Austin Aims to Open Election Finances to Public

The City Council is poised to develop new campaign finance rules that would create a searchable, downloadable database of city election fundraising information on candidates and political committees.

by Lilly Rockwell, Austin American-Statesman / June 25, 2015

(TNS) — It’s about to get easier to see who is attempting to influence City Hall.

The Austin City Council is poised to develop new campaign finance rules that would create a searchable, downloadable database of city election fundraising information on candidates and political committees.

The council is expected to approve a resolution Thursday that directs the city manager develop an ordinance that requires campaign finance reports be delivered “in an electronic format.” The ordinance, which would come to the council as early as August for a vote, would also require the city to create a downloadable, searchable database of this information.

As it is now, candidates running for office or groups seeking to influence city elections submit reports detailing their contributions and expenditures on paper forms or in PDF files. Those reports are then posted on the city’s website. But it’s difficult to analyze the data because the information cannot be easily transferred to spreadsheets.

City Clerk Jannette Goodall explained Wednesday at the council’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting that the city won’t be developing its own expensive electronic campaign finance system, as a previous council had directed them to. Goodall said the plan was to figure out how to take raw data on contributions and expenditures and get the information in a format — such as an Excel spreadsheet — that could then be placed on the city’s public data portal.

“People could then go and run queries, download the report and search,” Goodall said.

To achieve this, information technology staffer Matt Esquivel said the city will look into developing a system for extracting typed information on PDFs and placing them on spreadsheets, and will develop an Excel “template” for candidates to fill out.

“I’m really excited about this process and this approach,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, who led the effort to craft this ordinance. “I think it shines a lot of light on areas of financial requirement and reporting that the community has been looking forward to.”

This effort is three years in the making. The previous City Council passed a resolution in April 2012 that required the city to create its own downloadable, searchable campaign finance database by August 2013. That deadline came and went without implementation.

At the time, the city was considering building its own campaign finance tracking system, but the initial estimate was a cost-prohibitive $800,000. The city also tried working with a group called Open Austin to develop a prototype for free, but the group concluded it didn’t make sense for an all-volunteer group to work on “an essential city function.” Finally, the council repealed the law calling for the database.

Several groups, including the League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission, have been lobbying for years for an e-filing system for council elections. Besides Pool, Mayor Steve Adler has been a vocal supporter of this resolution.

Pool left open the possibility Wednesday that an exception to the e-filing requirement could be crafted for candidates who are raising small amounts of money, noting that some candidates may not own a computer.

If the council moves forward with the proposal, the new system could be operating by February 2016.

©2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.