Government so transparent that no one has seen it | Blogh

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Government so transparent that no one has seen it

Posted By on Wed, Oct 14, 2009 at 1:36 PM

I'm a little surprised at you, blogosphere.

After all our many years together, complaining about pay-to-play politics in city government ... it seems like hardly anyone has noticed this: a Web site created by city controller Michael Lamb to track city contracts and campaign contributions

To tell the truth, the "Open Book Pittsburgh" site got lost in the shuffle for me as well. In a profound example of bad timing, Lamb unveiled the site with a press release on Sept. 22 -- the same week as the G-20. I think I was being fitted for my gas mask that day. It didn't get a hell of a lot of attention elsewhere, either -- just a brief in the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review.

But I was reminded of the site the other day, and it looks promising.

It allows you to search pretty much everybody who gets a check from the city -- from neighborhood groups receiving grants to construction firms getting 7-digit contracts. You can search for various types of allocation, or by various keywords. (Curious about who the city pays to help figure out its pension predicaments? Type in "pension" and find the answer here.) 

And the navigation is pretty straightforward.  At the top of each page are tabs for "city contracts" and "campaign finance," allowing you to toggle back and forth between them. For example, you can pull up a list of work done by the Michael Facchiano contracting firm. And then you can look at the (comparatively paltry) number of contributions Lamb's office has on file. Campaign contribution data only goes back to the 2008 annual contribution reports filed in January of this year ... but you've got to start somewhere.

Even so, I'd say the site is still a work in progress. For example, if you look at the list of contracts handled through the city's finance department, the majority of contracts either list $0 contract amounts, or simply have blank fields. (The controller's office says that much of the information in this database was simply imported from older databases, so wonkier entries have probably ALWAYS looked this way -- it's just that we can see them now.) 

And that brings up a slight wrinkle that isn't Lamb's fault: A lot of city contracts are handled through the Finance Department, even though they're being done for other departments in the city. For example, the Finance Department features a $65,000 contract for an audit of the City Controller's office itself, by the firm Binkley Kanavy. But you won't find that contract on the Controller's list of contracts -- even though the audit was initiated by, for, and about the controller himself. There's nothing suspicious or unusual about that: This is SOP at the city. But citizen-journalists should be aware that the information you want sometimes isn't in the first place you'd expect to find it.

Similarly, don't be fooled by the appearance of the Urban Redevelopment Authority on the list of departments whose contracts you can search. There are only a couple contracts up, because the URA handles its contracting separately -- though I'm told the agency is open to providing the data if logistical issues can be worked out. Contracts issued by the ever-controversial Water & Sewer Authority aren't there either. Considering that authorities are where a lot of skeletons get buried, that's a problem ... though not one Lamb's office is positioned to solve.

I've given the controller's department the heads-up about an issue or two already. And they invite other coments and suggestions about the site through their contact page. I hope some of the good-government types out there take them up on the offer. Maybe some enterprising bloggers could crowd-source this a bit, exploring the site and testing its merits and shortcomings? If you're starting to feel depressed by the mayor's race, this might give you a channel for your energies. 

And hey, maybe the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord missed a glaring example of influence peddling out there.


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