August 31, 2005 By Merrill Douglas
In New York City this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration released an online database it claims will help end the practice of "pay to play" -- making political contributions in return for city contracts.
With Vendor Search, a new tool on the city's Web site, anyone can search details about any vendor doing business with the city. As of June, system developers in the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) were adding a second tool with information about lobbyists and their clients.
The administration said it developed Vendor Search to help the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) comply with the Charter Amendment, a law passed by public referendum in 1998. It requires political candidates who get matching funds from the city to disclose which of their contributors do business with the city.
"One of Mayor Bloomberg's biggest themes is open government and transparency in government," said Lawrence Knafo, first deputy commissioner of DoITT. Vendor Search, he added, is the first step in opening city-run information systems to the public.
Vendor Search draws its data from a city-owned system called VENDEX, used to manage information on all vendors that conduct $100,000 or more in business with the city. In the past, anyone who wanted this information could access VENDEX from a public terminal located in the Mayor's Office of Contract Services. But one would have to nearly be an expert on city government to know this office even existed, said Jonathan Werbell, spokesman for Bloomberg.
"This is the first time anybody has been able to get this information on the Web," Werbell said.
DoITT developed Vendor Search in about eight weeks using an XML software package from Software AG. The department previously used the software to create a site for the Department of Buildings that provides information to the public on building violations and penalties. The software works similarly for Vendor Search, Knafo said.
"It goes right into the VENDEX database, uses Java to format the information and displays it on the Web," Knafo said.
The new lobbyist search tool is "just a flat file that we have FTP'd to us, and then we format it using Java again and display it on the Web," Knafo said.
Since DoITT developed the tools using its own staff, hardware and software, the costs were minimal, he said.
Need to Close Gap
Although the city developed Vendor Search to shed light on the link between city contracts and campaign contributions, it has not yet closed the gap between the new tools and the searchable database of campaign contributions on the CFB's Web site. To compare information on contracts and contributors, one must visit two different sites and perform separate searches.
Knafo concedes this is not the ideal situation.
"As we open up more systems, we may change the way you search so you'll be able to search across all systems," he said. Most likely, the next search utility the city adds to its Web site will provide information on real-estate developers who have applied for land use permits.
Why has New York taken seven years just to begin complying with the Charter Amendment? The city and the CFB both said that, until now, no one tried to
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