Window on Spending

City council members' expense reports receive public scrutiny via online publishing.

by / November 4, 2005
Transparent is the buzzword for revealing to the public a clear picture of its civil servants' actions. In theory, the more the public knows about its government, the better it will be able to control it.

Honolulu City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz believes that a government of the people must also be transparent to the people. Dela Cruz thrust his council members under the microscope in the summer of 2004 by unilaterally deciding to revamp the city's personal expenditure system.

Defeating the Good Old Boy System
Before 2004, the council chair maintained complete authority over monies appropriated to individual council members for their expenses.

According to local newspaper coverage of the City Council, this led to a good old boy system where friends and favorites could potentially receive more financial generosity than others.

In a July 12, 2005, article published in The Honolulu Advertiser, Dela Cruz was quoted as saying, "Prior to this system, the chair controlled everything. You rewarded your friends [with more spending money] and punished your enemies."

According to the article, individuals complained about excessive spending on the part of their fellow council members.

"I wanted a system that would hold council members accountable for expenses, and allow members to utilize funds in the best way they felt would serve their constituents," Dela Cruz said.

Dela Cruz allotted each council member $9,920 to spend during the fiscal year, and required that the personal expense account data be published online each month. Each council member's expense reports can be found on the Honolulu City Council Web site.

The council's administrative office updates the reports monthly using Microsoft's Content Management Server 2001.

Just the Numbers, Ma'am
The online expense reports reveal a wide variety of surprising expenditures, including $18 for Halloween candy and $600 for a cell phone.

Councilman Gary Okino spent the least -- a mere $1,248 -- while Councilman Rod Tam spent the most -- $9,154. Most council members spent less than $6,000 of their expense account funds during the previous fiscal year. Not surprisingly, the highest-cost items were traveling expenses. In fact, Councilman Romy Cachola reported spending an estimated $3,000 on a single trip. Leis, meals, newspaper subscriptions and copying expenses also appear regularly in the reports.

Public response has been positive. Gordon Bruce, IT director for the city and county of Honolulu, reports that 1,573 hits to the expense reports page were recorded in August 2004. This number blossomed over the course of the first year to 2,053 hits during July 2005.

Another Player in the Field
Dela Cruz is not the only one who sees the benefit of offering this service to his constituents.

Thousands of miles and an ocean away, the college town of Fort Collins, Colo., also publishes its council members' expense reports online at the Web site.

"Part of this digital world is transparency," said Councilman Diggs Brown. "It is important that we give citizens an opportunity to evaluate their government at all levels, to include spending."

In the case of Fort Collins, a citizen request for records in 2002 prompted the re-evaluation of the council's expenses. As a result of the request, the Council Governance Committee, a subcommittee of the city council, directed staff to prepare a resolution that established policies for the monitoring of expenditures by the council and its individual members.

Council member Eric Hamrick suggested that council expenses be made available on the city's Web site. Contrary to Honolulu's unilateral process, the Fort Collins City Council voted unanimously to adopt the resolution on Oct. 1, 2002.

Fort Collins' council members are not given an individual annual expense account.

"We are very aware of when City Council expenses show up on our report," said Councilman David Roy, adding that there is an ongoing dialog about what set amount each council member should have for his or her expenses. "There are limits on what we can spend money on ... commonsense sort of things. No personal items, etc."

The Fort Collins City Council uses Microsoft Excel files created by the city manager's office, which are in turn provided to the IT department for posting. IT staff converts the files to Acrobat portable document format, which are then published monthly on the Web site.

Though the Honolulu site only publishes reports from the current fiscal year, Fort Collins maintains an archive of information on its site. There are more than 70 pages of expense reports dating back to April 2002 for the council as a whole, in addition to individual member expenditures, available on the city's Web site.

Surprisingly the hits to the Web site only range between 10 and 28 per month. The average request is 18.8 per month, with a median of 17. Although the Fort Collins Web site feature is not as popular as Honolulu's, the council remains committed to offering the information.

With the decision to publish individual expense account information on the Web, elected officials in Colorado and Hawaii are making great strides in the battle for public confidence.
Leslie Friesen Contributing Writer