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Georgia PIRG Education Fund
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Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By
Jeremiah McWilliams

The city of Atlanta got an “F” for spending transparency in a study of the 30 largest American cities by a Georgia watchdog group.

The report card by the Georgia Public Interest Research Group Education Fund reviewed Atlanta’s progress toward “comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility” — and found it lacking.

The city must make more information available with a click of the mouse so that voters can hold elected leaders accountable and ensure tax dollars are spent wisely, according to the report.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said city officials will review the report’s recommendations and pursue them where possible. The spokeswoman, Sonji Jacobs Dade, said the city has significantly enhanced residents’ access to information in the last three years.

The 57-page report follows a year in which lack of trust in government was cited for tanking a metro-wide transportation sales tax referendum - although it passed in Atlanta. A breakdown of trust also underpins voters’ demands for tougher ethics rules at the state Capitol and residents’ resistance to using public money to partially fund a new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Transparency also became an issue in a contentious round of airport concessions contract awards.

“The city provides very little information beyond what is provided in the city’s standard budget documents,” said Laura Murray, advocate for the research group. “Atlanta should prioritize transparency efforts in order to catch up with the advancing standards” of local governance.

The group acknowledged that the city provides basic budget documents online, but recommended a number of enhancements, including:

  • Downloadable spending data that can be searched by keyword, city department and vendor;
  • Expenditure data from previous fiscal years, as well as benefits that specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions and abatements;
  • Online access to copies of contracts between vendors and the city, as well as the ability to view service requests submitted by other residents and the city’s responses to them;
  • A one-stop transparency website to centralize city spending information.

The report — “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities” — reviewed and graded big cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for city services.

The report found that 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail — information about which contractors, vendors and companies received which funds. Atlanta lacks that feature.

Three cities — New York, Chicago and San Francisco — received “A” grades. Five — Detroit, St. Louis, Sacramento, Cleveland and Atlanta — received failing grades.

“The ability to see how government spends its funds is fundamental to democracy,” Murray said. “Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility.”

Atlanta officials say the city has made some progress already. Atlanta’s finance team received a national award recently for producing easy-to-understand financial reports, for examples. And the first quarterly citywide “hackathon” is scheduled for February. It is hoped that the confab of technology start-ups will help spark innovation, potentially in regard to the city’s online accessibility.

In addition, a new “311” system is designed to streamline phone calls to City Hall, reduce the load on the city’s 911 system and allow residents to track service requests online. A new city website, launched last year, appears to have more data and better functionality than the previous one.

In a March 2012 report by the Georgia PIRG Education Fund, Georgia received a C+ grade on state-level transparency in government spending.

What it could cost:
It’s not clear how much the Georgia PIRG Education Fund’s transparency wish list — including a central transparency portal for all city spending documents — would cost taxpayers. Baltimore spent $24,000 on a transparency website, while San Francisco spent $30,000. Seattle and Sacramento shelled out $45,000 and $50,000, respectively. New York, by contrast, spent about $2.4 million, according to the report.

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