Bill shines light on Baltimore contracts

Proposal would put city finances online

July 19, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Houston spent $33,000 on bullets this year, but "Space City" paid nearly three times that to buy horse food. And while fuel costs have increased $3 million in Missouri since 2005, at least the "Show Me State" taxpayers spent 35 percent less on contracts for barbecue and pizza.

From costly construction projects and health insurance payments to the meals bureaucrats expense when they work late, state and local governments are increasingly putting their checkbooks online - allowing regular citizens to follow the money.

Months after Maryland lawmakers approved a plan to put the state's financial information online, a member of Baltimore's City Council is proposing the same idea for City Hall.

"Sometimes a shroud of secrecy casts a bad light unnecessarily," said City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who plans to introduce her bill Monday. "Everything can be aboveboard, but because it's not public, people suspect that there's something wrong."

The proposed database would allow anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to search contracts by agency and discover the name of the contractor, how much taxpayer money is at stake and how the money is being used.

Public access advocates have cheered the trend and say the information is used by a wide spectrum of people, including nonprofit leaders, journalists and contractors. Kansas, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas have approved similar sites.

"We're seeing just a whole lot of this at the state and local level across the country in bits and pieces," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "It's subject to a couple of forces. One, politics, and people embracing transparency and becoming more proactive."

In Missouri, online visitors can search spending by agency - the governor's office, for instance, or the Department of Natural Resources - or by a specific contractor. They can see the amount spent in individual categories, such as "office furniture" and "food."

Houston identifies contractors and spending amounts in pre-defined categories such as "fuel," "ammunition" and "bedding." The city's Web site explains why the money is needed (the bedding, for instance, was used in fire stations).

Calvin D. Wells, Houston's purchasing agent, said the project has reduced public records requests and improved public confidence. He said that the site, which took six months to launch, had an unintended consequence of attracting more companies to bid on projects.

"We have several companies that were not interested in doing business with the government. They just thought there was some trick in it," Wells said. "If we're transparent in everything that we do, it encourages more suppliers to come and do business with us."

Conaway's legislation offers few specifics for how the site would look but requires the database to be searchable and that all agencies - including the Baltimore Development Corp. and the city's housing authority - take part. The name and address of each contractor would be included. Payments to the companies would be itemized.

Andrew Kleine, Baltimore's new budget director, said he did not want to weigh in on the proposal until the city's Finance Department had a chance to see it. The bill is slated to be introduced Monday but will likely be referred to a committee for further study.

"It's hard to comment until we see the bill and exactly what it will require," Kleine said.

Most of the information required by the bill is already publicly available, but it can be difficult and time-consuming to obtain. In the past, the Finance Department has provided The Sun an electronic list of all checks signed by the city - though it often takes months for the city to produce that document.It is not clear how much it might cost or how long it might take Baltimore - which has a reputation for having an antiquated record-keeping system - to create the database if the bill were approved. Several experts, including Wells, said there are typically large upfront costs to creating the system.

Maryland's database is planned to go public Jan. 1.

Public records advocates note that efforts by cities and states follow a program created by the federal government,, which went live in December. Presumptive presidential nominees Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama supported that legislation.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for watchdog group Public Citizen, noted that providing the information online is good way to help monitor spending. Government often monitors its own spending, he said, but internal auditors can't watch everything.

"It's actually a movement that is spreading quite quickly at this point," Holman said. "There's no better way of monitoring compliance with conflict- of-interest statutes ... than by posting this information online."

Government spending

Government officials across the country are opening up their checkbooks to the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill. Here are some examples of online spending reports:

State of Missouri:

City of Houston:

Federal government:

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