Anybody who can take on Wal-Mart and win is special in our books, but Brian Stephens isn’t through yet.
As a new member of the Shelby County Election Commission, he’s about to do something way too rare in local government. He’s about to make public records public.
If we had a dollar for every time someone in local government talked about transparency, we could actually afford government websites that provided it.
At this point, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the incomprehensible, clumsily navigable websites aren’t just the result of incompetency or lack of interest. They are exactly what government wants – a digital wall that discourages true citizen participation and places that so rarely offer public information that most of us just avoid them.
Whole Lot Of Shaking
For that reason, it’s worth celebrating when a significant step is taken forward. If his fellow election commissioners agree with Mr. Stephens this week, for the first time, the financial disclosure reports filed by each candidate with the Election Commission will be put online.
It will end decades-old tradition in which all of us who have been involved in campaigns trekked to the Election Commission to ask for hard copies of the disclosure reports. Yes, they were public records, but we still had to identify ourselves so that elected officials could be notified who was looking at their list of financial contributors.
In this way, the Election Commission in the past has always seemed more about the elected than the electors, and it’s also why some recent changes made by the commissioners to shake up the culture of the agency were not only welcome, but overdue.
We’re not saying that the Election Commission website will win any awards, because like all local governmental websites here, it’s pretty basic. However, if the Election Commission wanted to send a message, there isn’t one with more impact than this one, because it signals that there is a new willingness to give the public the information that they need to evaluate candidates, to see who contributes to them and to see who they are beholden to.
It sounds like the posting of the financial disclosure forms may be the first of the innovations undertaken by the Commission, and that’s really good news. After all, a large part of our community questions the fairness that must be at the heart of our electoral process, so a prime responsibility of the present members of the Commission is to strengthen it.
Best of all, we hope that the Election Commission can raise the bar for all of city and county government when it comes to public records. It’s amazing to us that the public agencies waiving property taxes are not required to post a list of all tax freezes and the justifications for them.
It’s confounding that there is no simple-to-understand, easy-to-use budget for either government on-line. Apparently, someone in the respective finance offices believes that the average Memphian has the knowledge of a CPA. They would call on us to plow through the hundreds and hundreds of pages in the budgets of city and county governments.
It’s easy to see that the websites do much more obfuscation than education.
So Old School
At a time when some governments have added blogs and twitter to their digital arsenal, it’s as if Memphis and Shelby County are still living in the 1980s. The dead giveaway is that the websites seem more designed to satisfy political egos than to serve the public.
Because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the economic stimulus program, it’s fairly easy these days to see which governments possess the talents and the platform for communicating effectively with their citizens.
Some cities like Cincinnati have created websites that track its ARRA funding and provide the details about the projects. This level of transparency is in keeping with the mandate of the Obama Administration’s directives to state and local governments for ARRA transparency.
Here, the stimulus program seems as clear as the Mississippi River. No one seems able to tell us how much money our community has received, where it’s going to be spent, what are the objectives that are trying to be achieved and when will the projects be completed.
This historic funding from the federal government offered us a chance to catapult ahead of our peer cities if we could be strategic in the investment of the money. Instead, there is the pervasive fear that the money is being spent with little overall philosophy or strategic goal.
Then, there are the normal sources of frustration, such as the city engineer, who could actually use some of the money to ramp up the bike lane plans for Memphis but instead is expected to give little attention to the need for walkable, bikable neighborhoods.
But back to transparency. In an April 30 letter to the city and county mayors, officials with the state comptroller’s office fired a warning shot about governments that treat ARRA as a blank check. “Local governments should recognize that the accountability and transparency requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will not allow for business as usual,” the letter said. “Governments that do not comply with ARRA provisions may be required to repay ARRA grants.”
More pointedly, the letter cautioned: “ARRA is not the answer to local government budget problems.” We have heard reports that some local agencies are treating ARRA as “found” money, substituting it for capital funding already in their budgets. This too is a short-signed approach, because ARRA is intended to give local governments a chance to pursue bolder, more strategic projects, say, for example, here, it could be to launch a serious sustainability effort.
As for the websites of local government, federal law requires for them to have specific information and to be “transparent.” So far, things here have been perfunctory but if local government is going to get a handle on stimulus funding, they better do it soon.
As the federal law states clearly, failure to comply with the law’s requirements will result in the repayment of the federal money. Already, federal officials have made it clear that this is no idle threat.
Maybe, our local officials should see if there’s any federal money to upgrade our public websites so that we can do online anything we can do in a government office and that all public records are put online where we can see them.
The days of going to the Election Commission to get financial disclosure forms is likely to come to a close shortly. If we’re lucky, perhaps, soon to follow is the rule of the city and county attorneys’ offices that we have to write letters requesting copies of public records. Instead, they should just be put online.