Ohio Cities, Counties Urged to Put Checkbook Online

Ohio Treasurer John Mandel said he wants “to create an army of citizen watchdogs” to demand transparency of every level of government and challenge questionable purchases.

by Josh Sweigart, Journal-News / February 13, 2015

(TNS) -- Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel is drafting a letter to all 3,900 cities, counties and school districts in Ohio offering to help them follow his lead and document every penny they spend on a user-friendly website — at no charge.

If they ignore the offer, Mandel says they can expect a phone call from his office. If they still ignore him, he plans to propose ordinances or push local governments to open their books.

“If they ignore all those things, I’m going to start showing up at city council meetings and school board meetings, and I’m going to demand that these local government officials put the finances online because the people have the right to know,” Mandel said in a recent interview with the I-Team.

Mandel in December put online seven years of state transactions, giving the public unprecedented access to browse state expenditures at their leisure. State lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would require future treasurers to maintain the database, which has garnered bipartisan praise.

Bear all

At least one area city is considering putting more spending online for taxpayers to view.

Hamilton already publishes the travel expenses, costing more than $500, of city employees. The city’s manager, Joshua Smith, said when they saw Mandel’s open checkbook program, they started to adopt a similar model.

“I agree with Josh Mandel’s open checkbook program, and we have already discussed internally how we can accomplish that,” Smith said in an e-mail.

Last month, the city entered into a $90,000, five-year contract with OpenGov to put all of the city’s expenditures online.

Huber Heights, a Dayton suburb, is also barreling ahead. Last month leaders announced an $8,500-a-year contract with the company OpenGov to create a website similar to Mandel’s.

The city’s “financial transparency portal” currently gives a department-level breakdown of the budget, showing debt service comprising 41 percent of the city’s $94 million budget, for example. Officials hope to have a line-item level checkbook online soon.

“We have no problem at all with having residents have exposure to as deep (of information) as we can possibly put out,” said Huber Heights City Manager Rob Schommer, who said he’ll look at Mandel’s website for future years.

Schommer welcomes an inquisitive public, he said, so he can explain things such as that the huge debt service budget is money recently borrowed for large projects, and that the amount will drop once it’s financed on a long-term basis.

Other government leaders worry local taxpayers could misinterpret some government purchases without any context to explain the spending.

“That’s always one of our biggest fears,” Butler County Administrator Charlie Young said. “Without the context, it could be misleading.”

The county currently also puts travel expenses online for taxpayers to view and also has a breakdown of budget expenditures, by department, available on a website.

“We think we’re very transparent,” Young said.

Playboy, Disney trips

Mandel spent $813,979 on the state website, which includes roughly 112 million transactions totaling more than $408 billion going back seven years.

There have been more than 110,000 searches since December, a number of which were by the I-Team, which plumbed the depths of the data and then contacted state agencies for information on notable purchases.

Revelations the I-Team found range from the gargantuan: $313 million spent with the state’s largest vendor, UnitedHealth Group, which state officials said was for administering state employees’ medical insurance.

There was the debatable: $1.7 million that state employees spent traveling to out-of-state conferences last year; $61.2 million for services with the name “consultant” in the title; and more than $900,000 on catering. There are purchases at Macy’s, Brookstone, Spencer Gifts and other mall stores.

And there were some criminal purchases: $31 spent on a Playboy magazine, $4,502 spent on lingerie — both the result of stolen state purchasing cards, departments said. The charges were refunded to the state.

Mandel said travel costs were one of the biggest “pet peeves” he came across in the database.

“I can’t stand when you see politicians and bureaucrats using our tax money to go to places like Hawaii and Disney World,” he said.

‘Citizen watchdogs’

Each purchase listed on the website includes a name, phone number and email address someone can contact for more information.

The I-Team contacted the Ohio Department of Transportation, for example, and asked about a $708 Disney Resort payment in 2012. ODOT officials say the trip was for a former agency deputy director information technology who attended an IT conference.

Likewise, the I-Team contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources about more than $500 in listed jewelry purchases. The agency said it was to restock souvenir shops at state parks.

Purchases at Guitar Center by both the state auditor’s office and ODNR were explained as audio-visual equipment for public functions.

The director of the Ohio Judicial Conference said that its unusually high catering costs — more than $130,000 — were for conferences and were reimbursed by attendees at the events.

Mandel said he wants “to create an army of citizen watchdogs” to demand transparency of every level of government and challenge questionable purchases.

“It’ll act as a deterrent (and) hopefully make these politicians and bureaucrats think twice before they do anything stupid with our tax money,” he said.

©2015 the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio)

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