Atlanta struggles to maintain transparency promise with Open Checkbook
Data for spending on vendors, contracts, purchase orders and credit card use was outdated
Credit: Ben Gray
211220-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms talks to journalists about her term as mayor during a press availability Monday morning, Dec. 20, 2021 at Atlanta City Hall. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In September 2018, less than a year after winning the mayor’s office while the federal government investigated corruption at Atlanta City Hall, Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the city’s spending was being placed online, for all to see.
Bottoms said at the time the new portal named Open Checkbook was a major step toward fulfilling her campaign promise of government transparency, a centerpiece issue of the election, and said the city would keep spending data relevant with quarterly updates.
“We received so many questions about our spending,” Bottoms said in 2018. “Rather than waiting for the public to ask, rather than waiting for the media to ask, we are now making it available to you.”
Four years later, the city is struggling to uphold those promises.
An AJC review of the site this month found data about vendors working with the city hadn’t been updated for more than three years — since Aug. 3, 2018.
The site was also out of date in other areas. Purchase orders hadn’t been updated in six months, since Sept. 28, 2021. City contracting data hadn’t been refreshed in even longer, since Aug. 31, 2021.
All of that was made current after the AJC asked about the lack of timely site maintenance on March 17.
Georgia Ethics Watchdogs founder William Perry said the city has the resources — and an obligation — to display every purchase and to keep the site current.
“It’s not an open checkbook if you can’t tell what the expenses are,” Perry said.
Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, despite the lagging updates, Open Checkbook is an enormous step toward transparency.
“Never before had the public had such easy access to the City’s finances, and I am extremely proud of the transparency that we created with Open Checkbook,” Bottoms said this month. “As with all new technology, there may be more user-friendly options now available for consideration. As long as the commitment to transparency is there, the rest can be fixed.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said their finance department updates Atlanta’s Ledger Dataset of expenditures and Employee Credit Card Data transactions each month. The procurement department will do monthly and quarterly updates to the Purchase Order and Contracts databases.
The vendor dataset was removed because it displayed old information unrelated to payments, according to a Dickens spokesman.
Meanwhile, a comparison of Bottoms’ own spending with her taxpayer-backed credit card showed a major discrepancy between bank statements and the card use listed on Open Checkbook.
The city’s portal showed the former mayor only spent about $16,500 with the card. But monthly statements from Bank of America and Wells Fargo amounted to nearly $80,000 in actual spending.
The AJC obtained Bottoms’ statements through Georgia’s Open Records Act.
Open Checkbook lacks any record of purchases made with Bottoms’ Bank of America card. A Dickens spokesman, who also worked for the Bottoms administration, said the discrepancy is due to the city’s inability to transfer Bank of America data onto the Open Checkbook software.
Wells Fargo’s compatibility with their City Hall software was one of the reasons they switched banks in 2019, the spokesman said. He said Atlanta is working to retrofit Bank of America’s data into the portal.
The portal’s rollout in 2018 wasn’t perfect, either.
Just four months after the launch, City Councilman Howard Shook and government watchdogs questioned the lack of information on the city’s use of a special procurement in purchasing the checkbook software — instead of an open, competitive bid process.
“I would think if there is ever any proposal that we are going to enter into an agreement with, regarding transparency, certainly the nature of the procurement itself has to be kind of a model procurement,” Shook said at the time.
And there have been other problems. In 2020, the checkbook displayed an inaccurate cost of the controversial Northside Drive Pedestrian Bridge because the city’s accounting system duplicated contractor invoices.
Wilborn P. Nobles III covers Atlanta City Hall for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He began covering DeKalb County Schools for The AJC in November 2020. He previously covered Baltimore County for The Baltimore Sun and education for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He interned at the Washington Post. He graduated from Louisiana State University.