(Tribune News Service) -- The scandal-scarred city of Bell may seem like a strange place to look for the next frontier of public accountability, but there it is.
While the salaries of California's public employees are now easily accessible thanks to the little city's "corruption on steroids," an enormous chunk of public spending is extremely hard to track -- such as the billions governments pay to private contractors.
Graffiti control, engineering, car towing, landscaping, trash pickup, drug and alcohol counseling, care for kids in the social services system -- the list goes on. More than half of the County of Orange's $5.4 billion budget is spent on such vendors and contractors, a recent grand jury report found -- but good luck trying to figure out who they are, and how much each one costs, and what the specific terms are, and who owns those companies.
Not so in Bell. Every contract with every vendor is posted in one place, online: City attorney services by Irvine's Aleshire & Wynder; street resurfacing and reconstruction projects by E.C. Construction; technology services by BreaIT; and so on.
And we swoon a bit over Bell's "City Checkbook," where city payments to outside vendors live in one easy-to-find spot (even details of phone and electricity bills).
"There was no big debate -- we were like, 'Just post everything!'" said Bell Mayor Nestor Valencia at a recent Chapman University conference.
Bell's system isn't perfect, but it's hard to find that kind of clarity even in agencies that are trying (and there are several in O.C., including Anaheim, Brea and Newport Beach, so kudos to them).
"What we don't know will hurt us," said state Treasurer (and transparency guru) John Chiang.
Chiang expects an open system to be up and running at the state level in the not-too-distant future. FI$Cal, "a business transformation project," will allow "real-time access to data for California's budgeting, accounting, procurement and cash management," according to the state.
We at The Watchdog recently spent months chasing down 44 trash-hauling contracts from O.C.'s cities and unincorporated areas. We found that, even though those contracts were worth some $4.5 billion to the private haulers, half of O.C.'s cities had never put them out to bid to see if they could get a better deal.
In a critical probe of the County of Orange's multibillion dollar contracting operations last year, the grand jury heard complaints that potential bidders had improper involvement in the preparation of bid requests; that officials ignored signs that bid proposal evaluations were mishandled; and general allegations of cronyism and undue influence. The county rejected those assertions, but criticism remains.
There's no easy-to-access list of the county's 3,400 outside vendors. Yes, you can find a list of contracts worth less than $25,000 at the county's website -- but those greater than $25,000? It's complicated.
"That's a hassle," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer. "Government should be an open book, available 24/7. Period."
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Newport Beach posts "contracts and agreements passed within the past 90 days" in one spot , and active contracts in another place.
Anaheim posts summaries of professional agreements worth $100,000 or less that are awarded by the city manager, for 30 days after the award. If you want more detail, you must "contact the appropriate department administrator."
Hey, it's a start. And O.C.'s dozens of special districts could learn a lesson.
Water district board members -- quite a few of whom run consulting businesses -- have been excoriated by the grand jury for appearing to use their positions for personal gain and by doing consulting work for other water districts.
"Procedures for the selection of professional consultants' contracts are somewhat lax and in some instances non-existent, thereby creating a perception of bias in the selection of candidates, especially in the selection of board members from other member agencies to provide professional services," the grand jury said.
The districts rejected that analysis.
"All of our contracts and warrants are public in our agendas, which are posted online at www.smwd.com," said Jonathan Volzke, spokesman for the Santa Margarita Water District. "We hadn't seen the vendor and warrant online postings until you brought it to our attention, but we're always interested in anything that promotes transparency."
IT'S NOT HARD
That Bell might be an actual model of how to start doing things right was one of the revelations of the Chapman conference.
There's no legal requirement to post vendors and contracts, "but it's the easiest thing you could imagine to do," said Doug Willmore, the city manager who swept in after Bell's scandal and helped the city back to solvency. "It's nothing. It's nothing!"
Willmore provided one of the most moving moments at Chapman, battling back tears as he described how Ali Saleh and Bell's new city council adamantly refused to consider bankruptcy as a way out of the fiscal ruin left by Robert Rizzo and others.
Bill Kogerman, husband of Laguna Hills Councilwoman Barbara Kogerman, called on the state to put teeth in its public records act laws, so there would be actual penalties.
"If we chose to learn from it, the Bell scandal could be one of the best things to happen to local government," said Fred Smoller, who teaches political science at Chapman.
©2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC