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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Transparency? Not.

Transparency is sweeping the land. Or is it?

The federal government has established a website to let you see what the government is spending your money on (www.USASpending.gov) and Maryland has created a similar spending website for state purchases (www.spending.dbm.maryland.gov).

Council Bill 1-09 has been drafted to create a similar website at the county level, sponsored by Councilmembers Andrews and Berliner.

Unfortunately, the school system (MCPS) has fallen through the cracks. County lawyers assert that MCPS does not have to yield its data to the state or the country websites. So another bill has been drafted to force the creation of a website specifically for MCPS. This bill is MC 930-09, sponsored by Delegate Alfred Carr. (Carr's connection to telecomm issues? He succeeded Jane Lawton, the past MC Cable Administrator whose untimely passing left the seat available. Carr's previous job? A manager at Verizon!)

Unfortunately, all of these bills share one common problem. The reporting levels are too high. The state website and proposed county website only require reporting of purchases $25K or higher. Carr's MCPS bill has a level of $10K or higher.

I believe the level should be much less. The bill's author explained to me that the $10K limit was simply chosen as a reflection of the smaller budget of MCPS compared to the state. The state's $25K limit was based on a figure used to require additional signatures during purchasing. But just because purchases require less oversight doesn't mean they shouldn't be public. To the contrary, the smallest purchases are made with the least oversight. Obviously, they need public disclosure as much as big purchases, just for a different reason.

And it should be easy extend the proposed website to smaller purchases. (How hard is it to remove the limit from an SQL query? Sigh.) And what would it cost? At 1TB for $100, we could fit the entire MCPS purchase history on a single disk. It is my understanding that the data is already tracked internally by MCPS in a single database. Periodic copies to an external mirror should be trivial. And since the website would be read-only, security risks are minimal.

With that in mind, I encourage you to contact your county councilmembers and state delegates and request that they lower the dollar limits on these bills.

Here is the text of my own testimony that I presented at Annapolis at a public hearing on the measure. (Yes, it is short! Individuals are limited to two minutes.)
Testimony on MC 930-09
Funding Accountability and Transparency Act
Don Libes
January 30, 2009

My name is Don Libes. I’m representing myself, a typical taxpayer and parent with a child in public school. I thank you for the opportunity to testify on this legislation.

I strongly support its intent - to provide transparency in the purchases by my public school system. I have been repeatedly dismayed at purchases that surely would not have occurred had the purchasers known that the public would immediately see such inappropriate expenditures.

But many inappropriate purchases are less than a thousand dollars or even a hundred dollars - exorbitant lunches and gifts, unjustifiable travel, and so on. Such limits, whether $10,000 or $25,000, are easy to avoid. It’s not hard to break up a million-dollar purchase of electronic whiteboards or computers in to individual purchases that fall below the limit. It requires little
effort to do - a few more clicks of the mouse.

So pass the bill but without limits and without qualifying words such as "aggregate" that could delay disclosure. The cost of this project is negligible given that the purchases are already in an existing database. And to remove the $10,000 limit requires no additional labor costs.

We should take a cue from our new president. On his first day of office, President Obama issued a memorandum indicating that, unless there is a justifiable reason to withhold information, records must be public by default. Disclosure should not have to wait for specific requests from the public.

I close with the following words from Obama's memorandum. Accountability is in the interest of the government as well as the citizenry. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
Lest this sound like it ought to have been enough, it wasn't. After delivering my testimony to the MC Delegation, they continued discussion of the merits of the bill with the limit at $10K. Not a single delegate supported lowering the limit.

Two other citizens testified as well. Louis Willen (testimony), representing the Parents Coalition, addressed the technical merits of the website and explained why it would cost much less than MCPS claims. More like $5K. As I mentioned, MCPS already has the data collected. It's just a matter of regularly copying it to a public repository with a query page exposed to the public. However MCPS started out saying that it would cost $200K and then lowered its estimate to "$40 to 50K". But it is apparent that they haven't done their homework and have no real idea of what's involved.

Janis Sartucci also testified, providing real-world examples of purchases that needed the kind of public airing such a website would provide. It's my understanding that when Janis has asked MCPS for data in the past, data that should be public in the first place, MCPS has told her that she must pay the cost of MCPS preparing the data for release. This is an idea right out of the dark ages.

In the end, it may not matter much anyway. MCPS doesn't want to build it unless they are specifically offered new money. And the delegates are unlikely to give the county money for the purpose, instead just saying build it on your own. So if the bill passes without money attached, it's a useless result.

Delegate Carr pointed out that MCPS should be happy to pay for it themselves. After all, it's likely that disclosure of MCPS purchases to the public would ultimately result in thousands of dollars of savings. And it would also reduce the cost of responding to information requests by parents for the purchasing data. Currently, it's all done manually. A parent makes a request and some MCPS staffer has to track down the data, explain how much it will cost to print it, send the estimate back to the parent (or deny the data exists), handle the reply (likely an argument), and so on.

Bottom line: The bill is unlikely to have a useful impact even if passed. But with some simple changes, it has a future. However, the delegates and MCPS need to hear this from the voters.

Final note: As the hearing began, the delegate chair noticed two people operating a professional videocamera. Delegate Brian Feldman, chair of the delegates, asked whether the people were recording audio and video or just taking still photos. After establishing that they were indeed recording both video and audio, the chair insisted they stop recording. None of the other delegates protested again the sad irony - that their own process of making transparency law itself would not be transparent to the public.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it appropriate to castigate the Post’s redesign when the B&W’s redesign has so many flaws of its own? For example, the pictures sliding back and forth on the home page is quite distracting. Don’t get me wrong – it’s better than last year’s design. But if you took the effort you put into scrutinizing the Post, you could really improve the readability of the B&W. And then articles critiquing other information sources wouldn’t come off quite so badly.

11/11/2009 10:19 AM


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