Through the state’s OhioCheckbook.com website, taxpayers are now able to view every dime the city spends in a searchable database.
(TNS) — If you want to see whom the city is writing checks to, and what for, just go to the Internet.
On Monday, the city of Stow became the first entity in Summit County to join Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s initiative to make government spending more transparent.
Through the state’s OhioCheckbook.com website, taxpayers are now able to view every dime Stow spends — from office equipment to asphalt providers to legal fees — in a searchable database.
Stow Finance Director John Baranek, who took the lead on implementing the volunteer program for his city, said he hopes to update the database monthly.
“It doesn’t change what we do or how we do it,” Baranek said. “It’s just about getting it to the general public.”
Last year, Mandel launched the website by posting seven years’ worth of state spending, covering every state agency. Most of the $408 billion in expenditures include dates, names and addresses of recipients, purpose of expense, even the number of the check that paid the bill.
In its first four months, more than 158,000 searches were made of the database using a Google-style interface that allows users to sort by keywords, departments, categories and vendor names.
In April, Mandel invited local government agencies to post their checkbooks as well.
He said he sent letters to more than 18,000 local government and school officials representing 3,962 entities. About 100, including Stow, volunteered to be the vanguard.
Stow’s quick participation “says a lot about city leaders but also says a lot how they feel about government transparency and empowering taxpayers,” Mandel said at a news conference Monday at Stow City Hall.
Mandel said it’s his hope that as more communities and schools join the movement, “after a while it’s going to start to get uncomfortable for those local governments and school districts that have not signed up.”
His ultimate vision is to “create an army of citizen watchdogs” that will hold their government officials accountable, he said.
“All of this information is public information. All this money is public money. All we’re doing is leveraging 21st-century modern technology to put it at your fingertips,” Mandel said.
State Sen. Frank LaRose compared the unique program to “crowdsourcing,” the Internet tradition of inviting online users to help with an idea rather than relying on one’s small circle of friends.
OhioCheckbook.com uses the “collective wisdom” of citizen activists, investigative journalists and the general public to “help us do a better job,” LaRose said.
Council President Matt Riehl said city officials can use the database to see what other communities are paying for similar services and “take action” if vendor prices seem out of whack.
Meanwhile, businesses can use the database to see what communities are using their types of services and market themselves.
For now, checks made out to public employees do not include their names and addresses.
Mandel said it is his goal to have that information included at OhioCheckbook.com, but in the meantime, the salaries of all state employees and public school teachers are available in a different database on the home page of his office’s website, www.tos.ohio.gov.
Baranek said Stow will still provide that information via a public records request.
There are other sensitive cases that might result in a posted expenditure with missing information, Mandel noted. For instance, a payout to a rape victim from a victim assistance fund will have the amount paid but not the name of the recipient.
And Baranek said he would likely remove names and addresses from things such as income tax refunds or payments associated with law enforcement personnel where publishing their addresses would put them at risk.
Mandel held up the checkbook initiative as proof that during a time of deep party divides, Republicans and Democrats can find common ground. The program has been supported publicly by liberal and conservative groups.
“The fact that [Stow Mayor Sara Drew] is a Democrat and I’m a Republican, I think it sends a strong message that at the end of the day, we need more people in public office who just don’t care about the D or the R after someone’s name,” Mandel said. “They just want to do the right thing.”
©2015 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.