly since the town — as do most others — began posting meeting minutes online. But, there are still improvements to be had: “now the minutes are there, but you can’t do a good search on them,” she said. “It would be so much easier, if you were trying to research something, if you could search, and we’re looking at software that would allow that.”
The state Committee on Open Government, in its 2013 Annual Report, said seeing more localities provide open data is still the agency’s highest priority. The committee recommends legislation that would require government agencies to make records proactively available “to the extent practicable.”
And making sure that open data is usable data is key, said Emily Shaw, policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group that works toward increasing transparency and accountabilty of government.
“If you’re putting out spreadsheet data as a PDF, it’s very difficult to use that data in any meaningful way,” she said. “You can’t use the data in the way that spreadsheets are intended to be used. You can’t extract the data, look at trends over time or compare across a couple of different categories.”
The foundation offers open data policy guidelines that would help governments make data truly open for access and use. Those guidelines include mandating that information be released in formats that can be easily and efficiently reused via technology.
21st century transparency
The Data Transparency Coalition in Washington, D.C., lobbies for federal data to be put online in standardized electronic formats. Doing so would allow the public to easily sort, search, download and compare information across agencies.
But the same general principles apply to making local information available.
“Citizens and watchdogs can track their government if they have access to machine-readable data on its doings,” said coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister on his blog.
A U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report issued last year highlighted the overall benefits of greater open data, especially for financial transactions.
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Phineas Baxandall, USPIRG senior analyst for tax and budget. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
While there aren’t any moves afoot to require local governments to standardize their record keeping, Hoefer’s Empire Center is pushing for a series of open government reforms that center on proactive disclosure of municipal finances. For the watchdog group, it’s not just about access, but also about deterring fraud or misuse of funds.
“There are certain kinds of data, including payroll, check registers and contracts that are clearly accessible under current Freedom of Information law, and when they are created, they should as a matter of process be made available,” he said. “If they take and put these things proactively online, I, as a requester, can just go online and what I want is right there or the municipality can tell me ‘it’s right there’ and send me a link to it. That’s a win-win.”
His group calls for localities to automatically share: payroll data; collective bargaining agreements with supplemental memos, “side letters” and estimates of annual and full-term fiscal impacts; vendor contracts; current and proposed budgets and financial plans; and expenditures in “checkbook register” format.
“It’s time for local governments to move transparency into the 21st century,” said E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow with the center.
© 2014, Democrat & Chronicle
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