Selective Fiscal Transparency

In an Arizona Republic editorial yesterday (reproduced below) under John Zidich’s name, the City of Phoenix is lauded for creating a portal to make it easier for citizens (and presumably journalists who are too lazy to ferret out existing sources) to access city spending information.

I find this humorous on several levels. Even this editorial (which may have actually been written by editorial page editor Phil Boas) states that the City of Phoenix only did it in response to criticism from a watchdog group.

On another level, the amounts discussed in a previous Republic article about this new spending tracker are in the range of thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. The mention of Glendale and it’s efforts to obfuscate over a billion dollars of debt highlight the Phoenix effort as only a mere token.

I’ve been riding Scottsdale Republic editor Chris Coppola for YEARS to look into the billion-plus debt of the City of Scottsdale and our perennial multi-million dollar budget deficits that continue to add to that debt. Coppola and company have only given token coverage of the multi-million dollar taxpayer-financed subsidies of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, the Professional Golfers Association, and Phil Mickelson’s lease of a city-owned golf course.

All these and literally dozens (maybe hundreds) more examples appear to have been accomplished with no-bid contracts, and in some cases for multiple terms that span up to twenty years.

If I can dig out this information, it ought to be a walk in the park for a professional journalist working at a major newspaper, right? Where’s the ink, folks?

EDITORIAL: ‘Phoenix Open Checkbook’

Bureaucracies, bless their hearts, can be very good at the business of operating a government, despite the occasional bad press to the contrary.

But the public sector often must be nudged into being more transparent about spending projects that they fear might generate headlines.

Sometimes the urge to hide an unpleasant reality can take on epic dimensions, such as Glendale’s long-­running effort to obscure the truth of its enormous debt. Kudos to the new finance team for enhanced clarity.

But far more often, thick spending reports veil easily buried, little items. Travel budgets have a way of getting lost at the bottom of expenditure state­ments. And, where did the money for that enormous “Welcome to Melrose” arch over Seventh Avenue in central Phoenix come from, anyhow? We have hope now that taxpayers will be surprised less often by hidden spending, at least in Phoenix, where the city has launched a new website called “Phoenix Open Checkbook.”

Nine months in development, and reportedly paid for with existing re­sources, the site lets viewers examine city spending by department, vendor and date. It is updated monthly and includes data that can be downloaded onto the viewer’s own Excel spread­sheet.

The site is itself a response to a critique by a national open-govern­ment watchdog group that gave Phoenix low marks for transparency in spending. [Arizona Public Interest Research Group, AZ Republic article]

It is the proper response. Rather than tightening the shutters defensive­ly, Phoenix has taken the hint and in­vited the public into the public’s busi­ness. More cities should follow its lead.

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