DeKalb, Atlanta council ponder new spending transparency

DeKalb County officials are pledging greater transparency in public spending following a corruption report in which investigators questioned more than $537,000 in government expenses.

A key step to restoring public trust, some DeKalb leaders said last week, is to post the county’s financial transactions — from employee salaries right down to staple and pen purchases — online for all to see. The Atlanta City Council is considering a similar move.

It’s a practice already employed by a few metro area governments, including Alpharetta, Dunwoody and Milton.

County governments typically post budget information and annual reports, though not checkbook-style spending.

DeKalb plans to put all of its transactions online, including spending by commissioners and departments, in the coming months, said Budget Director Jay Vinicki. A majority of commissioners say they’re in favor of the move.

The data is already subject to open records laws, but is typically made available only through potentially costly and confusing public information requests.

“They need to take away the hurdles and make it as easy as possible for every voter and every taxpayer,” said Bryan Long, executive director of the watchdog group Better Georgia. “This would be more than just a good faith effort to show transparency; it would empower taxpayers to have more control.”

Joel Edwards, a citizen watchdog of DeKalb’s government, say posting the information online could keep elected officials honest.

“There has to be some accountability about where the money is going,” Edwards said. “I think it’s valuable to put it online so people can see it. They need to see it.”

A recent investigation of corruption in DeKalb cited spending by elected officials on items like flowers and consultants. One of the investigators’ recommendations was to post commissioners’ spending on a public website.

In the wake of DeKalb’s probe, some local officials say they’re taking a second look at best practices when it comes to spending transparency.

“This isn’t about pouncing on DeKalb County, but this does give us an opportunity to stop and really evaluate how we can strengthen our practices and increase our level of transparency,” said Atlanta Council President Ceasar Mitchell.

Atlanta got an “F” for spending transparency in a study of the 30 largest American cities by a Georgia consumer watchdog group in 2013. Both Chicago and New York City, by comparison, received an “A” and were hailed as models for how cities should display spending data, according to the report by the Georgia PIRG Education Fund.

The city council is upgrading its website now and could post each transaction online. The majority of council members say they’d support such a move.

“If other jurisdictions around the country have moved to greater transparency and real-time information being provided and available online for taxpayers, there’s no reason we can’t do that,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to do more in my opinion and this upgrading of our website is an opportunity to do that.”

District 9 Councilmember Felicia Moore, who has been pushing for more public disclosure of spending in recent years, has called for the council — as well as Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration — to post all spending on the web. Reed just unveiled three new websites that display financial data, such as departmental budgets, but the administration hasn’t yet made each financial transaction public.

“I haven’t stopped my quest. I want the whole city’s expenditures online,” Moore said this week. “We’re behind the times in Atlanta.”

Nationwide, an increasing number of local governments are working to make it easier for residents to view government finances, said Nate Levine, a co-founder of OpenGov, which works with more than 500 governments to make spending information more public. The ability to see individual transactions gives residents a way to keep tabs on their representatives, he said.

“You need that level of detail to really get the full picture,” he said. “The transactions are the payments, and everything else is derived from that.”

In Dunwoody, which began posting transactions last year, residents tend to use the site to search for information about payments going to a particular vendor, said Christopher Pike, the city’s chief financial officer.

“We realize that it’s information that most of the public may not be interested in, but it’s good to put it out there,” he said. “It shows an openness on our part and a willingness to be accountable.”

Alpharetta’s website doesn’t get much traffic, but it’s used both by residents who are most interested in government and by city employees, said Shawn Mitchell, the city’s budget procurement manager.

DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson said posting spending online could help rebuild trust with constituents.

“We have to restore citizens’ confidence in DeKalb, and transparency is one way to do it,” Johnson said. “I’m all for it.”

But others said they want more information about the proposal.

“It’s not a bad idea, but you could do open records requests and get that same information,” Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said.

She was also concerned about the cost of paying a vendor to put transactions online. Vinicki said the service would be included as part of the county’s existing agreement with OpenGov, which began displaying basic county financial information online this summer.

Atlanta would incur no additional cost for posting spending online if council members opt for it now, while the city council is upgrading its website.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester proposed putting more information online during her campaign for office last fall. But since she was elected, she said she’s found that the county’s budget figures for her spending aren’t accurate, and she doesn’t want to publish incorrect information. The county said it has worked to correct inaccuracies, such as phone and postage charges, in Jester’s spending.

“I want to put an authentic document up for the citizens. I have to this day never been able to get it right,” she said. “That gives me a lot of pause about the internal controls in the whole enterprise if you can’t get mine right.”

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