Cities throughout Southern California are making it easier for the average citizen to find out how their tax dollars are being spent due to a move toward digital democracy being led by a new web company.
In this new era of transparency, cities of all sizes are making their financial information accessible online to the public.
"Sunlight’s a good thing and certainly for city government it’s a good thing," said Doug Willmore, city manager of Bell.
Just a few years ago, top administrators in the small South L.A. city were able to hide their outrageous salaries. Former city manager Robert Rizzo ultimately pleaded no contest to 69 felonies for misappropriating funds. And a jury found his former deputy, Angela Spaccia, guilty of 11 felonies related to the corruption scandal.
"I mean, Rizzo wanted to keep people — seemed to me — from being involved in the past," Willmore said.
Willmore is trying to rebuild the public’s trust. To that effort, he’s put the city’s checkbook and financial records on the Web. "I think Open Gov is one of those tools that allows the sun to shine a little brighter on the things that we do and the information we provide," he said.
Open Gov is a Bay Area-based company that works with 62 local governments around the country to make their finances available online. Open Gov charges its clients on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the city and the scale of its online presence. According to the for-profit company, traffic to the sites is growingly steadily month-over-month.
"We call it a win-win-win-win in a sense," said Zachary Bookman, CEO of Open Gov.
Bookman said the digital databases allow cities to be more transparent — and help residents learn more about their local government. Cities could do some of this on their own, but the Open Gov system gives agencies the infrastructure and formatting they need to distribute the information to a wide audience. But even transparency has its limitations.
"It’s not an entire college course in municipal finance, it’s a place to start," Bookman said.
Kathay Feng of the political advocacy group Common Cause agrees that posting documents such as invoices and checks is just the beginning of civic engagement.
"It does require a little bit more than just having all the information at our fingertips," Feng said. "It does mean engaging with the city government to understand what categories mean and how those allocations are made."
Culver City is another Open Gov client. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Muir said the city was happy to post its financial information — though he’s skeptical about how much residents will use the website.
"We certainly have nothing to hide here so we want to make whatever we can available," Muir said. "I’m hopeful people will use the site. Time will tell how much activity it gets."
To find financial data for the dozens of cities using the technology, log onto OpenGov.