January 28, 2009

Let the sun shine in

Council Republicans push for transparency from the mayor’s office. Is it a political stunt?

Touting a desire to hold public officials accountable for wasteful spending, two Metro Council Republicans have proposed launching a website that would allow the public to track how tax dollars are spent.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Skeptics suggest the measure is politically motivated — a jab at the mayor, who has been criticized lately for a lack of transparency — if not disingenuous, given plans to create, maintain and fund such a comprehensive website are vague at best.

Last week, Councilmen Ken Fleming, R-7, and Hal Heiner, R-19, proposed the “e-transparency” ordinance, which would establish a searchable online database of Metro government spending. The site would be similar to the commonwealth’s “Open Door” website, launched earlier this month to help the public track state government spending.

“This powerful, public tool sheds light on how government spends money,” Fleming says. “For many years, the Metro Council has requested information from the mayor and his administration, information that has been difficult to obtain, and [some requests have been] ignored.”

Both Fleming and Heiner say the proposed website would provide online access to the city’s financial records and business dealings, specifying exactly how much money is allocated to city agencies and, in turn, how those dollars are spent.

Council Republicans appeared ready to score political points when they announced the ordinance; during a press conference last week, Fleming and Heiner were flanked by union leaders who have criticized Mayor Abramson for not being forthcoming with the financial data to support the city’s claim of a projected $20 million revenue shortfall.

Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, says providing the public with more information is good, but he’s cautious about the ordinance because of the gamesmanship surrounding it.

“You wonder if there are some political motivations about how it came out,” he says, adding that council Democrats didn’t get a preview of the ordinance. “My immediate impression is that it’s politically contrary just to be contrary.”

But no one with technological expertise or a background in web development has come forward for the Republicans, leaving many questions about the cost of building and maintaining such a website.

Evan Burkhead, owner of Elite Creative Services, a website design and development company, says creating a searchable online database to track all of Metro government’s expenses could be a serious technological undertaking. Burkhead’s company has been building custom sites for residents and small businesses for four years. He says making a simple database can be done rather easily, but processing the city’s checkbook means processing a heavy amount of financial data.

“When a company wants a basic website, that would just involve a designer and wouldn’t take very long to do or cost very much,” he says. “When you get into … data programming, it’s kind of lengthy, depending on what is needed.”

The ordinance mandates the website be updated within a month of any financial transactions made by Metro government. The site would also enable the public to find, among other specifics, all Metro funding sources, the financial reports of each department and copies of any binding agreements with Metro government.

“You’re taking the data that somebody looking at a spreadsheet might not understand and you have to convert it to something that everyday Joe can understand quickly and easily,” Burkhead says. “It’s going to need to be more visitor-focused.”

With a 10-member minority, council Republicans remain dedicated to pushing an agenda for more openness in city government; however, they offer few specifics on the website’s setup, cost or maintenance.

Fleming says creating the comprehensive site would not cost the city any additional money because there are already Metro employees available to create and maintain a searchable database. Assigning the administration’s information technology and finance departments with an additional task may be an option, he says.

Predictably, the mayor’s office disagrees with Fleming’s assessment.

“There’s no free lunch and there’s no free website,” says Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Abramson.

Carlton says there were conversations about improving online accessibility with council members last year. Fleming described those meetings as “slow and laborious,” but Carlton says e-transparency has been a priority of Metro government since city and county governments began merging their incompatible software systems in 2003.

“There’s been a tremendous effort to put additional resources and information outlining the budget and finances online,” he says. “Louisville Metro is a national leader in e-government today. What you have on our website are places to report lost animals, to report potholes and find business licenses and fees, among other things.”

In 2008, the Center for Digital Government ranked Louisville’s website third among cities nationwide. Carlton says they’re interested in making government information more accessible, and that there is room for improvement, but he adds that Metro government has made huge strides over the past four years to make the current site more interactive.

Rather than creating a potentially redundant website that lacks the national recognition, Carlton says it would make more sense for council members to use whatever money they are allocating for a new website to make improvements to Metro’s existing site.

“In other words, we need to use those dollars wisely,” he says. “The questions will come down to a matter of cost and the time, what can we do easily without spending more money.”

The ordinance will go to the Government Oversight and Accountability committee, chaired by former Council President Jim King, D-10, where it will be refined over the next two months. It sets a completion date for a new e-transparency website for January 2010.

Meantime, Fleming and Heiner are preparing to spend a combined $10,000 from their discretionary accounts to create a searchable database that will be available later this spring, a low-grade preview that will feature city expenditures from the past three fiscal years.